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With Mahler symphony, a monumental undertaking for Boston Ballet

Emily Zendt/Globe Staff

Choreographer John Neumeier (opposite page) leading a rehearsal (above) for “Mahler’s Third Symphony” at Boston Ballet.

By Karen Campbell Globe Correspondent 

It’s the second week of rehearsals for the monumental “Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler: A Ballet by John Neumeier,” and virtually every male dancer in Boston Ballet and Boston Ballet II is packed into the company’s Studio Seven. Under the choreographer’s watchful gaze, the testosterone is popping as the 30 men tackle the work’s daunting first movement. They sail through jetés and off-center turns before launching into what Neumeier calls the “seductive crazy march,” legs stiff, arms slicing, clenched fists thumping chests in a display of power and virility.

In the loose narrative that Neumeier’s choreography limns, this is not mere posturing. “The physical tension is a mirror of the emotional tension,” the soft-spoken choreographer tells the men. “I should feel a chill, a sense of uncontrolled violence.” Then he adds, “The theory of war training is not to think, to scream ‘Why me?’ You need the physicality to forget the idea of the aggression. There is no more rationality in it. . . . After this, man has to refind himself, his soul, his essence of being.”

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The section is the first of six movements that will involve nearly the whole company by the time the iconic work opens Boston Ballet’s season Oct. 22-Nov. 1, taking audiences on an epic journey. Boston Ballet’s production is the first by a North American company since Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet made it a signature work 40 years ago. It is a mammoth undertaking, with the live performance of Mahler’s longest symphony encompassing 79 orchestra musicians, 20 members of the New World Chorale, and alto soloist Sarah Pelletier.

“When I first heard we were going to do this, I had a complex mix of emotions,” says Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee. “It’s sort of an insane project. How do you not let a piece of music that big make the dance seem insignificant? But I moved from ‘It’s a terrible idea’ to appreciating how the dance adds layers and dimensions to this masterpiece to being very excited. It should be an amazing experience.”

Neumeier admits, “I had so much against me, people saying you can’t do this piece, it doesn’t need choreography. But I think ballet is a different work of art. I could not not do it.”

McPhee adds, “When you get choreographers who are masterful at managing a phenomenal piece of music, one thing they do is add almost another line to the score, a visual rhythm, that makes things in the music pop out more, when you can see and hear what’s going on and can’t separate them. Another level is the expressive side. You don’t want to imitate or illustrate what the music is saying, but I think [Neumeier’s] managed to capture a quality that is as personal as Mahler’s expression, so it draws you into the ballet in an intimate way that you didn’t expect.”

Neumeier has choreographed eight of Mahler’s 10 symphonies; the third symphony lasts nearly two hours without intermission. The male dancers bear the brunt of the work with the opening movement. “Once we start, we don’t stop for half an hour,” says Lasha Khozashvili, who portrays the work’s central character.

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Principal dancer Paulo Arrais adds, “The physicality of this movement is beyond human, very spiritual. But even [when] the body stops, the energy has to keep on going and growing. It’s exhausting. But I think the beauty comes out of that extreme.”

Neumeier’s choreography for the women is challenging as well, demanding not just technical precision but emotional depth. Petra Conti, who dances the pivotal “ghost pas de deux” with Sabi Varga, says, “When we rehearse with John, it’s all about the emotion we should bring. He was almost crying when he talked about this piece. He puts meaning in every movement, which is what I love about him. Every movement, every gesture means something very profound.”

Neumeier explains, “The subject is the human being, which has a direct influence on our feelings. There are certain common human situations you can suggest through movement that communicate and resonate. The dancer is trained to articulate what the normal person cannot, so while he starts as very human, it leads to something very spiritual.”

Born in Wisconsin, where he began his dance training, Neumeier moved to Europe as a young man and found his artistic home in Germany, joining the Stuttgart Ballet in 1963. Since 1973, he has been choreographer and artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, which he has transformed over the years to become one of the world’s leading companies, proficient in both classics and contemporary work. Neumeier also has developed the company’s affiliated ballet school and founded Germany’s National Youth Ballet in 2011.

“He is one of the most important, profound choreographers out there,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “And this work is so monumental. It’s quite an undertaking, so deep, on an epic scale. It touches people in a way that you can’t go back to the way you were before. In one way, it’s about creation and evolution. Man discovers himself, meets a woman, falls in love. They part, and there is emptiness, sorrow, then fulfillment. . . . It goes through the whole scope of a life, an incredible journey.”

Still, the choreographer resists imparting any specific narrative to the ballet. “My theme is the music itself, and the ballet shows my very personal, specific reading of the meaning of the music.”

Though the ballet celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, Neumeier is still finding moments to dig deeper, tweaking gestures and phrases to capitalize on the dancers’ artistry.

“Ballets are works in progress,” he says.

Third Symphony

of Gustav Mahler:

A Ballet by John Neumeier

Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House,

Oct. 22-Nov. 1. Tickets

$35-$159. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org


Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.