Choreographers often take opening-night bows, always a special moment, a chance for audience and artist to commune and revel in a bit of star-studded bonhomie.
But it will be unusually thrilling when John Neumeier takes the stage after the Hamburg Ballet performs his "Nijinsky" this week at the Harris Theater.
Except for a run at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park in the 1980s, the Hamburg troupe, led by Milwaukee-born Neumeier for 40 years, hasn't played our area and will be making its Chicago debut, this in the city where Neumeier's career pretty much began.
Coming the same month he's about to turn 71, he must find it gratifying — and overdue.
"It is a little strange, and I have no explanation why it has taken this long," he said by telephone from Hamburg. "I guess you work where you feel you're doing something important, and you keep doing it and don't look back.
"But this appearance is immensely important to me. I just wish Sybil and Bentley and Walter could be there to see it."
He's talking about three late Chicago figures who greatly influenced him as a young man after leaving Milwaukee: dancer-choreographer Sybil Shearer and teachers Bentley Stone and Walter Camryn. Neumeier studied with the latter at their Stone-Camryn School of Ballet here and performed with Northbrook-based Shearer and her company.
"From the point of view of movement and movement invention, from a sense of inner concentration, Sybil is my greatest inspiration," Neumeier said. "I didn't realize it at the time. Sybil was slow-working; she prepared and prepared something and then would shelve it to work on something else. As a young man, I was impatient. But in retrospect, I deeply appreciate what she gave me.
"And Bentley and Walter were completely different, and each gave me different values. Bentley was strictly classical, while Walter was a man of the theater and strove to combine theatrical values with classical ballet."
After leaving Chicago, Neumeier took over the ballet troupe of the Hamburg State Opera in 1973 and has maintained it as one of the leading companies of the world today.
"They're accomplished, and they have an amazing depth of understanding of the art form," said Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet. "They work incredibly hard, and they deliver."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is proud that the city is the first stop on the troupe's brief tour, which also visits Costa Mesa, Calif., and San Francisco.
"I'm enthusiastic that they're coming, and I think it's further recognition that Chicago is emerging as a dance capital that you have to come to if you're important," Emanuel said.
"I understand there are some 26 nationalities represented among the dancers of the troupe, and there's no better city to host them than Chicago, which is a story of immigrants. We're the most American of American cities. To have this top company visit here is a testament to where we're emerging, not just nationally but internationally."
Echoing Camryn, Neumeier's work has been credited, and sometimes criticized, for its theatricality.
"I suppose my work does employ theatricality, because I don't think dance can be anything else," he said. "Dance is a form of theater, and since I studied theater and English literature as a student, I'm interested in dramatic structure."
As to getting some sense of his taste, Neumeier has demonstrated an affinity for Gustav Mahler, one of the composers found more than once among the choreographer's 148 ballets.
"Dance uses the human body as its subject and instrument, and through the body, through movement and gestures, we're brought into other metaphysical worlds," Neumeier said. "That's parallel to Mahler, who seems to employ simple musical forms, such as the waltz or march, but then helps us to transcend those forms and move into another world. To me, dance and his music both build bridges to another realm."
"Nijinsky," set to music by various composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich, is inspired by the title figure, Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the most renowned in dance and the subject of a career-long fascination by Neumeier. The Hamburg season ends each year with a Nijinsky festival, which Neumeier launched his second year with the company.
"It's an homage," he said. "It's not always work directly by him or in which he danced. But they all reflect on his ideas and his concepts."
His "Nijinsky" is "not a story at all, but a series of fragments describing his inner landscape, his inner biography," Neumeier said.
"It starts with a kind of realistic interpretation of his last performance on Jan. 19, 1919, one in which the world recognized that he was mentally ill," he said. "Then it goes back as a kind of kaleidoscope of his works with the Ballets Russes and the seriousness of his creations, as well as exploring his relationships with Serge Diaghilev and his wife.
"The second part is more introspective and deals with his inner conflicts, especially the trauma of World War I, which is one of the reasons for his madness," Neumeier added. "He was terribly disturbed by the brutality and aggression of that war.
"He was groundbreaking in his work, such as 'Afternoon of a Faun,' 'Jeux' and 'The Rite of Spring,' and then there is the humanity, which we learn more about from (his) diary.
"I also believe he was a great painter, and I have an enormous collection of his drawings and memorabilia. Five of his drawings, in fact, are included in the current exhibition called 'Inventing Abstraction' at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. And I'm so proud, because it supports what I've been trying to do, and that's to prove he's this universal artist and one of the greatest personalities of the 20th century."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times