John Neumeier, the 78 year old, Wisconsin-born choreographer, has been at the helm of the Hamburg Ballet since 1973. Most famous for his highly expressive ballets with multi-layered storylines, Neumeier turns to the quasi-narrative with a suite or “collage” of dances called Old Friends. Dancers roam around the stage connecting, disconnecting, clinging and separating in a drifting non-specific haze of memories. Who are the exes, who are the friends? Who are the never-weres? Who knows.
Neumeier might be a bit of an outlier in his opinion that the music of Chopin has a connection with that of Simon and Garfunkel, nevertheless, this was his font of inspiration for Old Friends, which, incidentally, opens with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major.
I can’t be the only New Yorker coming off of the Bach-powered high Paul Taylor Dance Company gave at Lincoln Center, and it makes me sad to say that Neumeier working over Bach finally made Arlene Croce’s assessment of him as “unmusical” ring true. Couples in apricot and rust colored costumes float on and off stage, sometimes coupled, sometimes in corps work, but nothing is anchored to the score, nor a counterpoint to it. A belabored pas de deux to the cherished Air movement pales compared to the music itself.
Throughout Old Friends, there are awkward lifts and ducking heads in the partnering. The moves are familiar to anyone who has seen Neumeier before: upside down lifts, shoulder lifts, bodies rising from the ground with tossed back heads and arched spines. In his story ballets, Neumeier renders many of these moves powerful (think of the tear-jerking pas de deuxs in Lady of the Camellias). Old Friends was created by “newly arranging parts of several existing choreographies.” Is it genuinely less musical than his work outside these excerpts, or does it fall flat because it lacks the contextual purpose his expressionist choreography has when married to a specific narrative? Probably both.
In a long pas de deux set to both Chopin and Simon and Garfunkel, Marc Jubete looks vacant and purposeless partnering the compelling Xue Lin. Beginning with Jubete’s memory-drenched sulking, it evolves into a push and pull battle between the sexes. The redeeming moment of their effort arrives at the tragic end, when, head in hand, the only reasonable interpretation the audience can arrive at is that this is not just the end of the affair but a mutual mourning of its irreconciliation. A moment familiar to us all and yet rarely captured accurately in words or film. Neumeier’s storytelling gift shines brightly in this brief sad moment, but little elsewhere.
Although it starts with men and women sipping coffee out of teacups, drifting around the stage vacuously to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation,” the second section is mostly set to Chopin Nocturnes. With the exception of one ecstatically happy couple, the majority of the men and women here seem to have issues.
Old Friends finishes with a man to man pas de deux, performed Saturday afternoon by principal dancers Carsten Jung and Edvin Revazov. Set to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the final pas de deux could be laughed off as baby boomer histrionics. But more people gave a standing ovation than did giggle. The choreography is twinged with an “aw shucks,” buddy vibe, rather than anything sexual. There is a camp aspect, and the sailor-like hop, skips and développés could be out of Fancy Free. The lifts are masculine and sometimes difficult, and the two men mirror or double their movements like twins.
The section set to “Old Friends” could be read as an older man meditating on his youth (or a pederastic relationship), but “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” is undeniably about solid friendship, in all its rarity and comfort. The choreography is not outstanding, and the critic in me finds it a cloying, ridiculous spectacle, but the more saccharine, Jane Bennett side of me can’t help but notice that Neumeier set this pas de deux at the end of a long, indulgent, foray into unsatisfying (albeit vague) romantic relationships. Except for the one giddy couple, everyone seemed tortured. The apogee of Old Friends is not romance but an exuberant exaltation of friendship, the overlooked gift which so often takes a backseat to romance. Even if I got the story wrong, at least I found one that gave meaning to the movement, something which the rest of Old Friends lacked.