It’s really about a love affair with life,” John Neumeier said of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” the classic novella that he has turned into a ballet.
Neumeier, who premiered the show in Hamburg in 2003, was the first person to adapt the haunting story of a middle-aged writer named Aschenbach and his fatal infatuation with a beautiful young boy, Tadzio, as a ballet.
This incarnation is quite different from the famous 1971 Luchino Visconti film. “It’s very minimalist and it no way attempts to compete with the visuals we’re familiar with from the film,” said Neumeier. “Our visuals are suggestive of that city, but we do not use realism at all. It’s a very clear, reduced, deconstructed look.”
“It’s an idea that’s been with me for a long time,” added Neumeier, who has led The Hamburg Ballet company since 1973, and will be in Brooklyn to present this adaptation at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House on Feb. 7.
“I read the novella when I was about 15, and there are certain pieces that always stay with me. It just becomes a question of when is the right time to do it.”
For BAM, the right time is now.
“It was the epic quality of the production, matched by the exceptional quality of both the choreography and the dancing, that compelled me to invite the ballet company here,” said BAM Executive Producer Joseph V. Melillo. “New York City rarely gets the opportunity to see contemporary evening-length ballet on this scale.”
Neumeier has slightly altered the story from the Visconti version. In the film, Aschenbach was a composer. Now, he’s a choreographer.
“The idea is that the ballet translates the idea of the author in the novel to a choreographer, so we are able to work in the proper medium to best express the possibilities, and working out this idea made it all clear to me,” Neumeier explains.
He also looked to the film version of the story for inspiration when choosing a score.
“Most people know the Mahler music,” Neumeier admits. “But the basic conflict in ‘Death in Venice’ is between this very strict Prussian gentleman and his sudden discovery of the sensuality of life, and I thought it would be better to use a very strict, formal kind of music.”
At first he considered using Bach, but during his research, he discovered that the original model for Aschenbach’s character was actually Richard Wagner.
“This suddenly made everything completely clear to me, that the contrast was between the formal world of Bach and the incredibly sensual world of Wagner,” whose own 1883 demise is, perhaps, the most famous death in Venice.
The distinction between the orderly world of Aschenbach and the chaotic one of Tadzio was the most compelling part of the story to Neumeier, and translating this conflict for the stage wasn’t difficult.
“Our choreographer is a very strict formalist, someone who has the perfection of a George Ballanchine through the crystal clearness of his musicality, and who has a problem when it comes to emotionalizing,” he says. “After Aschenbach meets Tazio, the emotional, Dionysian side of him begins to open up.”
“Death in Venice” will be performed at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene), from Feb. 7-10 at 7:30 pm. A BAMdialogue with choreographer John Neumeier will be held at BAM Rose Cinemas on Feb. 8 at 6 pm. Tickets for the ballet are $20 – $70, and tickets for the BAMdialogue are $8. For information, call (718)636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.