As a few of you know, I went on a quick outing to the San Francisco Opera House last night to see Hamburg Ballet perform John Neumeier’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I have to admit my bias for this particular ballet straightaway, as I danced Titania myself when I was younger, and it had to be one of my favorite roles of all time.
Having initially premiered in 1977, the ballet features Felix Mendelssohn’s classical composition starkly contrasted with Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s postmodern works for organ and harpsichord. The ballet opens on a striking scene: Hippolyta standing shy of center stage in her wedding veil, train extended behind her, framed by a rectangle of light. Soon, the wedding preparations are in full swing. The lovely costuming sets the scene in the early 1800s, the dancers’ empire wasted gowns complimenting their movements with a mere flutter about their ankles. Characters are introduced with little pomp, the scene unfolding rapidly, drawing the audiences focus all about the stage. With the wedding veil, the many seamstresses, and the men of the court rushing about Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius are woven in and out of the groups of dancers,telling their stories with quick couples interactions. Soon, the audience is whisked off to the fairy realm as Hippolyta falls asleep, clutching a red rose that reappears thematically throughout the ballet.
While we spend little of the ballet in the fairy realm proper, it leaves quite the impression on the viewer. The fairies are represented as alien creatures; their staccato movements and flesh toned unitards very reminiscent of Merce Cunnigham, with deep plies and skittering angular movements across the stage. They struck me as almost insect like, with their king and queen in shimmering, fish scale unitards and matching skullcaps. Hamburg-trained Alexandr Trusch undoubtedly stole the show as Puck, embodying the mischievous spirit to a tea: hanging like a monkey from the sets, bumbling about, and comically wearing the articles of clothing lost by the lovers as they stumbled through the woods. What I found most refreshing about this production was the abundance of laughter from the audience- the story line was initially intended as a comedy, after all.
While the tension between Oberon and Titania is palpable, the ballet bypasses the source of the conflict (and most of Titania and Oberon in general), focusing instead on the lovers’ odd love triangle, and the character development of the rustics. Bottom’s transformation into a donkey has a lengthy and comical lead-up, but is quickly repaired, along with all of Puck’s intended chaos. The music fluctuates between the modern Ligeti and the classic Mendelssohn, creating a disjointed sort of atmosphere. Much of Act II revolves around the great wedding celebrations, that of Hippolyta and Theseus, as well as Helena and Demetrius, and Hermia and Lysander. The wedding is grand and romantic, quite appropriate for upcoming Valentine’s Day, yet admittedly had so many false endings the audience could not differentiate between dance and curtain call.
In all, I’ve decided that I admire Neumeier’s work, and though at times his artistic choices may not be my absolute favorite, they are bold and distinctly styled, for which I give him great credit. There is no confusing his work with anyone else’s, and while I longed for the fairies to be traditionally “fairy like,” his take on the ballet as a whole was distinct and enjoyable. One of my favorite moments happened to be the way he chose to end it: with Puck, emerging from the wedding party in secret, smiling with magic red rose in hand, as billowing clouds of fog collided behind him. The clouds parted, revealing Titania and Oberon having one last moment together as the curtain descended.
I so enjoyed this production of “Midsummer” and would recommend that everyone go see it, but keep in mind its final run is tonight (two days is far short a time, Hamburg Ballet, just saying)! I will be highly surprised if the performance does not sell out (if it has not done so already) as guest artist Alina Cojocaru is scheduled to perform the roles of Hippolyta/Titania. It’s highly anticipated, to say the least. Maybe I will see you there.