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The adapted narrative for “Liliom”, John Neumier’s masterful, full length ballet for Hamburg Ballett, is a layered affair. The story, in its hundred year history, has been a stage play, and a depression era French film; it was also adapted as a musical (Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”) before joining Hamburg’s expansive repertory of contemporary story ballets. This production comes with a huge boost from film composer Michel Legrand (Thomas Crown Affair, Umbrellas of Cherbourg) via his superb original music for orchestra and a live, on stage big band. It’s no surprise that at times the action on stage has a made for film quality.

Neumeier’s retelling is a sprawling affair, a two part episodic ballet that faithfully covers the essential emotional content of the story in a prologue and seven additional scenes. He also produced the costuming and lighting designs as well as the choreography. The music on Saturday used a recording of the Hamburg Opera Orchestra integrated with the live band which sometimes accompanies but also plays on its own in selected scenes. The band is on-stage, occupying a towering balcony at the back of the stage that doubles as a salon and part of the Playland carnival where much of the action takes place. The imaginative sets by Ferdinand Wögerbauer are cloaked in spacious lighting effects that embrace the real and fantastical dimensions of the story.

The story centers on the abusive relationship between Liliom and his lover, Julie. The role of Liliom was played by the magnetic and often ferocious Carsten Jung. He turned in a monumental performance which lurched ahead with dangerous unpredictability. Julie was played by Alina Cojocaru who danced as a quest principal in these performances. Ms Cojocaru, who is a bona fide big time ballet star, offered a particularly vulnerable performance as the waifish and enabling Julie.  Dressed down and without makeup, she captured the bleakness of a long suffering victim who remains faithful despite physical and emotional mistreatment. In this production their grown son, Louis (Aleix Martínez) replaces a daughter, Louise, in the original version.  For better or worse, this Liliom is a gender-neutral abuser who sometimes reveals himself in moments of poignant tenderness, but it’s tenderness that is precarious and never lasts.

To convey his stories, Neumeier has settled on a language of dance and theatrical movement that never feels artificial. At the center is a ballet spine, but it often has a short half-life which can disintegrate or ricochet suddenly into dramatic or gestural content. All the women are on pointe, even the Playland circus performers. The scenes dedicated to the principal roles alternate with production ensembles that riff on an elevated musical theater style. At times the stage throbs with dancers.

Some of the characters have movement leitmotifs that identify them. In his likable moments, Liliom launches into a breezy, open arabesque turn that flips body position at the end. He also has a recurring reflexive twitch, grappling manically with his leg. It’s his embedded obsession, a dark undercurrent of behavior that he can’t ever exorcise.  

This company, along with being terrific contemporary ballet dancers is also an acting powerhouse. Even the secondary roles feel well fleshed out in this regard. For sheer dancing  pleasure the six men from the underworld—called “The Beyond” here—deliver an unforgettable excursion into Euro Zone sensibilities with their unison movement, bare chests  and plush, red suits. Also excellent were Sasha Riva as the balloon man (a kind of spectral guide throughout the ballet) and Anna Laudere as the vamping Mrs. Muskat.

Legrand’s ocean going score references melodic fragments and orchestrations that feel directly descended from the dark corners of Prokofiev’s music for Romeo and Juliet. The house on Saturday responded with overwhelming appreciation for the music. The company applauded the musicians. The musicians applauded the dancers. Everyone applauded Michel Legrand who, with Neumeier, was on hand for this American premiere.  Big time ballet, Euro style, never looked as good.

(The reviewed performance took place at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Saturday February 8, 2014. The onstage music was conducted by Jules Buckley. Neumeier’s “Liliom” premiered in 2011 in Hamburg. The word is slang for a “tough”.The original stage play—1909, was written by the Hungarian author, Ferenc Molnár.  The version for  film was directed by Fritz Lang. The musical adaptation as “Carousel” was first produced in 1945. Beautiful Soup Theater Collective’s new production of “Liliom” opens later this February at the Celebration of Whimsy Theater in New York. It was last seen in New York in the 1930’s.)

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