John Neumeier’s “free adaptation” of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice
for the marvelous dancers of the Hamburg Ballet walks a fine line between astute theatricality and melodrama, between brilliant passages of movement and banal gestures. The primary message is that the life of an artist—even a famous, successful one—can be hell unless he’s in creative touch with his inner child; i.e., his emotions. Because Neumeier has transformed Mann’s tragic hero from a writer into a choreographer, Gustav von Aschenbach’s infatuation with the beautiful young Tadzio seems more about envying the spontaneity he doesn’t find in the ballet studio than about craving gorgeous male flesh; there’s plenty of that around.
Von Aschenbach (the magnificent dancer and actor Lloyd Riggins), a master formalist, is working on a ballet set to Bach’s Musical Offering. It’s a wonder anyone as rigid and constricted as he is can choreograph at all (the man is practically an automaton with a temper). But there’s something intriguingly dreamlike about how Neumeier has choreographed this first act. The dancers don’t have to be taught; the master performs, and they instantly join him, as if springing from his imagination. Also, he keeps inserting himself into the duet he’s making for a couple (Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Riabko) listed in the program as “His Concepts,” and partnering the dancer (Ivan Urban) who is to represent Frederick the Great (accomplished flautist and amateur composer). It’s as if von Aschenbach’s reined-in sensuality finds its only relief in these moments of contact.
In case we wonder what turned him into a genius-monster, another pas de deux engulfs him: He dances with his remembered mother (Laura Cazzaniga) and his younger self (Konstantin Tselikov), who have a playful, somewhat erotic relationship. Elizabeth Cooper, seated attentively at the onstage piano, finally begins to play—not the Bach we’ve been hearing, but Wagner, and whenever deep emotions surge up in the ballet, it’s Wagner’s music we hear.
Peter Schmidt’s set and costumes create a stunning stage picture: an austere white studio peopled by dancers in partial 18th-century attire—black, pale blue, gray, and white. One high point of this act is an elegantly engineered fugue for a cadre of young men that makes the space bristle. The absurdities are von Aschenbach’s ultra-robotic moments and his dramatic fits of temper—several of which involve dashing costumes to the floor—when he doubts his work.
The rougher side of his cravings surfaces in the person of twin guys in jeans (Otto Bubenicek and Amilcar Moret Gonzalez), who function as gondoliers when he abandons rehearsals for Venice, force grapes (grapes!) on him, as well as their muscular bodies—during a dream bacchanal, and swish around as cosmeticians make him look younger. In a beautifully stylized waterside setting, men in elegant suits and women in draped silk gowns dance somnambulistically, and skimpily clad boys play with a beach ball while showing off some fine steps. It’s nice that tall Edvin Revazov, who plays Tadzio, can look puppyishly awkward, despite his expertise. Even as von Aschenbach imagines a duet with him, Tadzio keeps eagerly catching a ball thrown from the wings and pitching it back.
In the penultimate scene, hooded figures drag bodies on lengths of fabric (cholera has struck), and the glitterati’s revels turn down-and-dirty, with Johann Sebastian yielding to Jethro Tull. In the hero’s feverish mind, characters from the first act thread their pretty steps through the ballroom, and the boys play their games. His “Frederick the Great” picks out Bach on the piano to remind him of his creative mission and tenderly lays a costume around his shoulders. Aschenbach shrugs it off. And he’s not going to use the Venice experience to make tenderer choreography after all. The “Liebestod” purls out. The curtain falls.