THOMAS MANN — JOHN NEUMEIER — HAMBURG BALLET — DEATH IN VENICE — TOD IN VENEDIG — A DANCE OF DEATH — 2005
We all know the story. John Neumeier introduces a few changes to make it a ballet that has to speak all by itself since there is not one single word uttered. Just music from Bach and Wagner, so that it has to converse with our own culture and memory. The first change is that Gustav von Aschenbach is a choreographer and the first part is the failure or blockage in which Gustav von Aschenbach finds himself on music that is announced from the very start as being from Bach. We can see his working method which is essentially trying to project himself and his choreographic imagination into characters he knows like his Friedrich der Grosse or himself as a younger self. But from these he builds up touch after touch a conceptual couple dancing. He is in fact part of this conceptual couple and they dance together beyond him showing them both how to do it. But even so he cannot bring what he wants out. That’s when he decides to go away, and it is going to be Venice.
The second innovation is the fact that the meta-character (that Benjamin Britten expanded to seven plus Tadzio) is going to be double, and what’s more a couple of twins, two look alike dancers. They are going to be the Traveler, with sunglasses, their shirts down around their waists and one bag they share and little by little are going to give to Gustav von Aschenbach. Then they are going to be two mariners with a special tee shirt with an anchor on the front for the ship to Venice and then two gondoliers. Then in the dance party in the Hotel des Bains they will be a gay couple, over made up, one in a black suit, the other in a white suit, and both in red shirts and with red scarves. Very provocative in the stylish crowd of hotel guests. Later they will appear in Gustav von Aschenbach’s dream, the two together of course, bare-chested, representing Apollo and Dionysus, or maybe only a double Dionysus and they will play two tops with Gustav von Aschenbach who is nothing but a bottom severely manhandled like a puppet, violated in many ways and brutalized. And he seems to enjoy it. On that beach anyway several couples are dancing in a very erotic way and end up in the small beach tent. The innuendo is quite obvious.
Still later they will be a double barber who will make up Gustav von Aschenbach as a younger self with lipstick and a wig, à la David Bowie. He will strangely enough find some vitality in this make up. Their last apparition will be as two electric guitarists in the last dance party that is turning sour since people are dying and are dragged away in sheets. They are dressed in yellow suits with white masks and some black figure around one eye. They play some hard electro acoustic music. Gustav von Aschenbach appears in this assembly dressed up and made up as a younger man. He has a red scarf like the two look alike dancers in their third apparition. He looks like a gay man more than a young man. These two dancers thus punctuate the trip and sojourn to and in Venice.
Another innovation is the use of the conceptual couple in some crucial moments to show that Gustav von Aschenbach is no longer just looking or watching but inventing some choreography. With or without his conceptual couple, but more often with his Friedrich der Grosse he thinks choreography in the middle of a crowd. He forgets where he is and takes an absent stance, a visionary stance.
Then there is Tadzio of course. He appears like a barefooted fully but casually dressed young man going through at the very beginning in the very first rehearsal like a vision in the unconscious of Gustav von Aschenbach’s mind. He then appears again dressed the same way in the first dancing party in the Hotel des Bains, after a fast disoriented running more or less through Jaschu in his bathing trunks with a ball. That’s when Tadzio introduces his distinctive hand sign curling them into binoculars from down about his crotch up to his chest where they stick and un-stick and he starts over again till he manages to bring them to his eyes where they become binoculars looking in the distance. Strangely enough Gustav von Aschenbach will learn that gesture and share it with Tadzio at the very end. Then Tadzio will most of the time be on the beach in his red bathing trunks playing ball with his friend Jaschu and some other boys, seven more apparently, or fooling around or even more or less fighting. Once Tadzio has to be pulled out of a melee that started between him and Jaschu.
Three times Gustav von Aschenbach finds himself on the floor or ground, the first time because Tadzio bumps into his back and two more times out of some incidental circumstance, the last time fainting. It was natural, and will be so every time, for Tadzio to reach out for Gustav von Aschenbach to take his hand to get up. The first time he gets up and the other two times he is dragged on the ground over a few yards and finally gets up. Several times Gustav von Aschenbach will try to touch Tadzio but will not succeed, stopped by some timidity or bashfulness, showing that he is a bottom and not a top in his personal relations with people. But he will end up dancing with Tadzio several times, especially in the last scene and this one is a real marvel since it is the dance of death. Tadzio will prop him up from the sand and then take him along, make him dance, guide him, supports him, including carry him and yet Gustav von Aschenbach dies on his back first and then at his feet when Tadzio makes his final hand sign and looks in the distance through his phantom binoculars. Gustav von Aschenbach is dying at his feet while the picture freezes and the light fades to black.
We regret at times, every single time when Tadzio is looking back and his eyes are supposed to meet those of Gustav von Aschenbach, that the picture does not show the two characters in the same frame trying to look at each other in the eyes. But that is the problem of a video production, here for television, even if recent (2005). They do not give a full image of the stage and prefer to be able to have close up pictures of the characters and their faces or bodies. When sitting in front of the stage we do the same but our eyes being what they are they have some vision of what is all around the character we concentrate our intention on though most of the time we do not see the facial language but only capture the body language, the posture of the head and not the expression of the face. On a DVD — or Blu ray disc — we have the facial language but we do not have the full image of the stage and we miss things that are on the side of what the camera centers on. Yet it is a miracle for us to have such a recording of a ballet that was produced in 2005 in the city of Hamburg where we could not go. I will never repeat it enough, happy are the people today who have a video disc reader and can watch on a big screen whatever is available and was performed wherever in the world and at times in a rather distant past (sixty years or more).
The last remark I will make on this production is that the stage is kept practically empty all the time with very few props like a chair or a chair lounge on the beach. The setting is reduced to various back drops that enable the set designer to tell us where we are. The rehearsal room being shown by a back mirror. The ship and gondola by the picture of a gondola, the hotel by a cattycorner sight of the façade, the sea by the sea itself. That’s by far enough and we can concentrate on the dancers and a ballet is first of all performed by dancers not by props or extras. And here there are very few props and just the number of extras necessary to create the impression of a crowd or to build a band of boys playing ball on the beach. Note as for the beach scenes the boys all have bathing trunks with a couple extended bathing trunks with a singlet over the chest and back. This production avoids the overdressing (except for girls) typical of before WW1 and the excessive modernity of strings. That makes the show pleasing to the eyes but modest enough for us to see the various expressions of their faces, stances and body movements. As I have already said dancing needs physical contact but all intimacy is contained and becomes innuendo, at times very clear but never visually realizing actual intimate physical contact, even kisses are more like brothers’ than like lovers’.
To conclude then I must say I find this production faithful to Thomas Mann even if Gustav von Aschenbach seems to be haunted by some gay phantasm from the start but he does not seem to be able to realize his desire that remains a desire, but this production actually builds a real physical contact between Gustav von Aschenbach and Tadzio (though Visconti made it a complete impossibility) including of course Tadzio being the psychopomp of Gustav von Aschenbach. It is done in some beautiful farewell hugging that reveals love, the passion of the mind more than a hormonal transient derangement. To die at the feet of he person you love is beautiful and it is the reversal of Jesus dying on his cross looking at John and Mary and telling Mary his son now is John since Jesus loves him intensely and he loves Jesus apocalyptically.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU