Hamburg stays on pointe



An American choreographer brings universal appeal to the classical art form of ballet, and enriches the German city’s lively cultural scene.

Despite its popular musical theatre productions and an active indie music culture, foreign visitors may not think of Hamburg as a dance capital. To many locals, however, its ballet company is a source of pride. Since 1973 the Hamburg Ballet has been led by an American director who defines the character of the company and is known for his ability to convey relatable emotions through movement.

An American import

Originally from Milwaukee, Neumeier led the Frankfurt Ballet before moving to Hamburg. In 1978 he founded the Ballet School of the Hamburg Ballet, which today trains a vast majority of company members. He has collaborated with numerous companies, including The Royal Ballet in London, the American Ballet Theatre in New York and the Finnish National Ballet.

Neumeier has a flair for drama; he doesn’t shy away from adapting literary works like The Seagull, The Odyssey or A Streetcar Named Desire into movement, often depicting them as character journeys that teeter between reality and terrifying illusion. “He makes unfashionably big ballets that tell stories on an operatic scale,” dance critic Jennifer Dunning wrote in The New York Times in 2007.

“In a Neumeier ballet, you can express things in a very honest way, in a way that people can understand even if they never saw ballet before,” says principal dancer Carolina Agüero.

Singular sensation

Inside the Ballet School, groups of toned teenagers leap and spin across the floor, displaying purposeful smiles. The majority of the student body is international, arriving from Asia, North America and Europe at as young as ten years old. Students and company members rehearse under the same roof, and a handful of graduates are selected into the ensemble yearly.

“They all want to make it,” says teacher Christian Schön. “Neumeier looks for personalities, not just one type. That’s what’s special about the company.”

One of the main theses of Neumeier’s philosophy is his desire to involve dancers in the creative process. He requires advanced students to study choreography, and holds a yearly showcase of student works. Neumeier is also a dance historian, and folk dance, dance history, modern dance and contemporary dance are required subjects for students.

His devotion certainly resonates – Hamburg Ballet’s performances are usually sold out.

“There’s a huge community in Hamburg that loves the ballet, and people have their personal favourite dancers,” said Carsten Lüdemann, Hamburg’s state secretary of foreign affairs, at last year’s season-concluding ballet gala. “It unites the city.”

Text and photo by Laura Palotie
A version of this article was previously published in Finnair´s Blue Wings magazine (October 2010).


Published August 19, 2011

Category: Local features