Irene Hsiao

Hamburg Ballet, Othello and Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler at the Harris Theater, 23-27 February 2016


Madness is a constant hissing in the ear, internal voices that squabble raucously, ruthlessly, that excoriate the self from its core out, leaving only a shell that you fanatically guard against the light, against revelation of its translucence. The voices rasp in the blizzard of the mind. It’s almost levitation, if that were a detachment that leaves you scrabbling against an interminable vacancy—is it the world that trembles or you?

Person originally meant a mask to sound through. We are all masks on parade, some blanker than others. Being blank means play for others: let them populate you with other versions of themselves—attempt to set it in a place that makes it appear to move and mouth the way the others do—make yourself more and more a marionette dangling from slack strings, secluded from the world in a numbness that no touch or slap or shout can penetrate.

Shakespeare’s Othello seems to be a play about love, jealousy, prejudice, and ambition. But John Neumeier’s 1985 ballet, performed by Hamburg Ballet at the Harris Theater February 23 and 24, is about just such madness, the kind that makes the distances between self and other ever greater, that leaves the body tumbling subject to no certain gravity. The ballet begins, as no ballet ever does, with howls from the dancers, brutal, babbling, and unbeautiful—in fact, there is very little that is beautiful in the two acts, during which the dancers demonstrate ballet only to deform it, bodies clenched against the purity of the line, held fiendishly in counterpoint to any melodies or rhythms that might relieve them of their sickening subjection to the procession of time and its injustices.


Venice, where the ballet begins, burgeons with loose-haired lasses sensually ripping through the space in diaphanous white gowns, each a profanation of the sober maiden Desdemona, danced by the stunningly pure, improbably long-limbed Hélène Bouchet. Othello (Amilcar Moret Gonzalez) also exists alongside his double, a coal-black hunchbacked simian creature that cavorts grotesquely over the stage. The pas de deux titled “Love” places Othello and Desdemona in a narrow beam of light, barely moving, side-by-side, her facing downstage, him up, in a tentative ritual of imitation to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. There is no tenderness or ecstasy in it, only geometry. The fateful handkerchief is transferred: she unwraps the white cloth that he wears as a loincloth, leaving him nude. He binds it to her waist, leaving her encumbered.

Neumeier replaces the soliloquy with solos danced in silence, most notably with Iago (Ivan Urban), whose motives thus remain impenetrable. He goosesteps, yelling numbers in Russian, a possession transferred to his wife Emilia, who counts in Spanish.

The second act, set in Cyprus, is more and less real, just as war is a delirium with material consequences. As Othello falls prey to Iago’s false narratives, the stage becomes more and more populous with apparitions: Venetian maenads, screeching with wild laughter, the anthropoid brute, a rare beast to be ruined in the hunt, the harlot in red, manipulated like a chess piece by uncompassionate men, the whole air overwhelmed with mean chattering. They are shadows, cruel and cacophonous, prompting the inevitable murder, if only to still the noise.

In fact there is nothing but love and demons.

Third Symphony_Credit Holger Badekow (4)

Story ballets sell—that’s common sense, which artists must obey if they want to go on. But stories are only faint occasions next to Neumeier’s masterpiece Symphony Number 3 of Gustav Mahler, which does more than aspire to the condition of music—it consecrates it with an Olympian manifestation of human flesh, apotheosizing those who submit their bodies to it.[1]

Third Symphony_Credit Holger Badekow

The first movement makes men heroes participating in a ruthless dialogue with the universe that asks whether the body is mere architecture, that asks whether we are meant to speak alone, that asks if time is real, that asks what might be asked of us, that asks if we must break. The second movement brings women in, quiet and lovely, to inscribe the earth with circles. The third movement says that the earth is a delight and that we are meant to frolic and love. The fourth movement considers the soul’s essential solitude. In the fifth movement, an angel makes a visitation. In the sixth movement, the world cracks open, revealing heaven.

The movements are named Yesterday, Summer, Autumn, Night, Angel, and What love tells me.

Third Symphony_Credit Holger Badekow (9)


[1] After seeing it, I went home and tore myself apart. This piece will try to kill you, and you will want to die, because there is nothing else you will need to see or hear again after.

Related Articles

Interview with John Neumeier, February 2016

Art from Mortal Substance: Hamburg Ballet Returns to the Harris, Newcity, 15 Feb. 2016

Hamburg Ballet’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the War Memorial Opera House, 12-13 February 2014

Hamburg Ballet’s John Neumeier Talks Shakespeare, Love, and Beer, SF Weekly, 10 Feb. 2014

Othello at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, February 2016

Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, April 2016


2 comments on “Hamburg Ballet, Othello and Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler at the Harris Theater, 23-27 February 2016

  1. Pingback: Interview with John Neumeier, February 2016 | Irene Hsiao

  2. Frank Lin
    February 29, 2016

    It’s a powerful writing about the ballet, with energy as came from The Tempest, to write about a unique performance. As an inventor in high-tech, I am very interested about the invention in the ballet which started with “howls from the dancers, brutal, babbling, and unbeautiful” ! Well, this reminds me about Munch’s 1893 masterpiece, The Scream ! Maybe the director, Neumeierm ?, was inspired by Munch’s piece ? TBD. In all, i wish we lived in Bay area will have the chance to see this unique performance one of the days, after reading three fine articles from Irene, whose knowledge in dancing and literature gave a reader like me, strong interest to see it, or to experience it by myself, to “verify” the power of the show.

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