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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 6 DECEMBER 2010 — John Neumeier’s 2006 creation for his Hamburg company was inspired by the tales of King Arthur and the immortal Knights of the Round Table. They are tales of good overcoming evil, of chivalrous quests and heroic deeds full of bravery, daring, mystery and enchantment. Leaning heavily upon the medieval texts of Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, the choreographer chose to present several episodes in the life of Sir Percivale of Wales, the young knight who lived isolated from the rest of mankind until he was fifteen, and whose life was then spent in quest of the Holy Grail.

John Neumeier is a great choreographer and thus has further to fall when making a blunder.

Neumeier, the American-born director of the Ballet of Hamburg since 1973, has created a great variety of ballets in a wide range of styles, and has won numerous international awards. He is a past master of beautiful pas de deux, both in his romantic and frequently tragic narrative ballets and in his more mystical pieces dealing with theological and philosophical concerns. Grace, sensuality, and poetry, combined with an intense musicality, are the hallmarks of his works, characteristics curiously lacking in Parzival: Episoden und Echo, the choreographic journey of one of King Arthur’s knights. Perhaps the public has been spoiled by such ballets as his melodious Yondering, his radiant Magnificat, a stupendous work which visualizes Bach’s music, his emotional Dame aux Camélias, not to mention an outstanding series of creations set to the symphonies of Mahler. His Nutcracker is highly poetic and his version of Midsummer Night’s Dream is sheer delight. John Neumeier is a great choreographer and thus has further to fall when making a blunder.

Parzival is saved neither by the costumes which he designed himself, nor by the choreography, banal and repetitive. The quality of dancing from this potentially admirable young company was unremarkable and the storyline became increasingly confused, concentrating on what one could only guess to be a philosophical quest for identity.

Edvin Revazov, Kiran West in Parzifal
Choreography: John Neumeier
Photo: Holder Badekow

The ballet opened theatrically enough on mother and son living alone in the confines of a forest suggested by a circle of green bulrushes. Fearing her son would meet death in battle as one of the knights of Arthur’s court, Percivale has been dressed as a girl. Consequently, the tall, powerfully built Edvin Revazov cast as the 15-year-old Percival appears in a white frilled cotton dress worn over a shapeless knitted jump-suit in red, grey and white stripes. The image one retains of him during the infinitely long and drawn-out first part is of long fair hair flopping over his face and rouged cheeks as he jumped heavily around clutching his teddy-bear. Dancers clad as large black birds leaped haphazardly across the stage, presumably to symbolize the innocence and wildness of the nature around him.

An attempt at originality did not quite come off in a pas de deux between mother and son, where the former danced with her offspring, enveloping him up protectively in the folds of her Grecian dress as she moved. But the boy only has eyes for three knights who appear to be cousins of Angelin Preljocaj’ gardeners in Le Parc. They arrive on stage in a flurry of hard, staccato movements clad in gold and silver tight-fitting shorts and tops and wearing sun-glasses in the dark forest; why sunglasses?  One’s attention was diverted from their ill-fitting, transparent leg armour trimmed with metal studs when the stage was invaded by a horde of soldiers in modern dress wearing Nazi-style helmets. It never became clear as to who they were.

Hamburg Ballett: Parzifal
Choreography: John Neumeier
Photo: Holder Badekow

It was tedious to see the dancers, all with set faces staring into the far beyond, interspersed by the stony-eyed stares of various protagonists for the whole of the two and a half hour work. The only scene readily identifiable was the confrontation with the Red Knight (who wore red armour), when Percivale earned the right to be knighted by challenging him to a duel prior to killing him for insulting King Arthur.

The rest of the work had someone in pyjama bottoms writhing on the floor, women receiving bunches of flowers, more people on the floor before another dancer ran on stage carrying a naked man over his shoulder. It was impossible to follow the sequence of events and to understand what was happening, even upon careful re-reading of the programme after the performance.

As far as the women were concerned, it was difficult to distinguish between friend and foe, mother and lover. The principals, with the exception of Hélène Bouchet who was lovely, were painfully thin, with their pointed bottoms and sparrow-like bare feet, while the abrupt, jerky arm movements transported one back into the Wagnerian world of Wilson. Excerpts of John Adams and Arvo Part had been transposed onto Wagner’s Parsifal Prelude for the orchestra and while an increase in the volume of the Adams extracts accompanied the mounting of drama on stage, the delicate, crystalline melody of Part’s Für Alina needed no choreographic accompaniment at all. The dancers were not helped by the fact that the music was taped.

This was one of the weakest productions seen at the Palais Garnier for some time. Despite the voice which repeatedly claimed that Jesus Christ was with us and that the Holy Spirit was "right here in this room", any atmosphere or inducement to reflexion or meditation was absent; it is not always easy to include the human voice into a classical ballet. Parzival: Episoden und Echo is an empty work which leads one to question whether any creation is better than no creation. In this case, the answer seems obvious.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Dance Review: John Neumeier: Lady of the Camellias 

Neumeier's Sylvia: Nymphs in Black Leather Shorts

Dance Review: Hamburg Ballet: Nijinsky, Choreography: John Neumeier

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