Not long into the Royal Swedish Ballet's performance of "Mahler's Third Symphony" this weekend at the Kennedy Center, it was clear the production was going to be about as entertaining as an international symposium on river sludge. In fact, John Neumeier's ballet, nearly two uninterrupted hours long, brought to mind the old joke about the farmhand who wore his boots two sizes too small because taking them off at bedtime was the day's only pleasure. The best part of this meandering ordeal was the sense of liberation you felt as you went staggering up the aisle at its close.
The work unites two redoubtable forces--Mahler, composer of vast and craggy orchestral landscapes, and Neumeier, the American choreographer who heads the Hamburg Ballet and likewise favors large-scale productions and themes of spiritual searching. He has choreographed Bach's "St. Matthew Passion"--with himself in the leading role of Jesus--and at least five other Mahler symphonies, among other full-evening endeavors.
Neumeier's "Third Symphony" purports to trace the trajectory of human experience, from the earliest awakenings of life, through the emergence of mankind with its destructive and nurturing tendencies, and culminating in the everlasting balm of love.
It's not a bad outline, and it might work in more delicate hands. Mark Morris traversed a somewhat similar path in his grand "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," seen here last month. But Morris had the benefit of clear organization, structural soundness, an evocative movement vocabulary and danceable music (Handel's ode of the same name). Neumeier has none of these.
There are indeed great tides of feeling in Mahler's music, and passionate images etched by the dancers. These, and the sheer monstrous size of this choreographic endeavor, may seem to add up to Great Art, which is clearly what Neumeier is banking on. But Mahler's music, with its crashing dissonance and long contemplative passages, simply does not lend itself to dancing, much less over a lengthy period with no intermission. Perhaps Neumeier's puzzlement over what to do with the groaning static areas led him to interject moments of silence; perhaps the thought was that an accumulation of ponderous passages might add up to something. The impression is of a pretense of art, without the well-considered interworking of elements that gives a flow, a form, to true art.
Neumeier has titled the first five movements according to his fancy; only the last, "What Love Tells Me," bears Mahler's title. We begin with "Yesterday," in which a legion of men rise, wrestle, march, climb up on one another and tumble into heaps. At one point they don olive-green tights and--as if the allusion to war's dehumanization were not stark enough--stagger about with rigid arms outstretched, zombielike. Then we're yanked into "Summer" and "Autumn," where, despite the often bright and boisterous music, Neumeier has fashioned lyrical love duets. The movement is the all-too-common mixture of ballet and modern dance--soaring leaps and high-flung legs with flexed feet. All passes under the gaze of an innocent (sensitively danced by Goran Svalberg on Saturday afternoon), a kind of moral compass whose appearance in all sections is the only thread tying them together.
"Night" includes a long stretch of silence, as a woman and two men stalk the stage anxiously. Finally, "Angel"--danced by a buoyant Marie Lindqvist--and "What Love Tells Me" bring the work to its happy conclusion.
Neumeier's lengthy program notes serve only to confound his intentions. "Flowers . . . they just stand there. And they are not related to anything," he writes of "Summer." (A peculiar dance image, to be sure.)
It's a shame that this is our final look at the Royal Swedish Ballet, one of the world's oldest ballet companies and one that last appeared here a quarter-century ago. The "Ballet Suedois" program performed last week had subtle charms and historical significance, but didn't exactly let the dancers loose to show their strengths. The Mahler--which on Saturday looked ill-prepared in spots--fatigued the dancers, who by the end were so wet and tired they could hardly pull the lifts off. Still, it seems to be a handsome company, and doubtless has more to offer. Hopefully we won't have to wait another 25 years to see what that might be.
CAPTION: Resting his feet? Goran Svalberg functioned as the only link among the work's six sections.