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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARiS, 17 APRIL 2015 — Undeterred to be told that Mahler was a composer whose music was considered unsuitable for dance, the British choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan, created a wonderful ballet to Gustave Mahler’s symphonic song cycle for the Stuttgart ballet in 1965.  His bittersweet, highly charged work left memories in the minds of all who saw it, particularly the young dancer, John Neumeier, who was chosen to take part in the première.

Neumeier admits to being indelibly marked by the beauty of the symphonic music and texts, illustrated by MacMillan’s danced poems which were neither narrative nor abstract, but rather atmospheric. The American choreographer’s own version of Lied von der Erde, Mahler’s most personal work, is a form of tribute to both the composer and  Kenneth MacMillan.

John Neumeier's Song of the Earth
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Ann Ray

Song of the Earth, is inspired by seven 8th century Chinese poems of the Tang dynasty, translated into German and partly rewritten by Mahler himself. They express human joys and sorrows ending with a farewell to the world, and the music composed, the last of Mahler’s masterpieces, is a reflection not only of the poetry, but of his own private tragedy. Shortly before, his adored  4- year-old daughter had died from complications after contracting scarlet fever, he himself had been diagnosed with a serious heart problem, (he was to die four years later), and he had resigned from his post at the head of the Vienna State Opera which he had held for ten years.

With, as he said, only emptiness before him, he spent the summer of 1907 at the small village of Schluderbach in the Southern Tyrol where he read the poems in The Chinese Flute, their intrinsic sadness reflecting his own deep unhappiness It seems highly likely that Mahler wrote what became known as Song of the Earth there, in a small wooden cabin overlooking the low-lying hills and grassy slopes in the grounds of his more imposing home. With only wild rabbits for company, and more grandiose mountain scenery a good half hours walk away, a walk he was forbidden to undertake, the Austrian composer put all of his personal anguish and resignation into his music, music first performed in November, 1911, six months after his death.

John Neumeier, a Mahler specialist, and one of the most musical of choreographers, has created a one and a half hour, one act ballet with the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. It is his third creation for the French company who already possess several of his other works including Lady of the Camelias and the highly popular Midsummer Night’s Dream. He knows the dancers well and it was no surprise to discover Laetitia Pujol and Mathieu Ganio as the central couple. Both were sublime.

Laetitia Pujol in John Neumeier's Song of the Earth
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Ann Ray

The ballet began with a remarkable pas de deux for two male dancers, where Ganio, full of grace, lightness and purity was partnered by a more prosaic Karl Paquette, whose blond good looks contrasted well with the darkly handsome Ganio.

It was hard to tear ones’ eyes away from Pujol, an exceptional ballerina who inhabits whatever role she interprets, and in Song of the Earth, she dominated the stage with her charismatic presence. Each time she glided on stage epitomizing loneliness and the fear of death, tension mounted. She did not belong to the group of mindless young people who led their lives totally unaware of their own mortality but remained a being apart, knowing her fate is out of her control.

John Neumeier's Song of the Earth
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Ann Ray

The orchestra and two singers, the tenor, Nikolai Schukoff and baritone Oddur Jonsson, as well as the Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris, brilliantly conducted by Patrick Lange, ensured that, musically emotion remained at its height throughout the evening. It was not until the final, superbly choreographed and sublimely interpreted pas de deux beween Ganio and Pujol that dance became supreme. John Neumeier translated each nuance of the music into movement, evoking the fatality and nobility of the human condition and bringing the promise of renewal in death. The girl loses her lover to death while the curtain came down on two, silhouetted, still dancing figures, a moment of pure grace. 

The scenery and costumes, both minimalist yet most effective, were designed by John Neumeier.

Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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