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Royal Swedish Ballet

'En Midsommarnattsdröm' ('A Midsummer's Night Dream')

by Kate Snedeker

March 17-18, 2004 -- Kungliga Operan, Stockholm  

There are very few ballet companies comfortable with a wide range of choreographic styles, and even fewer that can seamlessly blend classical and modern ballet, comedy, drama and folk dance into one stunning performance. However, to find this kind of high-quality ballet, one need look no further than the Royal Swedish Ballet’s performances of John Neumeier’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

In his production, Neumeier takes a unique approach to adapting Shakespeare’s story for the ballet stage. While versions by George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton clearly separate the human world from the fairy world, and the fairy world is all a dream in David Nixon’s version, Neumeier blurs the line between the two worlds.

It seems as if the entire fairy world exists only in Hippolyta’s restless pre-wedding dreams, but Theseus’ court master of ceremonies, Philostrat, who appears in the dream as Puck, crosses the line between dream and reality. Left on the bare stage after all the wedding guests have departed, his proper expression dissolves into a gleeful smile as he pulls out Puck’s red flower from his pocket, and in a cloud of fog, we are transported back to the world of Oberon and Titania.

This production is stunning simply for the sheer amount of action onstage. From the antics of Bottom’s friends to the deliberate, coolly smooth gyrations of the dream-beings, to the frenetic fights of the human lovers, the choreography teems with details in both technique and characterization. With this much choreographic detail, the performance could easily be sloppy, but the impressive attention to detail and naturalness of the dancing were indicative of the obvious time and care that went into the coaching by Johanna Björnson, Pär Isberg, Roy Sandgren and Ivalyo Valev. While the timing in the corps was not always perfect, the detail given to each and every role could only have come from ample coaching and rehearsal.

On Wednesday, the performance was led by Anna Valev as Hippolyta/Titania and Olaf Westring as Theseus/Oberon, both elegant in the more traditional prologue and 2nd Act pas de deuxs, and mysteriously sinuous in Neumeier’s eerie fairy world. They were impressive in the tricky lifts, especially the signature pose with Titania on Oberon’s shoulder, which must be done slowly and deliberately, but completely smoothly. Westring was notable for his very finished technique, with fluid connections, clear positions and high, fast double tours.

The following night, Marie Lindquist and Dragos Mihalcea struggled with some of the lifts, but were touching in the pre-wedding pas deux. In most productions, the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta is only roughly sketched out, but here the pas de deux illustrated a youthful, deep and passionate love. Mihalcea’s long lines enhanced Lindqvist’s elegance, and his solo during the wedding was powerful.

However, on both nights the performance belonged to Göran Svalberg. As both an irrepressibly mischievous Puck and delightfully stuffy Philostrat, Svalberg was simply outstanding. Onstage for nearly the entire performance, he looked most comfortable in Neumeier’s choreography for Puck, bounding with ease through series of barrel turns and swinging upside down from the center tree. He also showed great comic timing, whether it be clowning around with Hermia’s glasses, swinging from the tree on stage or gleefully leading the rehearsal’s of Bottom’s play.

On both nights, the roles of Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander were performed with a delightful mix of humor, impeccable timing and solid technique. Nathalie Perriraz and Katarina Laitakari alternated as Helena , while both Katja Björner and Nathalie Nordquist were delightful as the slightly bookish, bespectacled Hermia. On Wednesday, Brendan Collins was an earnest and amusingly overzealous Demetrius, who stood out for his solid partnering of Laitakari. The following night, Nikolaus Fotiadis, a more endearing Demetrius, showed off his impressively fast pirouettes.
The first Lysander, Pascal Jansson had long elegant lines, which he displayed in high, airy grand jetes. Sebastian Michanek was a more fluid, dreamier Lysander with a smile that clearly had worked it’s way into Hermia’s heart.

Through all of the frenetic, humorous chases and “wrestling matches” of the mismatched lovers, all were outstanding. The divertissements in the wedding scene were also notable for the controlled, elegant, but energetic dancing.

The only disappointment in these scenes was the weak transformation of Bottom into his donkey form, the ears more feline than equine. Thus, the transformation relied more on acting than appearance, but thankfully Hans Nilsson was more than up to the challenge of the dual role! Nilsson also was notable for his display of strength and control in the scene where, on hands and knees, he must sway slowly forward and back as the entranced Titania stands upon his back.

The choreographically weakest, although still interesting, scenes took place in the eerie dream world where Neumeier’s fairies/dream-beings held court. All the dream-beings are dressed in Jürgen Rose’s white unitards and tight white caps, Oberon and Titania distinguished by their silver caps. It’s a risk to put a company with such a variety of body types into costumes as unforgiving as
white unitards, but here it works because of the solid technique and well-rehearsed choreography.

With György Ligeti’s deep, sonorous and often-disharmonious organ music providing the musical setting, the dream-beings move in a deliberate, cool way. In their plain, androgynous white unitards, wreathed in fog, the dream-beings capture the essence of dreams. Dreams occupy a vague part of our consciousness, and are essentially colorless and amorphous, for once awake we remember dreaming, but only rarely, any details of the dreams themselves. Neumeier’s choreography here is often fascinating, with Titania’s male retinue lying down, providing a living bed, that then roles as one, sliding Titania down the row of bodies.

Neumeier’s humans never completely enter this foggy dream world. When the two collide, we see the humans moving in extreme slow-motion, impressively done, across the stage, wreathed in the fog. Just as they cannot penetrate the dream world, dreams remain a world that we can never truly be a part of…they end, we wake up to reality. Yet, this dream world is tiring, and it is a relief when Mendelssohn’s cheery music brings the action back to the human world.

In his choreography, Neumeier also cleverly slips in references to other “Midsummer Night’s Dreams” and other choreographers. While Bottom stays soundly on two flat feet, his friend performs Thisby en pointe. The dream beings channel Apollo, with the legs of the arabasqueing trios mimicking Balanchine’s famous pose. And, like Balanchine, Neumeier includes children in his fantastical world, students from the ballet school in the roles of Hippolyta’s train bearers and Theseus’ pages.

Even the more minor roles are given a great deal attention, with obvious care and time taken to flesh out the characterizations down to each gesture and step. Standouts included Saul Marziali’s noble En hovmålare (court painter), and especially all of Bottom’s gang. The seven bumbling thespians were outstanding, whether in their flex footed, perfectly timed-mistimed hoofing, slow-motion tumblings across stage or in the final inept version of “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Including a whole, if condensed version, of the play could be a liability in a ballet of this length, but this adept cast makes every moment worth watching, most notably Matthew Tusa’s gamboling as the utterly adorable lion and Gunnlaugur Egilsson’s turn as the en pointe Thisbe, well timed pratfalls and all!

With all joining together for the joyful, but elegant wedding, each wedded couple dancing in turn, and the final return to the dream world, where Oberon breaks the spell on Titania, the tale comes to end. A remarkable mix of drama and ballet, one cannot help but be enchanted and impressed by the spell that the Royal Swedish Ballet casts in the production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Tobias Ringborg conducted the outstanding Kungliga Hovkapellet. Jürgen Rose also did the scenery, and Patrik Andersson designed the lighting.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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