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July 1, 2012 7:05 pm
At last. Alina Cojocaru has been one of the Royal Ballet’s most outstanding ballerinas for more than a decade, and yet until last year no significant work had been created for her. Enter John Neumeier, choreographer and director of the Hamburg Ballet, who brought her to Germany as a guest performer. Liliom, the result of their collaboration, premiered in December and was shown again last week as part of the company’s annual Ballet-Days festival.
The story, based on a 1909 Hungarian play by Ferenc Molnár, is in some ways a feminist’s nightmare. Julie, a waitress in a poor suburb, falls in love with Liliom, a womaniser who loses his job and becomes abusive. After a failed robbery he commits suicide, leaving Julie alone with their unborn child. In the final scene, Liliom makes an appearance from beyond the grave and strikes his now adolescent child – himself brutal towards Julie – prompting mother and son to wonder how a slap can feel like “a caress”. Recreated in ballet today, Julie’s ultimate forgiveness and angelic love leave a bitter taste.
Hamburg Ballet’s production is hard to fault, however. Neumeier moves the setting from Budapest to the Depression-era US, and the commissioned score by Michel Legrand combines the orchestra in the pit with a jazz band overlooking the action to cinematic effect. Liliom is ballet on a large, theatrical scale, with opportunities for an array of soloists, among them the voluptuous Anna Polikarpova as Liliom’s other love interest, and some spectacular ensemble scenes. The outpouring of anger by unemployed workers in front of a closed job agency, in particular, hits just the right note.
As often with Neumeier, designs and choreography are integrated to create spare, arresting stage pictures: a carousel and neon arabesques for the amusement park where the characters work, a small window on to a blue sky as a glimpse of the afterlife. Moments of stillness in the ballet are captured as if by a painter, from Julie’s anguish over Liliom’s body to the slow-motion appearances of a figure carrying bouquets of balloons. Movement is rarely allowed to flow and soar, but the choreography offers great scope for dance actors.
And in Cojocaru and Hamburg’s Carsten Jung, Neumeier has two of the finest. Jung makes a muscular, unpredictable Liliom, and the role of Julie perfectly captures Cojocaru’s dance genius: the childlike vulnerability, the technical purity combined with lightning-fast contrasts in texture, the way her inner monologue colours every movement with seemingly spontaneous meaning. Wringing her hands or sitting on a bench, the heartbreaking gentleness and light she projects set her apart from the other women surrounding Liliom.
At nearly three hours, the ballet is overlong, but for the 31-year-old ballerina, whom the Royal Ballet seems to have taken for granted in recent years, Liliom is a true artistic statement – and proof that she has much more to give yet.
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