The American ‘Pope’ of German Ballet Steps Down After a Long Reign

He is far less known in the United States, although the Hamburg Ballet toured fairly frequently there in the 1970s and ’80s, to generally approving reviews, and many of his pieces have been performed by American companies. But more recent reviews from the United States and Britain have often been dismissive, criticizing Neumeier’s musicality, penchant for literary subjects and choreographic choices. Perhaps, Brug said, because the Anglo-Saxon ballet tradition is “either old-fashioned story telling or very abstract, and what Neumeier does is something in between, more like a collage.”

Neumeier, whose mother was of Polish origin and father from a German family, began tap dance classes at 9 and started ballet a year later. At 11, he discovered Anatole Bourman’s “The Tragedy of Nijinsky” at the library, and a lifelong fascination began. Almost since that age, Neumeier has been collecting books, images, sculptures and anything else connected to Vaslav Nijinsky, the Polish-Russian dancer and choreographer whose comet-flare career (and descent into schizophrenia) was a pivotal point in early 20th-century dance.

Neumeier’s house is the site of the John Neumeier Foundation, which houses this collection. While its focus is on Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes era (an entire wall is covered with framed drawings of Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes impresario), the collection encompasses the entire world of dance. Thousands of books, photographs, stage designs, etchings, lithographs, programs, letters and porcelain figures are all meticulously displayed and cataloged. (Neumeier said the foundation has plans to move into another building that will be accessible to the public, financed through his royalties and fund-raising.)

Speaking in one of the book-lined rooms, Neumeier said that he knew early on that he wanted to choreograph. To please his parents, he studied English literature and theater at the Jesuit-run Marquette University in Milwaukee, but commuted to Chicago three days a week to take ballet classes, and performed with Shearer’s modern company for two years.

In 1962, he moved to Europe, joining the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany in 1963. There, encouraged by the director, John Cranko, he started to create ballets. At 30, he became the director of the Frankfurt Ballet. “I thought, choreography is what I want to do,” he said. “Better to start young than old.”

Three years later, in 1973, the invitation came from Hamburg. “I wasn’t convinced,” Neumeier said. “I was interested in forming an ensemble structured like a theater group, not a hierarchical ballet company. But I wanted a bigger canvas, a bigger company, pointe shoes for the ladies, to explore the full-length ballet structure. I decided to take the leap.”

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