With so many great stories lending themselves to ballet adaptations, one does wonder what has stopped the major ballet companies from putting out more narrative work? Is it Balanchine’s ghost? Lack of appetite for risk? Recently a panel organised by The Arts Desk discussed how companies with public funding ought to be doing more in that regard. At the current rate, we will never see the next Swan Lake or Nutcracker.
Enter John Neumeier for whom, luckily, this has not been much of an issue. He has been creating narrative works since 1973, when he became Artistic Director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet, carving himself a niche with his own style of dramatic works. Despite mixed reactions to some of his pieces (in the US, his Lady of the Camellias has been met with reservations and its choreography considered by some “unclear in terms of dramatic action“), audiences have been captivated by his ballets which naturally suit dancers with strong dramatic traits.
Neumeier recently unveiled his new work Liliom, based on Ferenc Molnár’s play. The story – a rugged carousel barker falls in love with a young and innocent girl, fathers a son with her and meets a tragic end - has been adapted into a very successful Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel, which in turn inspired a short ballet of the same name, choreographed for NYCB by Christopher Wheeldon. For this new adaptation, Neumeier wrote the libretto and commissioned the score from Academy award-winning composer Michel Legrand. He created the role of Liliom for Hamburg Ballet’s Carsten Jung and Julie for the Royal Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru.
As we enter the auditorium we see a front cloth depicting a blue sky and a small window. Liliom, who appears while the audience is still taking their seats, is stuck in purgatory and looks down onto Earth. The action moves to a derelict funfair -Playland - where we are introduced to a “balloon man” (Sasha Riva), an “angel of death” figure who brings Liliom back to Earth for one day. He meets his teenage son Louis (the athletic Aleix Martínez) and we notice his volatile temper in the way he treats the son, hinting back at his aggressive behaviour towards Julie 16 years earlier. This sets the scene for a flashback and we now see Liliom’s story through Julie’s eyes.
The production has wonderful imagery: balloons are both props and symbols of fleeting happy moments in the gloom of the depression in the thirties. The ballet develops as a series of dances linked by dramatic highlights, swiftly flowing to Legrand’s soaring score which blends orchestral sections and grand jazzy numbers (played by an additional band above the stage). Here is where Neumeier’s choreography truly shines, as he gives the ensemble, the people in the funfair, a combination of balletic steps and 30s swing moves in a grand musical style. Also very effective and topical is a scene featuring a protest march by unemployed workers, recalling the OWS movement.
If certain sequences of steps do not fully convey dramatic intention, the leads more than make up for it with superb individual interpretations and detailed characterisation: Cojocaru’s sweetness of manner projects Julie’s pure heart, while Jung’s Liliom is sexy and explosive, with an underlying hint of vulnerability. Both performances are nothing short of artistic triumphs, and in Cojocaru’s case, there’s also a true sense of achievement as she finally gets a full story ballet created on her.
Liliom might not be choreographically groundbreaking but it works as a “spectacle ballet” or, as Danceviewtimes’s Horst Koegler defines, a “spectacular show of Baz Luhrmann dimensions“. I thought it, on the whole, a very effective adaptation of Molnar’s play. A couple of tweaks and the introduction of an interval to break an overlong Act 1 might improve some minor issues with the pace. Judging from the audience’s enthusiastic reaction at premiere, we will be seeing more of Liliom on stage soon. I would definitely like to see it again.