John Neumeier rehearses Nijinsky with the Australian Ballet. By Kate Holden.

Choreographer John Neumeier

He wanted to dance before he knew what dance was. A big adult book in his 11-year-old hands: the story of a moving flame, a man named Nijinsky. It was books at university in Milwaukee, a degree in literature and theatre; but the flame turned onwards and he was leaping and bowing in Copenhagen by 1961, Hamburg by 1963, and although he never quite decided to stay, he’s lived in Europe ever since. At 74 it’s still books and dance, the two great devotions, and Nijinsky, of course, Nijinsky vaulting across a stage again and again.

What must it be like, to live a life in dance? The most ephemeral of arts: the passage of body through air. Sweatful strain made smooth: flow and flourish, violence and vigour. To wake every morning with your beautiful, astonishing body – growing to its perfection, then ageing past it. To dream rhythm and gesture, to be the man raised on strong arms above the stage, to master implacable muscle and the most melting of curves. He was a wonderful dancer, but an even greater director and choreographer, and now he’s in the bloom of his maestro years: he need only stand, watching closely, at the edge of a ballet rehearsal studio in Melbourne, and young bodies will supple and strengthen before his eyes.

A small man with cropped white hair, glasses, a hint of a tummy, loose clothes. A jumper of very fine, very white wool tossed over his shoulders, ornate gold pinkie ring, a strange brushed-metal bracelet girding his wrist. He might be a retired dentist, John Neumeier, but for the unusually thick cable-knit socks, the lovely black suede slipper-shoes. A lifetime of slouched leg warmers, of feet knuckled to sinew and bone. His skin has by now the tanned burnish of wealthy older Teutonic men; from his lips a light American voice, padding on soft socks, with the precise footfalls of half a lifetime spent in German syntax. As he whispers, 40 dancers still their restless bodies to hear.

Dance is always taking place in the present, brimming imminence. He says you can put on 18th-century costumes but when the curtain goes up, all that you care about is what’s happening now. It’s the person, living, now, that will make you laugh or cry. Don’t just do what you are told, he says to them. Try to do what you are told, but make it your own. If you don’t want to put your head there, don’t put it there. Just make me believe. The ballet is happening now. It’s not a film. It’s not in a can. It’s something that never happened before. It’s happening to you for the first time. I’m curious about you as people. Neumeier returns to his little seat on the edge of the room, and the iPad of footage from former stagings of this work, the book of photographs of the real Nijinsky. David McAllister, director of the Australian Ballet, sits watchfully, and the company dancers, breathing in short hard disciplined puffs, resume their marks. The pianist recommences the Chopin. 

You take life less seriously as you age, Neumeier believes, because it has less to do with yourself; and more seriously, because you realise it’s very important. And after you have accomplished a certain amount, you realise, without trying to prove something, what is important. He has choreographed more than 140 ballets. He was the first to set ballet to Mahler, seven symphonies so far; to Bach oratorios. Next year his company will have their 300th performance of one work; the 200th of another. Has been guest choreographer all over the world: Paris, New York, Vienna, Tokyo, Winnipeg, Moscow… It’s Anna Karenina next, and he carries the novel with him everywhere. 

His works evolve, contract, flex and flush anew. You have to make a role out of each dancer, he explains, and their sensitivities, and their sensibilities, and their technique of course, and then someone else can re-create it, and then maybe give another aspect that will change it. Or not… It’s a very interesting thing, he smiles shrewdly, that will keep you alive. He has a way of breathing how interesting, how interesting with great kindness.

He poises the transience, this sculpting of motion, with capture: the Foundation John Neumeier, his collection of dance and ballet books, archives, artwork, memorabilia. His own archive – the awards, the correspondence, the playbills, the sketches. There are dozens of artworks by Nijinsky here, too. Another man who leapt, who taught, who thought.

It is only ever about humans. Dance is a human art, Neumeier holds, performed by humans, for humans. Story, costume, canon are the least of it. It is the bodily countenance of feeling, interiority, dreams, passion, pain. He stands again, fingers thoughtless at mouth, observing principal artist Kevin Jackson, who is Nijinsky for this rehearsal, who looks a little dazed, concentrating hard, breathing hard, his body convulsed in torment as Nijinsky approaches madness and forces a fist against his mouth. The kind director croons, “Push your fist into the floor, into the floor, the floor, the floor…” The man is on the ground. Neumeier halts the pianist with a raised hand. He moves to his Nijinsky, stands close before him, speaks too softly for anyone to hear. Jackson nods. They both raise their arms from their sides, slowly, slowly; the palms face in unison, outstretching. They gaze at each other, one panting, the other calm, both lost in the work, and before the room of forgotten watchers their arms rise slowly together, wordless grace, Neumeier and his dream.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2016 as "Lord of the dance".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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