Since its first appearance, Dumas' doomed courtesan who sacrifices herself for love has become a romantic archetype, the beautiful, heartbreaking center of countless versions.
Yet in 1978 when Mar‹ia Hayd_e asked John Neumeier for a new full evening creation that would fit into Stuttgart Ballet's repertoire, neither she nor the choreographer at first envisioned telling Marguerite's tale. Under legendary choreographer John Cranko, the Stuttgart Ballet had developed a strong theatrical identity. Upon Cranko's death, Hayd_e took the helm, hoping to continue in his tradition.
A former Stuttgart dancer and a rising choreographer, Neumeier had already developed an approach to expressive movement that focused on the inner emotional landscape. The narrative itself proved only a starting point for an empathic exploration of the characters' inner turmoil. Some of Neumeier's recent creations had already signalled a radical departure from dramatic ballet: Illusions Like Swan Lake and A Midsummer Night's Dream did not evoke enchanted creatures or excursions to fairyland, but the dreams, hopes and even torments of real people. For Neumeier, this new ballet offered a chance to take another fundamental step further in this direction.
But Dumas' heroine nearly did not make it to the stage. At first he and Hayd_e felt it should be a new Shakespearean ballet, maybe Anthony and Cleopatra. Suddenly Neumeier changed his mind: "We were at dinner. I looked at Mar‹ia, and after few seconds, I said 'No, it will be not Cleopatra. It will be the Lady of Camellias.' "
Popular versions already existed of the novel, from Verdi's La Traviata, to Garbo's famous Camille, to earlier dance versions by Antony Tudor and Frederick Ashton. Most versions, Neumeier felt, gradually softened characters and story, transforming Marguerite into a sacrificial victim redeemed by forgiveness and death. Neumeier instead decided to dive "deep to the source" of Dumas' novel, to rediscover the story's emotional verity and strip it of the sentiment that he felt had veiled the more painful aspects of the story.
In fact, the novel, issued in 1848, just a few months after the untimely death of a celebrated Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis, had been something of a 19th-century instant book. The story of Marguerite and Armand Duval not only recalled the romance Dumas himself had lived with Marie, only 24 when she died, but also described, very carefully, the gap between her intimate moods and the rules of society she was obliged to follow to maintain her status.
Neumeier retained the original structure of the novel for his dramaturgy, with the opening set at the auction of Marguerite's things, after her death. Here the people who played a role in her story meet again, each of them with his own regret. With few theatrical touches Neumeier immediately creates an atmosphere of longing and memories about Marguerite.
This melancholic mood underlies the ballet, as Marguerite's story is told in flashback. Her poignant loneliness becomes a recurring theme, only for a while defeated by Armand's love. Fr_d_ric Chopin's music perfectly echoes Marguerite's charming surface and her underlying sadness.
Although in the form of a grand ballet, the Lady of Camellias is above all an overwhelming voyage inside human expectations and illusions of happiness. Using a complex structure which alternates scenes from Marguerite's social life: balls, theatre, country: with her growing romance with Armand, Neumeier translates classic moviemaking techniques to the stage. Flash backs, fading and close-ups create a tight narrative structure where different perspectives flow in. And like a camera's close-ups, the way the characters stay, sit, use their hands or simply look at each other is revelatory of inner feelings.
Armand and Marguerite's pas de deux chart their deepening feelings. Steps reoccur like leitmotifs, tying each pas de deux together while gradually revealing the strains that will separate the lovers. Their relationship also finds a mirror in the characters of Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux, who leap from the pages of Prevost's novel, which Armand has given to Marguerite. Prevost's bleak ending for his young lovers foreshadows what lies ahead for Armand and Marguerite. While fearful of Manon's fate, Marguerite cannot help feeling drawn to the character and the parallels between them.
American Ballet Theatre's Company Premiere of the Lady of Camellias introduces one of Neumeier's most enduring and popular ballets to the ABT audience. "Although John is considered a master in Europe, his work is not widely known here," Kevin McKenzie explains. "A strange thing, considering he is an American who has affected the European artistic community so much. Lady of the Camellias reflects the quality of remembrance of a significant period of time, examined through the lens of the theater. The magic of time in the theater is similar to that of the timeless remembrance of a loved one's influence."
In Neumeier's hands, Marguerite's tragic story remains a magic window to the inner world of love's deepest wishes and endless longing.
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