"A Midsummer Night's Dream"
The Hamburg Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
February 13, 2014
by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2014 by Rita Felciano
With "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a spectacular spectacle, John Neumeier introduced his own company to San Francisco Ballet audiences who previously had seen his "The Little Mermaid" and "Nijinsky" danced by the home team in 2010 and 2013, respectively. In 1977 the American-born but by now long-time Artistic Director of The Hamburg Ballet clearly took advantage of the almost unlimited resources that European opera houses until recently provided their artists, Ballet included. "Midsummer" led Neumeier to create a grandiose show that is primarily carried its production values instead of choreographic skill and imagination.
And yet, this could have been such a welcome addition to twentieth century story ballets of which there are precious few successful ones. With "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet Connotations" Neumeier had tackled Shakespeare before but this is the work that has survived. Here he divided the tale into three distinct areas of activity: the (pseudo) Greek court, the woods inhabited by fantasy creatures, and the world of the rustics. The artifice of the woods -- something out of sci-fi movies -- was the riskiest of changes since it's about as far from an idealized sense of nature as it could be. As a coup de theatre, if not emotionally, it worked.
Giving each group a distinct vocabulary that, however nicely overlapped and coexistent with each other, at least was a fresh idea. For the courtiers he used a commonplace ballet vocabulary; the wood fairies, clad in metallic speed skaters' body stockings, mostly pliéd and stalked around in point shoes or worked the stage machinery for the trees; the rustics moved between these two extremes. Appealingly human, they also looked like simple wind-up toys whose mechanisms could use some fine tuning. The assembled score with selections from various Mendelssohn pieces, Ligeti organ music and barrel organ tunes was seamless. The Ligeti probably sounded a lot more alien at the time than it does today.
Neumeier also has that rare gift among ballet choreographers: a sense of (sometimes bawdy) humor. Some of the scenes--the play within the play, Titania's horsing around with Bottom, Puck's frantic trying to match up the sleeping lovers--are as funny and perfectly timed as anything you'd see in Shakespeare.
He also has a flair for creating characters. The Hippolyta/Titania and Theseus/Oberon fusions convinced because they suggested a backbone for Shakespeare's ever so pale Greeks. The lovers Helena/Demetrius as comic reliefs and Hermia/Lysander as the romantic couple could have come out of commedia dell'arte. His Puck, however, seemed overly frantic. But again, Neumeier tended to push the material to the breaking point; almost like beginning artists who throw every variation they can think of into the stew. Audiences are pretty smart; they usually get a point after a couple of tries.
A few times Neumeier's choreography spoke satisfyingly as dance. Titania's bed, made up of a series of bodies, was as intricate and clever as anything that Pilobolus has come up with. The pacing and the trajectories of the two pas de deux for the royals offered rich perspectives on their relationships. The one between Titania and Oberon was all about struggle between two equals, full of daring lifts, descents and oppositional pulls. The awakening had just a touch of "Sleeping Beauty" about it. At first limp, Hippolyta slowly returned to consciousness, and the dancing became more expansive as the two of them explored their love for each other.
Throughout the Hamburg troupe gave superb performances even though the divertissements in the generally helter-skelter wedding celebration needed some attention. Helene Bouchet, wispy but with the most gorgeous back was a wonder in the way even as a regal Titania she retained some of the melancholy that marked her bride. The muscular and nicely endowed Thiago Bordin's Oberon had such authority that his Theseus seemed a little pale. Anna Laudere, as the heartbroken and increasingly desperate Hermia touched my heart; her swain, the elegant Edvin Revazov as a gentle Lysander partnered her well. A charming touch was how these two lovers' pain gradually stripped them of their identity as they wore increasingly torn garments. Silvia Azzoni, all comedienne found her come-uppance with Otto Bubenicek's stuffed shirt army officer.
Much to the chagrin of movie directors, they often get their work edited to ready them consumption. What initially runs close to two hours gets reformatted into a ninety-minute sequence. Sometimes, the result is worse, sometimes better. Perhaps it might be something for choreographers of story ballets to at least contemplate.
copyright © by Rita Felciano