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

by Cassandra

March 17, 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Shakespeare knew exactly where his "Midsummer Night's Dream" took place -- in a wood outside Athens. Just where you would expect to find that mythological Athenian hero Theseus and his Amazonian love Hippolyta. Except, shouldn't it be an olive grove? And what wrong turning caused those very English mechanicals to appear on the scene? Modern stage directors solve these little inconsistencies by locating the play anywhere that takes their fancy and David Nixon has chosen the most familiar milieu he knows for his "A Midsummer Night's Dream": a touring ballet company where the cast all become dancers or stagehands.

Theseus (Hironao Takahashi) is the Artistic Director about to marry his prima ballerina (Desire Samaai), and as the ballet opens, Robin Puck, the ballet master, is finishing his class. The following rehearsal of "Romeo and Juliet," complete with Prokofiev's music, breaks down into a real life brawl between Demetrius and Lysander over their love object, Hermia. Theseus loses his temper in a torrent of Japanese and his day goes from bad to worse when he tells Hippolyta she won't be dancing Juliet. She isn't ready to exchange dance for domesticity, and as he tries to console her in a pas de deux, her mood changes from misery to ecstasy and back to anger again.

In the next scene, the company boards a train at Kings Cross station en route to their next engagement. Poor unloved Helena (Pippa Moore) pursues her former lover, Demetrius, who now only has eyes for Hermia, and a lovesick Nick Bottom, the company carpenter, casts loving glances at Hippolyta. On board the train everyone is either pursuing or falling out with everyone else. It's midsummer night and as the train heads north Theseus has a dream…

In the second act we fly into the realms of sexual symbolism with a giant rocket -- with what appears to be a furry phallus attached to an angel's wing on top, poised to pierce the retina of an enormous eye. Theseus has become Oberon, master and manipulator of all those troublesome dancers that are now under his control with Puck doing his bidding. The lovers descend to the stage in beds previously suspended in mid-air and resume their muddled shenanigans. Puck tries to sort them out and makes things worse.

In the mechanicals' play, Bottom performs as Pyramus, complete with bulging codpiece, opposite the camp Wardrobe Master in drag as Thisbe. Theseus sees a chance to humiliate Hippolyta/Titania when a donkey's head is lowered on a cloud. With Bottom transformed and Titania obviously captivated with the sexual possibilities of his tail, the ballet follows a more familiar course with a small corps of fairies punctuating the action with the fast steps that Mendelssohn's score dictates. Takahashi performs a thrilling scherzo and after Puck has solved the problem of the lovers, Oberon and Titania are reunited in a romantic pas de deux.

The third act opens in Edinburgh's Waverley Station with the magic of midsummer's night lingering in the air. Hippolyta has accepted her new life without dance and Helena and Demetrius are in love again. Everything has changed. Could all this be down to their enigmatic ballet master Robin Puck who enigmatically dances atop the train?

The final scene shows the dancers taking their calls after "Romeo and Juliet," which had been danced by Hermia and Demetrius. The dancers gather on stage to celebrate the future unions of the three couples, and the entire company jives the night away. Robin Puck steps forward and delivers the play's final speech: a tying up of loose ends.

This was a wonderful version of a very familiar ballet/play. Much of the first act was movement rather than dance, and the final scene at the party was more like the finale of a musical than the closing moments of a ballet -- but this is unimportant, as the sheer originality and vigour of this production gives a real "feel good" quality to the work from beginning to end. The choreography has some wonderful moments full of originality and humour, especially the amazing double work for the initially mis-matched Helena and Demetrius. The tiny Ms. Moore danced fearlessly with Christopher Hinton-Lewis as she was thrown into the air in gasp-inducing movements. This was a girl who threw herself into her role in more ways than one!

The sets are breathtaking: the best sets I've seen on a ballet stage in years, and designer Duncan Hayler is to be congratulated on his sheer ingenuity as a ballet studio changes into a train station and a station into a theatre -- all clever stuff. The 40's costumes by Patricia Doyle with Dior style "new look" dresses and large picture hats, put me a little in mind of the film "The Red Shoes," where another ballet company was seen embarking on a train journey. The music came as a bit of a shock as I wasn't expecting Brahms in the last act, but then Mendelssohn's incidental music doesn't quite stretch to three acts, and even allowing for those snippets of Prokofiev, there's a lot of dancing that needs accompaniment.

It's rare now for a choreographer to even think of tackling a new three act ballet, and I'm immensely happy that there’s at least one around who is able to do so and to thoroughly succeed.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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