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Hamburg Ballet probes monumental themes in Mahler’s ‘Third Symphony’

Gustav Mahler’s “Third Symphony” is not only the longest of the nine symphonies by that Austrian composer whose late 19th century Romantic spirit in many ways ushered in the modernist movements of the early 20th century. But, running at close to 105 minutes, it also is the longest symphony in the standard orchestral repertoire.

Mahler’s piece clearly became an obsession for the Milwaukee-bred choreographer John Neumeier, who, for more than four decades, has served as artistic director of Germany’s Hamburg Ballet. He created his “Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler” — a monumental neoclassical work that echoes the scale and emotional fervor of the music — in 1975. And this past weekend, Chicago audiences had the rare opportunity to see it danced by the members of his large and highly accomplished company during their visit to the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

With its six distinct sections following the six movements of the symphony, the ballet runs close to two intermission-less hours, with several exceptionally powerful sequences also danced in silence. This can be immensely difficult for both its dancers (though they seem tireless) and its audience. And though breathtakingly beautiful and dramatic at many moments, “Third Symphony” also felt overly long and repetitive at points — something that also was the case with Neumeier’s ferociously ritualistic and at times shocking “Othello” (performed at the Harris earlier in the week) and “Sylvia” (performed last season by the Joffrey Ballet).

Neumeier, who recently received the prestigious Kyoto Prize for his “contributions to the arts and philosophy,” is a man of immense intellect and passion, but he too often tries to get everything in his brain onto the stage rather than leaving the audience craving the mystery and wonder of the best of his creativity. He would benefit from having an editor.

Of course with the Mahler he no doubt felt it would be heresy to cut the score, and this is understandable. And perhaps, if experiencing this piece performed with a live orchestra (and vocalists), the feeling might be different, though prohibitively expensive. Here it was performed to the 1961 recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, and the quality of that recording (or perhaps the Harris’ sound system) left something to be desired.

"Third Symphony of Gustave Mahler," choreographed by John Neumeier, was performed by the Hamburg Ballet at the Harris Theater for Music and dance. (Photo: Holger Badekow/Hamburg Ballet)

“Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler,” choreographed by John Neumeier, was performed by the Hamburg Ballet at the Harris Theater for Music and dance. (Photo: Holger Badekow/Hamburg Ballet)

“Third Symphony” opens with the 45-minute “Yesterday,” a fiendishly demanding and in many ways self-contained piece for an all-male contingent clothed only in tights. Along with a stunningly sculptural explosion of bodies that fold and unfold like the most complex origami, Neumeier employs cantilevered partnering and geometric formations of great invention, and creates a palpable tension between the group and the individual. But what begins as an organic opening-up gradually grows into a fierce, militaristic storm that (much like a terrifying sequence for Iago in the choreographer’s “Othello”) calls to mind the Third Reich.

From there the mood shifts dramatically, with “Summer” finding the the company’s women assuming the delicacy of pastel flowers and birdsong, and then, in “Autumn,” with the dancers in red tunics, suggesting intimate human relationships through a variety of pas de deux and trios.

A pas de trois from John Neumeier's "Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler," performed by the Hamburg Ballet. (Photo: Holger Badekow/Hamburg Ballet)

A pas de trois from John Neumeier’s “Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler,” performed by the Hamburg Ballet. (Photo: Holger Badekow/Hamburg Ballet)

The more elegiac “Night,” with its intimations of love and loss, was exquisitely danced by Helene Bouchet, Alexandre Riabko and Carsten Young. It was followed by the astonishing solo dancing of Silvia Azzoni, a twig of a girl in red who arrives as the “Angel,” and dances with just the ecstatic joyfulness and heavenly spirit you might expect. And to bring the whole thing to a close, she and Riabko were joined by the full ensemble.

The "Angel" (in red) in "Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler," danced by the Hambur Ballet. (Photo: Holger Badekow/Hamburg Ballet)

The “Angel” (in red) in “Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler,” danced by the Hamburg Ballet. (Photo: Holger Badekow/Hamburg Ballet)

Neumeier also designed the lighting for “Mahler,” and it is as much a dancer in this work as the performers themselves.

Neumeier’s feverish ballet of “Othello,” also at the Harris Theater, took a phantasmagorical approach to Shakespeare’s play and featured several astonishing, powerfully envisioned pas de deux, including rapturously sensual ones between Othello (Amilcar Moret Gonzalez) and Desdemona (Helene Bouchet), and a deeply disturbing, altogether mind-blowing one for Iago (Ivan Urban) and Emilia (the altogether amazing Carolina Agüero), that was performed to breathtaking effect.