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A cinematic approach to Hamburg Ballett's 'Liliom'

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After 16 years in purgatory, a carousel barker takes his granted leave to perform a good deed on Earth. He presents his child, whom he has never seen, a star stolen from heaven. You might expect the title character to break into "Soliloquy" from Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel." But this is not musical theater. It's a ballet, where the movement alone speaks and sings.

Starting Feb. 7, for four performances at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the Hamburg Ballett is presenting John Neumeier's "Liliom," a ballet in seven scenes and a prologue. The work follows the source story of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár's 1909 "Liliom," which spawned the musical "Carousel."

As a young man, Neumeier, the chief choreographer and artistic director of Hamburg Ballet, was inspired by Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical about the romance between Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan and then later by Molnár's play in a European production. "I found it a subject that was deeply moving for many reasons: the frame of unreality, the simplicity of the direct line of the story, this very special love relationship," says Neumeier. "All of these things stuck with me."

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The story of the street-tough carousel barker Liliom, who romances the naive yet plucky Julie and commits a crime to secure money for their child, came to prominence in the 1921 Broadway production of Molnár's play starring Joseph Schildkraut and Eva Le Gallienne. In cinema, the first talkie version was directed by Frank Borzage in 1930, followed by the most famous movie version of "Liliom," directed in French by Fritz Lang in 1934 and featuring Charles Boyer and Madeleine Ozeray as the troubled lovers.

In Neumeier's Baz Luhrmann-esque production of the ballet, which premiered in Hamburg in 2011, the scenario has been shifted to the U.S. during the Great Depression, and Julie and Liliom's child is a son, Louis, rather than daughter, Louise. As in many of his ballets, Neumeier — who, since 1973 has served as artistic director of a European ballet company, longer than anyone else — thinks cinematically, eschewing some of conventional ballet's rigid scene structures.

"I like the idea that a ballet develops like a dream and the scenes blend into each other," he says by phone from Germany of his proclivity for fade-ins, dissolves and other visual details. "I want a sense of concurrent timing or being able to concentrate on a pas de deux between the main characters in the same sense that we do in a close-up. There's a continuous flow with basically no stopping in the musical composition as well."

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To help him in his filmic interpretation, Neumeier enlisted French composer Michel Legrand, winner of Academy Awards for "The Thomas Crown Affair," "Summer of '42" and "Yentl." Although Legrand, now 81, had composed several short ballets for French choreographer Roland Petit, "Liliom" was Legrand's first full-length ballet. The composition called for 80 members of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit and a 20-piece jazz band onstage, although the touring version performed in Costa Mesa will use a tape of the orchestra in tandem with a live jazz band.

"We worked with blending classical and jazz together," says Legrand, who studied with Parisian pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, a mentor to musicians such as Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, Quincy Jones, Philip Glass and Ástor Piazzolla. "It took me six months of great pleasure to write the score."

"The music is a dialogue between the big band and the orchestra," says the Milwaukee-born Neumeier. "Sometimes the band plays alone, sometimes with orchestra and sometimes almost in conflict," in an Ivesian manner. "Liliom" was designed by Ferdinand Wögerbauer, who created the set for L.A. Opera's 2012 "Don Giovanni."

For the role of Julie, Neumeier engaged Alina Cojocaru, a Romanian ballerina from the English National Ballet, as a guest artist. Cojocaru, who previously performed the dual role of Titania/Hippolyta in the choreographer's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," says Neumeier, possesses an "emotional honesty" that is luminous. "She is one of the great dancers of today," he says, contrasting her wispy, sparrow-like fragility with her formidable technical and visceral strength. "She has a kind of inner life that projects for me like light."

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Neumeier chose Hamburg Ballett principal dancer Carsten Jung, who danced Stanley in the choreographer's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and combines a rough-hewn robustness with balletic agility, to dance Liliom. "When I looked at [Cojocaru] and Carsten, they were these people — Julie and Liliom," says Neumeier.

Cojocaru and Jung were both honored with the Prix Benois de la Danse in 2012 for their performances in "Liliom"; Legrand also received the prize for his composition.

But how solidly does this century-old story resonate with audiences today? There is nothing dated about the themes of domestic abuse, crime, threat of poverty and suicide as well as passion's confusion and devotion to family. When Liliom, among a frenetic ensemble of desperate male workers, loses his job in an era of chronic unemployment and can't find another, the circumstances are "heartbreaking and universal," says Neumeier. He also cites the theme of "not knowing how to express love, being afraid to articulate it. Only when Liliom is dead can Julie actually say, 'I've always wanted to say, "I love you."'"

Overall, Neumeier, who has choreographed 120 ballets — including impassioned works such as "Death in Venice," "Lady of the Camellias" and "The Little Mermaid" (performed at the Segerstrom Center last year) as well as the abstraction of his "Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler" — would like the audience to be moved by the ballet: "I want to see something that mirrors me as a human being, so that I am seeing some part of myself, some emotion I understand. I may not have the same story or destiny, but there is a truth to what is said, and that truth relates to me."

calendar@latimes.com

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Hamburg Ballett, 'Liliom'

Where: Segerstrom Hall

600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8, 2 p.m. Feb. 9

Contact: http://www.scfta.org; (714) 556-2787

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