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Hamburg Ballet's Neumeier Obsessed by Nijinsky

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by Hedy Weiss
Dance Critic/hweiss@suntimes.com

Choreographer John Neumeier, whose Hamburg Ballet company is making a rare visit to Chicago this weekend to perform his full-length ballet, "Nijinsky" (Feb. 1 and 2 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph), readily confesses that he is a man obsessed when it comes to that Russian-born dancer and choreographer.

Not only did Neumeier create a work inspired by the life and art of Nijinsky (1989-1950), the man who in many ways brought ballet into the 20th century -- both as a fabled dancer and as the choreographer of such groundbreaking works as "The Rite of Spring" and "The Afternoon of a Faun." But over the years, Neumeier also has amassed what is one of the largest and most wide-ranging collections of Nijinsky's paintings and drawings, letters, photographs, porcelains and memorabilia -- a collection that is now housed in his own home, but one he wishes he might eventually be able to open to the public.

"I'm really proud that four of Nijinsky's drawings from my collection are now on view as part of the new exhibition, 'Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925', at New York's Museum of Modern Art," said Neumeier, who is traveling with his company, which also will be making stops in Orange County and San Francisco, California.

In a sense, this is a homecoming for Neumeier, a trim, elegant man who looks far younger than his 70 years. Although he has served as artistic director of Germany's Hamburg Ballet for 40 years, he was born in Milwaukee, where he received his early training as a dancer. For years he also commuted to Chicago several times each week to take classes at the fabled Stone-Camryn Ballet School. And he still revels in his memories of working with Sybil Shearer, the legendary Northbrook-based modern dancer and writer who deeply influenced his choreographic work and shared his fascination with Nijinsky.

"Sybil taught me about the lyricism that could be part of modern dance," said Neumeier, who went on to study in Copenhagen and at the Royal Ballet School in London before joining the Stuttgart Ballet in 1963. "That lyricism is a quality I feel is too often missing from modern ballet, and something I try to put into my own work." (Neumeier's last encounter with Shearer was in 2004, when she attended the New York premiere of "Nijinsky" just a year before her death. He would go on to write the foreword to the second volume of her autobiography, "Without Wings the Way Is Steep: The Midwest Inheritance.")

Neumeier's "Nijinsky" was choreographed in 2000 as part of a major celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Polish-Russian dancer's death.

"The piece is set at a very specific moment -- Jan. 19, 1919, at a hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, just after Nijinsky has danced in public for the very last time," said the choreographer. "He called this performance his 'Wedding with God," and it came in the wake of several traumatizing events: The severing of ties with his lover and mentor, Sergei Diaghilev, the realization that his wife was having an affair, and the sense of how World War I had left Europe shattered."

"In the first act Nijinsky recalls his career with the Ballets Russes, including his role as the Golden Slave in 'Scheherazade,' set to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov. In the second act his growing madness drives him more and more inside himself, and for that I turned to the music of Shostakovich."

So how did it all begin -- this obsession Neumeier has with Nijinsky?

"I was 11 years old when I found a book in my neighborhood library in Milwaukee," he said. "It was 'The Tragedy of Nijinsky,' by Anatole Bourman. And that book would become the first item in my collection."

For tickets for "Nijinsky" ($30-$75.), phone (312) 334-7777 or visit www.harristheaterchicago.org

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This page contains a single entry by Hedy Weiss published on January 31, 2013 11:14 PM.

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