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With Third Symphony, the Hamburg Ballet makes sense of Mahler

John Neumeier has translated musical complexity into motion.

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UPDATE: Both performances have been canceled due to an electrical fire that damaged the theater's operational and mechanical equipment. Ticket holders will be contacted by a box office representative.

Gustav Mahler's symphonies, less classical than romantic and avant-garde, are unique for their emotional complexity. Suggestively mournful, triumphant, brutal, fanciful, and riddled with stylistic contradictions, they'd remained unexplored by choreographers for years, despite their postwar popularity, because people supposed it'd take a miracle to make sense of them.

That's why John Neumeier's strategy with Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler, which premiered at the Hamburg Ballet in 1975, was so weirdly ingenious. When he got started, he says, "there was no rational thought about what I wanted to achieve." Resisting Mahler's literary sources, he treated the symphony as something to feel, and its pool of mysteries as something not to pollute. The result—six movements, two hours, no intermission—is a pure response to the music. From the footage I've seen of the Hamburg Ballet's current touring production, it's also extraordinary.

Incredibly astute in terms of composition, Neumeier picked up on the symphony's cyclic structure, so characters become attached to certain musical motifs early on and reenter when the theme repeats. He also invented memorable physical motifs, like a male dancer spreading his arms wide to make a Platonic triangle shape on the floor; later, the man hovers over a female dancer who represents an incarnation of love, and makes the same tented shape twice more—first fondly, then despairingly.

The dance is full of images of abstract concepts: the beauty of nature, of melancholy, of angels, of the transience of love. In the sixth movement, for instance, a man lifting a woman evokes the inverse image—man uplifted by the ideal of love—which nonetheless appears as a mirage, here today, gone today, the world's most gorgeous lie.

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