Director and resident choreographer of Hamburg Ballet since 1973, John Neumeier has created over 100 original works, burnishing a reputation for psychological story ballets. Hamburg Ballet’s performance of his 1973 Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler at the Harris Theater in Chicago was aborted by fire two years ago. February 23-27, they return to the Harris with Third Symphony, as well as his 1985 Othello. In just 18 minutes, Neumeier speaks of image, abstraction, and his approach to story.
A central problem in Othello is that of the image — the assumption that it tells us something true about someone’s soul—their goodness, evil, innocence, guilt—it’s this conviction that forms all the trouble of the play, the prejudice against Othello, and then his own seduction by Iago’s story. However, Othello declares early in the play, “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul/Shall manifest me rightly,” which is a strange paradox, that he is asking for a kind of consideration that cannot be given, a sense that can’t be proven by the senses. His demand for the “ocular proof” seems to be the worst kind of indoctrination. It seems that ballet is dependent on a similar relationship to image—we believe we see into a person’s interior, but do we really, or is it merely a “pageant to keep us in false gaze”?
I think of it differently—the central theme for me is the impossibility to actually know another person—we think we know someone, but we never actually know that we know. Someone like Iago plays on this essential human insecurity, that no matter how passionately we love someone at any one moment, we can’t look inside them and know for sure, even in the moment of ecstasy, we may feel close, but in the next moment, when we separate, we wonder about that person. Shakespeare really truly puts his finger on this in Othello. The way I’ve constructed the ballet, each of them, Othello, as well as Desdemona, has a diff image of the person they think they love. Desdemona, who listens to his stories of war, sees the black warrior; he sees a kind of Botticelli Renaissance virgin, and neither of them is that. And in a sense, the whole ballet concerns their destroying the image they thought they had of each other, the picture that they made of each other. This is the tragedy of the play—that it’s too late.
I was wondering if we might extrapolate from that into your own artistry. We mediate our relationships to each other through stories, and you’re so well known for the story ballets you’ve created. But is the story the occasion or the substance? Is the story itself the object, or is it a mere pretext for the action?
I think when we say story, this has twenty thousand different connotations of how we’re telling the story. Story doesn’t mean straightforward narrative; it doesn’t mean the communication of facts. Story means human relationships for me, because I’m dealing with a wordless medium. I cannot tell you anything about time tenses, about the future, about the past. As far as you, the audience, are concerned, this is the present tense, because it’s happening now. That’s all I know. I think that every transformation of a story, say from Shakespeare, must have a different optical form, must build a different world, in order to not understand but to feel what the substance of that play was. Othello has a complex, puzzle-like structure. When you see the ballet, you will probably be surprised, because the beginning deals with many images, many kinds of music, which gives different pictures and aspects between these pictures. A lot of it is only suggested by Shakespeare’s text but is not a situation in the play.
So in manipulating the movement, or the way that these movements describe this interiority, do you consider yourself a Iago-like figure?
No, I don’t. Iago does manipulate. He manipulates doubt, I think. I don’t manipulate doubt. I present situations and ask you to make your story out of it. I know what I feel about these things, and I think I could be—what’s his name, in the storm?
I could be Prospero, but I don’t want to be a Iago because he does it for evil purposes.
Yes, he tells you what story you should know. Ballet seems like it should collapse intention and action.
Many people (I think most people) view Othello as a story about race. Do you?
It is certainly a story about outsiders. The dancer who portrays Othello in this version is dark-skinned, but he’s actually Cuban. And I think that the person for whom it was choreographed was Egyptian. He definitely had the look of an outsider, but this contributes to a sense of insecurity on which Iago plays, and the sense of place is so important in Othello, because it begins in Venice, where Othello is the outsider. The second act is Cyprus, where Desdemona is an outsider in a man’s world. She is, along with Emilia, the only woman living in this army camp, without any reference to her tradition, her family, anything.
Yes, it does seem like the women are no better than handkerchiefs in this play… Can you discuss how you developed the musical score for Othello — you use Arvo Part (1935-), Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), and Brazilian jazz musician Nana Vasconcelos (b. 1944) — the three are near contemporaries, but I don’t think any of them creates music that could be mistaken for the others — is your Othello set in a particular time?
I think the first part is trying to introduce the character, introduce the pictures they have of each other, introduce certain situations, the situation of their deep love and intimacy, the situation of Othello’s being an outsider, and for that, I’ve used a combination of some Renaissance music, some music of an important South American popular composer, which gives it an exotic quality. For the second part, which is basically the drama, which is more what Shakespeare actually wrote and contains more the interior landscape of the people, I’ve concentrated on two pieces, Alfred Schnittke’s Double Concerto and Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa. Interestingly enough, the two pieces require the same orchestra and premiered at the same concert, though I didn’t know that when I put them together.
I notice that your synopsis of Othello comes from Thomas Rymer.
Which I think is genius, that he could, in those few sentences, explain the essence of the play.
I find it a fascinating gesture, because he’s the critic who mocked Othello as the “tragedy of the handkerchief” and called it “a bloody farce without salt or savor”—I wonder why you juxtapose this text with your ballet.
Oh, I didn’t want to make the quotation connotative; I didn’t want to think about how Thomas Rymer thinks about it; I just thought, this is amazing, because my ballet is so complex, and if I tried to explain in words what was happening in the first act, it would take pages, and it would be confusing, and I thought, let’s juxtapose the simplicity of this text with the complexity of the visual realization. That was all I thought.
I notice you make a similar move with your synopsis of Mahler Symphony No. 3, with the epigraph from Macbeth, “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death”—these lines come before the infamous lines, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more: it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound a fury, /Signifying nothing.”
But that was always there, that was always the motto of the first movement. The rest of it I wrote after with a dramaturg, almost cornered under gunfire, who said, “Please tell me what you’re thinking,” but they were never written before I choreographed. They were more of a reaction to try to intellectually explain what I had instinctively done in the choreography and should be understood that way.
So in that sense it is a narrative that you’ve been forced to impose upon an essentially plotless form?
Absolutely. The theme of the ballet is the music itself. And has to do with my subjective reaction to this music, and how I could [let] these emotional thoughts shape through the ballet. The ballet is the shape of my emotions hearing Mahler’s music. At the same time, I leave the public open just [to hear] the music in concert, to interpret the music, or to feel a different narrative.
I think that resonates very nicely with the lines, “It is a tale / Told by an idiot… signifying nothing.” Or in a way signifying an invitation to populate this nothing…
Hamburg Ballet was supposed to present the Mahler in Chicago in 2014, right?
Two years ago, yes. But there was a fire during the dress rehearsal, sending us all in our practice clothes into the cold Chicago air.
So in bringing it back this time, do you feel it is a second chance or a new endeavor?
As I was watching this dress rehearsal, I felt I had never seen the company do the work as well as they were doing just at that moment when the stagehand came and said, “Fire! Everyone out!” It’s a ballet which is a signature work of the company. We’ve since done it in Venice and in other places on tour, and I really wanted to come back to Chicago and finally present the thing which was intended to be presented there.
It seems to be a ballet that is about love in a more abstract sense than Othello is.
The definition of “abstract” is dangerous. When we’re speaking about human beings, there is no abstraction between human beings. It does not suggest a period, it does not suggest place. It seems to be happening in a neutral place, dressed in timeless costumes. In that sense, it is less specific. But human emotions are human emotions.