The 1985 staging of John Neumeier’s “Othello” has been the subject of controversy ever since the Royal Danish Ballet, which intended to replace it, criticized the choreographer and creative director of the Hamburg Ballet. Officially owing to “differing views on the partnership,” but in reality there is another reason: It has to do with the freedom of art and the issue of what an artist is permitted to take into consideration.
Neumeier is accustomed to pertinent arguments. His “Othello” has drawn criticism for having patriarchal representations of strong men and weak women ever since it debuted. Even his own ballet mistress, with whom he had a decades-long argument, disagreed with the choreographer on this point: she interpreted a scene in which Desdemona caresses the general’s bare feet as an act of female submission and he saw it as a sign of male frailty. Nearly everything in theater is a matter of perception as well.
Shakespeare’s version by Neumeier was originally scheduled to be performed in Copenhagen for months, but it was eventually canceled due to the Wokeness controversy. Many things were mixed up, including racism suspicion, explanation gaps, and communication disaster. Only the outcome is certain: the decades-long collaboration with Neumeier was suspended at the request of ballet director Nikolaj Hübbe, who (as of this writing still) acts with the support of opera director Kaspar Holten. Hübbe may eventually lose his position, however it does not appear unlikely given the current situation. He presents a poor image throughout the affair. And that each time before.
It speaks to the difficulty of eradicating sociocultural imprints.
The inquiry from Copenhagen that began it all—a year and a half ago—asked whether Neumeier could integrate his “Othello” into the royal repertoire. The choreographer explains what transpired at that time in dialogue with the SZ: after accepting, he received a rejection mail from the north months later. It appears that the opera abandoned its original buying plan after dancers voiced their concerns and requested that specific choreographed sequences be dropped. The “wild warrior” figure, a mirage that haunts Desdemona’s mind and corresponds to a Botticelli Madonna that haunts Othello’s nightmares, was the main topic of discussion. The two projections are examples of psychologically internalized and socially ingrained cliches. Because Neumeier is the central character in the drama that explores how difficult it is to truly recognize another person in the face of sociocultural imprinting.
However, attributions that have nothing to do with the choreography have been made in the response from Copenhagen and subsequent media reports: “There was mention of monkey noises, of drumming against the head – that doesn’t exist,” explains Neumeier. He volunteered to alter the attire, leaving off the “wild warrior’s” black body paint. He disclaimed doing anything to the choreography beforehand: “The step material represents Desdemona’s fantastical dream world. My dance is not a sacred thing. Theoretically, changing it is not an option. In conversation with each dancer individually, something entirely distinct arises during the practice.” Due to the disagreements, it was reportedly decided amicably to abandon the “Othello” transfer and instead practice Neumeier’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The general population rarely noticed the occurrences.
Until John Neumeier used the final “Midsummer Night’s Dream” correction rehearsal in Copenhagen to explain his “Othello” interpretation to the ensemble, nothing had changed. “It was the first opportunity since the cancellation and it was important to me that the dancers understand my concept, my intention,” Neumeier said. The dancers were engaged in entirely unrelated activities, so this “Othello” interlude during the final stretch of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was undoubtedly a bad decision. Nikolaj Hübbe, the director of the ballet, jumped in afterwards and claimed sole responsibility for the cancellation. Neumeier, though, urged the dancers to pose inquiries. Someone then questioned if he would have developed the “wild warrior” in the same manner if he had black skin. Yes, because it’s about the intention, about what I wanted to demonstrate, you said.
The Copenhagen House’s supervisory board attributes the rupture in the relationship.
According to Neumeier, the rehearsal then went on as usual. The Royal Danish Ballet’s 2023 Hamburg guest performance was canceled, according to the daily The politics, but the scandal didn’t surface until after the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” premiere. “Nikolaj Hübbe has decided to cease the collaboration for the next few years,” according to the opera house’s spokesman. Cooperation issues and transgressions of “our principles and our focus on the well-being of employees” have occurred.
Hübbe is silent, as is his superior Kaspar Holten, and the entire house is silent. Anyone seeking information and commentary in Copenhagen is politely directed to the media reports from Denmark. The company’s supervisory board did, after all, speak up and voice its unhappiness. Relationship breakup is condemned, and discussion is required. Neumeier is after all a crowd pleaser and his books are top sellers. The fact that the opera received bad press in 2021 due to murky revelations concerning the wrongdoing of another choreographer may perhaps have had something to do with it. It had an impact at the time on Liam Scarlett, whose “Frankenstein” production was dropped from the schedule. The artist committed suicide as soon as she learned of the sexual assault that caused her to leave the Royal Ballet London. The fact that Nikolaj Hübbe shot and accused John Neumeier of racism a year later, citing his duty of care, speaks poorly of the leadership and corporate culture of the entire company.
The case has horrified the ballet community. Speaking to dancers who themselves were chosen for “Othello” roles will be met with shocked awe. The initial participant in the “John Neumeier is a humanist through and through, as the current Theater Vorpommern director and author of “Wild Warrior” explains. To suggest that he has racial intentions is ludicrous.” Others share this opinion and recall Neumeier’s thorough rehearsals, precise instructions, and logical dramatic patterns. It should come as no surprise that the 83-year-old American is reportedly having difficulty handling criticism from young dancers. He is, in a sense, the uncrowned sovereign of the world of dance after nearly fifty years as director of the Hamburg Ballet.
Without a doubt, one of his most traumatic professional situations was the argument with Copenhagen. Neumeier declares, “I’m just plain shocked,” adding that the Danish capital was his first stop in Europe sixty years prior. It is impossible to predict if the fracture will ever mend again. There will be scars. On the soul of the choreographer as well as the Royal Danish Ballet’s image.