John Neumeier

ballet Sylvia foto angela sterling


Reposted from:  Gerard Mosterd Interview/John Neumeier/danspubliek

John Neumeier in the Netherlands
Part 1: Introduction and history of the ballet Sylvia, ou La Nymphe de Diane

by Gerard Mosterd

Sylvia, ou La Nymphe de Diane was the first classical ballet to premiere in 1876 in the newly built Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera. Louis Merante’s choreography was based on a complex pastoral poem of the Renaissance. Ariosto and Torquato Tasso’s text tells the tale of the shepherd Aminta’s love for the nymph Sylvia. She initially upholds her duty as a companion of the goddess Diana but the god of love Eros finally melts her heart, and the ballet ends in the original and subsequent versions with a happy ending. A radically new production by the renowned choreographer John Neumeier which was commissioned in 1997 by the Paris Opera gives it a tragic end.

Neumeier belongs to a generation of legendary dancer-choreographers who have been able to develop with the Stuttgart Ballet which since the sixties has been a prominent ballet company and world famous for its unique repertoire of classic and contemporary narrative ballets. It was led by the South African choreographer John Cranko who died tragically young, and his successor Glen Tetley who has been active in the Netherlands as well. The Stuttgart Ballet brought forth many choreographers who have played a decisive role in European dance theater circles in the last three decades of the 20th century. To name a few alongside John Neumeier: Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Pierre Wyss, and Uwe Scholz. Neumeier, like Cranko is a strong storyteller and creator of literary-inspired, full-length productions such as La Dame aux Camelias and A Street Car Named Desire. He has now led the Hamburg Ballet for 38 years and is director of the Hamburg State Opera Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet School. He has an extensive repertoire and is responsible for the discovery and development of remarkable dance talents.

Neumeier is known for his sensitive, lyrical, modern pas de deux, and there are more than enough in Sylvia. Occasionally we see in it an absurd twist of humor such as we know from his contemporary Mats Ek. The dances are expertly made, guided by the romantic melodies of Leo Delibes. While Neumeier’s Sylvia builds on the tradition of classical ballet its narrative style is abstract in comparison to all previous versions of the ballet Sylvia. These include that of Sir Frederick Ashton which was created for Margot Fonteyn and is one of the most successful. Ashton opted for the Arcadian and idyllic love story with elements of mime, Neumeier created a more contemporary version by combining a drastically simplified libretto with a tight staging. No old-fashioned landscapes, shepherds, satyrs and bacchanalia but a minimalist design by the Greek designer, Yannis Kokkos.

Neumeier’s movement idiom can be described as late 20th century, neoclassical expressionism. The use of academic positions, jumps and turns are passionately combined with influences from jazz and modern dance. Swinging legs, flexed feet, contracting hips and spines betray a transition phase in the history of Western, academic theatrical dance. Part of a process in which the body of the ballet dancer will eventually loosen the straitjacket that the rules of classical ballet’s geometrical system prescribed.

Sylvia is a historic ballet and delves into history as a stimulus for new developments. Thus, this ballet is the reason why Diaghilev left the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet in able to introduce the Russian Ballet to Western Europe. The result was a renewed worldwide interest and impetus to dance with the legendary ‘Ballet Russes’. The first version of Sylvia broke with the romantic spirit and ethereal image of women by imagining her as a valiant, virile rider with bow and arrow.

The innovative music by Leo Delibes – Tchaikovsky was at the time, jealous – is one of the best ballet scores in history and many renowned choreographers have been encouraged to create a new choreography to it. Almost all of them struggled with the complicated story. The music is packed with highly danceable melodies and picturesque moods as well as the unusual use of epic Wagnerian leitmotifs.

john neumeier foto holger badekow

Interview Special

John Neumeier in The Netherlands

(photo © Holger Badekow)
Interview with John Neumeier (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 24 februari 1942) by Gerard Mosterd, at the Dutch National Ballet.

Nearly the whole world has seen and applauded ballets by John Neumeier. But we hardly ever see your work in the Netherlands. This is the first time you are letting a Dutch company perform your work. Have you ever performed here with The Hamburg Ballet?

