John Neumeier is a legend in the dance world—a boy from Wisconsin who went on to dance with the Stuttgart Ballet and then became the artistic director and main choreographer for Germany’s Hamburg Ballet in 1973. “I went to Europe never thinking I would stay,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever move home, but I never say never.”
Neumeier was in Houston recently to introduce his signature ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Houston Ballet, making it the first American company to have this work in its repertoire.
Houston Ballet’s artistic director, Stanton Welch, had long wanted a Neumeier ballet in the company’s repertory, and this Shakespearian comedy seemed a perfect fit for the 450th anniversary of The Bard’s birth. “John is such an inspiration as a choreographer—one of the leading storytellers in ballet today,” says Welch.
In a relatively new fundraising method, Houston Ballet patrons Phoebe and Bobby Tudor underwrote the entire ballet production.
The ballet mirrors the play in that there are three story lines interwoven: the lovers, the dream fairies, and the actors performing a comedy within a comedy. Neumeier uses three distinct types of choreography, music, and costumes to depict the three plots. Brilliant, funny, and complicated, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a must-see for serious balletomanes.
Neumeier has created several ballets based on The Bard’s works (including Romeo and Juliet), as well as ballets based on Gustav Mahler’s compositions and sacred music. And at 72, he still has a few ballets he wants to do. “I love Shakespeare. I think his works can be understood without the words,” he says. “But I haven’t done any of the history plays. I would love to do King Lear as a ballet.”
Neumeier is also one of the premier collectors of Vaslav Nijinsky memorabilia. At his home in Hamburg, he probably has every book ever written about the famous dancer. His obsession began at age 11 when he read Anatole Bourman’s book The Tragedy of Nijinsky. “Nijinsky really humanized ballet for me. From then on, I started collecting things about him,” he says.
Nijinsky, the brilliant and tormented homosexual dancer and choreographer, was an international star at the beginning of the 20th century before his mental illness set in and he spent the rest of his life institutionalized.
In 2000, Neumeier created the lavish ballet Nijinsky for Hamburg Ballet that deals with the mental decline of the famous dancer. Neumeier also has a fascinating and extensive collection of Nijinsky’s art works, sketches, and paintings made mostly during his declining years.
Neumeier created the John Neumeier Foundation in 2006, and it will eventually display his entire art collection.
In his private life, he avoids typical hobbies like gardening and cooking. “I’m a terrible cook,” he said while in Houston in July. “Today was the biggest challenge of my life. I had to make toast in the hotel.”
But his work keeps him very busy traveling around the world, so his only real hobby, he says, is reading—although most of that seems to be about dance and art as well.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, with no hint of his original Midwestern accent, Neumeier seems unaware of his legendary status or his longevity in the dance world. But he does offer a very sweet assessment of his longtime partner, a Hamburg heart surgeon.
“He works on the heart, and so do I, in one way or another.”
What: Houston Ballet’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
When: September 4–14
Where: Wortham Theater Center
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.