Boston Ballet Stages the U.S. Debut of a Modern Classic

Posted October 22, 2015 by Paul Fey in Theater & Arts
Boston Ballet

Beginning this October, the Boston Ballet will perform John Neumeier’s ballet “Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler.” As much an expressive achievement as a physical spectacle, Neumeier’s choreography, described as a “work of genius” by critic, Clive Barnes, reflects the power and delicacy, lament and joy, loneliness and connection found at the essence of Mahler’s flourishing orchestral swells, aggressive marches, and beautiful operatic vocals. Since its world premiere at the Hamburg Ballet in 1975, and its iterations by the Paris Opera Ballet, and the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Boston Ballet will be the first American troupe to perform the piece. The 78 musicians of the Boston Ballet Orchestra, the New World Chorale, and international opera star Sarah Pelletier completes the immersive experience.

Unlike many ballets based on fairy tales, myths, or literary stories, Mahler’s Third Symphony was published without any titles or story markers to speak of. The only text included in the official release are the words sung in the piece’s fourth and fifth movements, featuring, respectively, excerpts of Thus Spoke Zarasthura by Friedrich Nietzche, and a passage from The Boy’s Magic Horn, a German folk poem and story collection.

Neuimeier adopts this narrative-absent approach in his physical interpretation of Mahler’s work by creating a correlating exploration of the human experience. Previously, Neumeier has called his a piece “a dramatic ballet in which you cannot understand the story in words…” and advises, “Don’t try to understand it rationally.” However, Neumeier has created a series of word-images as an in-between point in the translation of music to motion. These are detailed in his surreal and abstract synopsis, collected under each movement. Neumeier’s added titles are “Yesterday,” “Summer,” “Autumn,” “Night,” “Angel,” and as an homage to Mahler’s prospective titles, the final movement is named, “What Love Tells Me.”

In his annotations and their physical substantiation on the stage, Neumeier creates a cast of characters, gestures, and physical refrains to express the the strength of creation, summer’s joy, the decay and longing of autumn, and the death of night, throughout which humans endure loneliness and reach out for each other. Roddy Doble, a member of the Boston Ballet admired the abstract structure of Neumeier’s creation, “Not being a slave to the story opens you up to be a reflection of what’s happening within the score.”

Maybe the most notable section of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is “Yesterday,” the 40-45 minute opening metaphorically depicting a “passionate creation,” according to Neumeier’s word-images. The movement features the physical prowess of the movement’s all-male corpse. The dancers perform a combination of physically straining and precise motions in time and technicality in a collection of leaping, throwing, and suspending each other’s bodies in near-miraculous symbiotic structures. “For these men to work in the kind of unison we have in the first part and then throughout the ballet is extraordinary,” commented the assistant artistic director, Russell Kaiser, “It’s been great to see the men rise to the occasion.”

The memorable ballet opens in historic downtown Boston Opera House for a 7:30 showing on October 22 and runs through November 1st. Visit the Boston Ballet’s website for the full schedule. Tickets can be purchased here as well.

Since 1963, the Boston Ballet has been a leading dance company in the world on the stage, studio and community, recognized for their wide repertoire of classical, neo-classical, and contemporary work.