‘We were here years ago with my company as a guest in The Amsterdam Music Theatre, performing my Saint Matthew Passion. I remember that because I was dancing in it myself, but I can’t remember what the second piece was.’

I remember you as a dancer from when I was learning the role of Hortensio in Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew, with London Festival Ballet. I had to pick up the steps from two old videos – one in which Jirí Kylián was dancing Hortensio and the other in which you danced the role.

‘Yes, I was first cast for that role when Cranko created it. Stuttgart was my first company. I was dancing there before Jirí arrived. I saw Cranko’s work when I was a student in the United States.’

To what extent has your choreographic career been influenced by the great storyteller Cranko?

‘I don’t think John Cranko was the greatest influence on my own choreographic work. I’d say he created narrative ballets along fairly direct and simple lines. I was fortunate enough to be with Stuttgart Ballet during its most creative period and left the company in November 1969. In my search for what dance means to me, I have been mainly influenced by American musical films.’

And the classic question: how did you originally come into contact with dance?

‘I don’t know – I can’t answer that one. It was something very instinctive for me, as nobody from my family had links to dance. In Milwaukee, where I lived, there wasn’t much dance. There was no important dance academy, no major theatre and no company at all. There were just two guest companies that sometimes performed twice a year: American Ballet Theatre and the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. During my ballet training, I was studying at the university of Milwaukee, which also had a theatre. I took ballet classes in Chicago, 145 kilometers away, and created my first ballet and musicals for the university theatre before I came over to Europe.’

Sylvia is a historic ballet, about which there is plenty of interesting information. What prompted you to make a new version of it?

‘It was definitely the music by Delibes that convinced me to create a new version of Sylvia. I knew the music from my Royal Ballet School period, when I danced In Ashton’s version myself. So I was already familiar with this wonderful piece of music. When I was asked at a press conference whether I could imagine making a new version of the full-length Coppélia, I immediately said no, but suddenly got the idea that Sylvia might be a possibility. Brigitte Lefèvre from the Paris Opera then contacted me straight away and said, “We’d like you to come and make a new version of Sylvia for us.” I made the commitment on the basis of the music, but then I had to start working with the libretto, which turned out to be more problematic than I’d imagined. I had previously created a work for the Paris Opera.’

How did you transform Ariosto and Tasso’s complex libretto, and what is the essence of your version?

‘If you’re dealing with the dramatic structure of a ballet and it’s based on literature, I think it’s always important to go as far back to the source as possible, because we don’t dance the words themselves but ‘why’ the words were written. What is the motivation and what are the active verbs behind the words? I went back to Torquato Tasso. The libretto used for the first version is so complicated and absurd that I used very little of it. When you read Tasso, there is a sensuality in that pastoral play that is similar to the music in a way. And from there on it was important to me to create a collection of characters in whom I could believe, and whose motives I could defend and say yes – such a person could really exist. Sylvia, for example, is a clear case of a girl obsessed with ambition, which we can easily understand in the dance world and the world of athletics. We have this fixation about being the best, so that we can become immersed in our work to the extent that we give up everything else.

And then we have Aminta, who I see as a sort of Charlie Chaplin; a kind of character who’s both sincere and humble and effaces himself to the point that he can’t break through Sylvia’s ambition. And then the manipulative character of Diana, who’s so absurd that she’s important. In the original version, she only appeared for one and a half minutes at the end of the piece in a tableau. I knew it was important for us to understand the relationship of Sylvia the ‘athlete’ with her mistress. So I’ve given it a Shakespearean dimension; the fact that she isn’t what she says she is. Because we know from mythology that she had a secret lover: Endymion. And so we understand that this person who lays down the law is a human being at the same time, with human, fallible qualities.

