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A Modern Dream for a Midsummer Night

Northern Ballet Theatre - 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

by Kate Snedeker

February 24, 2004 -- Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

As a night train speeds northwards and Mendelssohn's music darts along, Northern Ballet Theatre's new production of the classic "A Midsummer Night's Dream" unfolds. David Nixon's fairy tale takes a different track, set not in Ashton or Balanchine's lush fairy world, but in the ballet world, following the travails of a company traveling via night train to Edinburgh.

Not surprisingly, all is not well in this fictional ballet company, with the artistic director (Theseus), a suave Jonathan Ollivier, calling an end to the ballet career of his prima ballerina and fiancée (Hippolyta), played by Keiko Amemori. Four other principal dancers, Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius, are caught in relationship tangles of their own, while Nick Bottom the carpenter, the stage managers and wardrobe master carry on drama off the stage. All are observed by Robin Puck, the jaunty Ballet Master.

Nixon sets the ballet in three acts, the dream world of the second act caught between the "real world" of the opening and closing acts. Duncan Hayler's sets and Nixon's costumes hint at 1940s or 1950s Scotland, the jumble of vivid colors in the dream world standing out against the black and white of the "real" world, creating a "Wizard of Oz" effect where the dramatic contrast of colored dream against black and white reality emphasizes the fantasy of the dream.

In setting up the story, the first act falls into the trap of mixing too much drama and not enough dance. While Northern Ballet Theatre's trademark is a unique combination of the two arts, it is a shame to waste Mendelssohn's wonderfully danceable music. That said, the opening sequences of the ballet, with the company rehearsing "Romeo and Juliet" were full of fabulous dramatic comedy, with spot-on comedic timing and lots of athletic leaps and catches. Amemori and Ollivier were brilliant in the lead roles, believably human in the waking world and delightfully impish and fairylike in the dream. Christian Broomhall's cherubic Robin Puck was much more effective as the Ballet Master, with his alter ego clad in an unflattering bright blond wig and non-descript unitard, and deprived of much real dancing. A glimpse of Broomhall's crisp, quick dancing was given in the final act, but one wished he would be allowed to stop twirling his ever present walking stick and really let loose.

Hayler's combination of clever lighting effects and set design made it feel as if the train bearing the company to Edinburgh was speeding through the theater. Yet, the actual train set was cluttered and set too far back on the stage, making it hard to discern who and what was happening in the various berths. Perhaps it is not the exact detail that matters, but one needs to see the dancers to keep interest in the action.

When the quarreling company finally drifts off to sleep, the production really hits its stride. With a upside-down silver train, giant eye and beds hanging from the ceiling, Hayler creates a truly unique fantasy world, equal parts James Bond and fantastical fairyland. Nixon's costumes are less enthralling, with Oberon, in horned helmet, looking more like the lead from Discord and War in George Balanchine's "Coppelia" than a fairy king -- and the elven cavaliers, with long blond hair and green tunics, reminiscent of their "Lord of the Rings" brethren. But, the great white winged dress for Titania, the brightly colored fairy costumes and the simple underclothes of the human lovers were both appropriate and attractive.

Here the dancing really comes alive, with stunningly timed acrobatic, yet smooth dancing from Christopher Hinton-Lewis, Adam Temple, Pippa Moore, and Nicola Cross. As the beds rise and descend, lowering their occupants into the increasingly and amusingly confused dream world, the dancing increases in intensity, the women being lifted up, slid between legs, balanced, thrown and contorted, all without nary a slip or bobble. It's just the right blend of humor, sexiness and athleticism. Even Darren Goldsmith's Bottom gets a chance to hoof it himself, a delightful galloping, prancing little solo.
Nixon's choreographic talent also is revealed in the flickeringly quick variations for the fairy and elf retinue. The fairies spin delicately on en pointe, ably partnered by the athletic elves.

The only sour note is the overdone romance between the potion-drugged Titania and Bottom. A charming duet ends with overly loud donkey braying, which goes from amusing to annoying when the couple retires to her bower in the giant eye. Shakespeare was bawdy, but he did with wonderful wit and twists of the tongue.

Hippolyta and Theseus reunite in a beautifully realized pas de deux, which works with the music and the mood in all the ways their first act pas de deux did not.

With the lovers' quarrels finally sorted out, the train arrives at Waverly Station and a run of "Romeo and Juliet." After a triumphant opening night, the company reunites for an after-party and celebration of three engagements. Lovers are happy, Theseus has realized the error of ending Hippolyta's career, and joyous dancing results. The swing influenced dancing brings out the best in the company. It's jazzy, energetic, supple, flowing and groovin', and not at all forced. And, in a twist, perhaps fitting for a British company run by a North American, the night ends with Shakespeare's closing verse as read by Ohio-born Broomhall's American accented Puck!

Music by Mendelssohn and Brahms was arranged by John Longstaff and conducted by John Pryce-Jones. Richard Kenwood-Herriott was the onstage pianist, with additional stage direction by Patricia Doyle.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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