The Hamburg Ballet
by Horst Koegler
One of the first examples of German civic opera, the Hamburg Goosemarket Opera, established in 1678, offered its clients regular ballet performances. These seem to have been rather crude, despite being performed to music by such eminent composers as Jean-Baptiste Lully and Georg Telemann. When the opera house closed its doors in 1738, theater performances were given by visiting troupes, who offered ballets among their mixed bills of operas, musical plays and drama. The ballet “Don Juan” performed in 1769 at the Ackermannsche Komödienhaus seems to have been the famous work by Christoph Willibald Gluck.
Not until the Hamburg municipal theater had a ballet company of its own, however, could Hamburg audiences see the standard Romantic repertory danced by such guest stars as Marie Taglioni, Lucille Grahn, Fanny Cerrito and Fanny Elssler (who made Hamburg her residence for a few years after she retired from the stage). They were followed by Katti Lanner, who worked in Hamburg during the 1850s and 1860s. She developed into a prolific choreographer and led the Hamburg company on its first tour to Berlin in 1865, when it gave twenty performances.
For the rest of the nineteenth century, the Hamburg ballet repertory consisted of occasional performances of “Coppelia” ,"Die Puppenfee” and other works from the Vienna Hassreiter — Bauer school. Even after World War I, the company, now named the Hamburg State Opera Ballet and led by Helga Swedlund and Erika Hanka, changed little. Nor did Hamburg demonstrate any special enthusiasm for ballet. In the years after World War II, when, again directed by Swedlund, the ballet company was considered mainly an adjunct to the opera. The company briefly changed direction between 1949 and 1951 under Dore Hoyer, one of the leading figures in the German modern dance movement, but this experiment proved frustrating for both the dancers and the public.
The company grew in size and ability when Rolf Liebermann was appointed general manager of the Hamburg State Opera in 1959. He collaborated with Peter van Dyk in directing the company, and although van Dyk’s choreography proved unmemorable, he nevertheless built up a company capable of performing George Balanchine’s ballets. In fact, the Hamburg State Opera Ballet became the first European company with a solid Balanchine repertory. This approach culminated in the city’s official celebration of Stravinsky’s eightieth birthday in June 1962, with the composer himself in the pit conducting the company’s production of Apollo, triple billed with “Orpheus” and “Agon” ,all choreographed by Balanchine.
When van Dyk left in 1970, standards deteriorated until John Neumeier was appointed ballet director in 1973. Since then, the company has multiplied its performances acquired a broad and varied repertory of classics and contemporary works, gained some performing spaces outside the opera house, and considerably enlarged the affiliated ballet school. Today The Hamburg Ballet possesses a character all its own, thanks to Neumeier’s dramatically oriented aesthetic sense.
Neumeier’s flair for the dramatic and the original clearly shows in his unconventional stagings of some of the classics. His “Swan Lake” ,for example, is set in the court of the mad King Ludwig II of Baveria, and his “Sleeping Beauty” is dreamed by a Prince in blue jeans. The panoramic view of his Mahler cycle and the thematic groupings of his mixed programs also reflect an original vision.
Many of John Neumeier’s works for The Hamburg Ballet have been large-scale undertakings. His staging of Bach’s complete “Saint Matthew Passion” started its life in Hamburg’s landmark St. Michaelis Church and although is now performed in the opera house the ballet has through the world as a signature piece oft he company. His ballet inspired by the plays of Shakespeare form a major group of works in the Hamburg repertory, these include “Romeo and Juliet” ,set to the Prokofiev score; “Hamlet” ,set to music by Michael Tippet; “Othello” ,set to music by Arvo Pärt and Alfred Schnittke and “As You Like It” .Other ambitious projects have been Peer Gynt, an original score by Schnittke, and commissioned works by Lera Auerbach ("The Little Mermaid” )and Michel Legrand ("Liliom"), and “Odyssey” ,to music by George Couroupos. The solidly Neumeier-based repertory is supplemented by a selection of ballets by John Cranko, Balanchine, Mats Ek (who staged his sensational modern production of “The Sleeping Beauty” in 1996) and others.
The company gives regular workshop matinees in which Neumeier lectures on and demonstrates various aspects of his craft. During The Hamburg Ballet Days at the end of each season, the company presents a summary of its work, culminating in the Nijinsky Galas arranged each year around a different subject.
In 1989 the Hamburg State Opera opened the Ballettzentrum Hamburg – John Neumeier, a complex housing various studios for company use, the school, and a boarding school. With this strong base, The Hamburg Ballet has continued to grow.