And then there are the characters Orion and Amor. Amor is necessary as a personification of the idea of love. He comes to earth to seduce Sylvia and help her discover her sensuality. By finding these characters that shaped my storyline, I arrived at a different structure to the original libretto. The next step was to find a balance with the music which, as I said, formed my main inspiration for the piece. We know that it was a very advanced score for its time. The audience was not very enthusiastic about it, because they considered it too symphonic. Except for Tchaikovsky, who thought it was so brilliant that he found it difficult to finish his own Swan Lake. I took out some sections of the music and emphasized others. And I added some sections from another ballet by Delibes, La Source, for the character of Diana, as Diana didn’t have any music in the original piece. I then realized that from a choreographic viewpoint I wanted to withstand the 19th-century idea of ballet vocabulary. I wanted a new physical interpretation of the music, and not a parody of it.’

I happened to read online that the process of working with the Paris Opera to set Sylvia wasn’t easy for you. Why was that?

‘It is never easy to create for a company other than your own. I had my own company for a while which consists of people who know how I work. Dialogue is essential during the creation. The first time working together with the Paris Opera about ten years before Sylvia was much harder. The company was not yet as used to and comfortable with choreographers outside of their company. The creation process of Sylvia with the Paris Opera wasn’t easy because I was working on something that is a specific historical part of their tradition, while I approached it with a different way of working and a different vocabulary of movement. The original cast that I was working with was highly cooperative. Manuel Legris and Monique Loudières, Nicholas Le Riche, Elisabeth Platel, José Martinez were all fantastic. Working with a large group is always more difficult. Sylvia is part of the repertoire of the Opera and is often restaged because it forms part of the history of their tradition and at the same time opens new perspectives.’

Delibes, inspired by his contemporary, Wagner, used ‘leitmotivs’ with which he introduced, recurring themes into the structured music. Have you particularly taken that into consideration for your choreography?

‘I appreciate the influence of Wagner in the score of Delibes. The original description of the forest scene is absurd. The music however is very clear. I constructed based on the music of the forest, what I would call the ‘spirit of the forest’. No real creatures but the spirit. The associated language of movement returns where the ‘leitmotiv’ is repeated later in the piece, such as in the scene where Sylvia finds herself in the realm of the senses. We see her repeat the movements from the forest scene. The same with Amor when he returns to earth, he imitates the movements of the shepherds because he himself at this moment changes into a shepherd. The surprising thing is that Delibes wrote the adagio for the last pas de deux which is a summary of the relationship between the main characters and we know that this moment is traditionally the climax, the happy end of the classical ballet. I felt that this should be the same here, except that I felt it was harder to achieve: the fairy-tale of two unifying souls. To me this music has the same depth as the famous adagio pas de deux from Swan Lake. I thought that these two should meet each other but only 35 or 40 years later.’

How did you like working with Dutch National Ballet? Did you know this company previously?

‘At the time I had invited Rudi van Dantzig together with the Dutch National Ballet to perform in one of my festivals in Hamburg and we had several soloists from DNB at one of our galas. But I had not seen the company for a long time which is strange because Hamburg and Amsterdam aren’t located very far from each other. But when you work non-stop and intensively you haven’t much time to spend some place else. It was a very enjoyable experience to work with DNB. It was Ted Brandsen’s choice to add this piece to their repertoire. I think it was a perfect choice because of the familiarity of the dancers with the work of Hans van Manen and of Rudi van Dantzig, who actually make more abstract works. But in this ballet, as I explained to the dancers, the emotion ultimately comes from the movement, so a company being so focused on movement theatre fits to my mind perfectly with this piece. The dancers of DNB were very interested and pleasant to work with. They gave themselves fully during our working time together. All three casts are very interesting in their individual interpretation of this work. The process was very intensive and profound.’

March 2011

About the interviewer:

Gerard Mosterd is a theatre producer, cultural entrepreneur, choreographer, teacher and writer. He danced as a soloist with the English National Ballet and with several international ballet companies. After his dancing career he focused as a choreographer on producing contemporary dance performances based on Eurasian themes, staged annually at Dutch theatres and theatres in South-East Asia. With his agency Kantor Pos Gerard Mosterd brings cutting edge dance productions from Asia to Europe and vice versa. In August an Indonesian version of Stravinsky’s L´Histoire du Soldat, choreographed by Gerard Mosterd will tour the island of Java with a live orchestra and star dancers Miroto, Eko Supriyanto and Sri Qadariatin. For more information see: or

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