American Repertory Ballet
New Brunswick, NJ
February 26, 27, 2015
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (premiere)
-- by Jerry Hochman
The two ballet versions of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” most familiar to audiences are those by Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine. Both ignore the first part of the play, which introduces the characters and sets up the forest fantasy. In his new production, American Repertory Ballet’s Artistic Director Douglas Martin has decided to remedy the situation by presenting a version that includes the dream’s antecedent action – or, as he has described it, the ‘human’ part of the story.
That’s all well and good, but there’s a reason why the first part of the play isn’t included in the Ashton and Balanchine incarnations. Compared to the ‘dream’, its pace seems relatively plodding and confusing, and the additional characters and factual background add little if anything to the attractiveness of the fantasy. It was much easier to dispense with the stories of Hippolyta and Theseus (which Balanchine addresses tangentially, at the end of his ballet), and Hermia’s father’s demands, and simply to accept the presence of the mixed-up lovers and fairies in the woods as a ‘given’. Further, Felix Mendelssohn created music only to accompany the ‘dream’, not the events that lead to it. So Martin here faced multiple challenges – to create an Act I, including patching together appropriate music, that will add something essential to the action; and to formulate an Act II that can rival those of other ballet ‘dream’ incarnations, but also be within the financial and technical capabilities of his company. While I have concerns about certain of the choices made, particularly with respect to Act I, to a large extent he’s succeeded.
First, the unabashed good news. Act II, by far the more significant portion of the ballet, is wonderful. I smiled from beginning to end. While some of the choreography and staging bears a surface resemblance to other versions, that’s a necessary consequence of the story – there are only so many ways to show the wayward lovers wandering through a forest, or to separate one from another to facilitate fairy intervention. Much more significant are its differences from other ballet versions: this ‘dream’ contains interesting and novel ideas that make Martin’s version worth seeing regardless of any flaws the ballet may otherwise have.
Some of these ideas will be addressed below, but particularly noteworthy is the way Martin has integrated the chorus, here the Rutgers University Kirkpatrick Choir, into the action. The two costumed lead singers are positioned downstage left and right as the Fairies and Fireflies prepare Titania for dreamy slumber, adding texture and visual interest to the scene without making it appear overly busy. The balance of the choir, thirty women strong, is placed upstage behind a scrim so that they blend into the set and their voices appear to emanate from the depths of the forest. This choral support is repeated to beautiful effect as the ballet ends. Whether borne of necessity (there may have been no other place to put them) or artistic inspiration, it’s a brilliant coup de theatre that elevates Mendelssohn’s choral reverie from a delightful musical curiosity to an integral part of the fantasy environment, and which helps make Martin’s production truly magical.
I saw the ballet in its initial two performances in New Brunswick -- Thursday’s world premiere, and Friday with cast changes in some significant roles. My response to the nuts and bolts of Act I became more positive on second view, so perhaps some of my concerns reflect both the comfort level of the cast (the overall performance quality in Act I improved on the second night) and my own lack of familiarity with the pre-dream details. Nevertheless, and although it’s not without merit, Act I is somewhat problematic.
The backstory has its own backstory. Having defeated the Amazons in war, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is entitled to wed Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons – a spoil of war perhaps, but a development not considered unusual in this myth/fairy tale context.
As Act I begins, humans and fairies gather to attend the nuptials. Accompanied by her handmaidens, Hippolyta is first seen at Theseus’s palace preparing, mentally, for her wedding to her former adversary: regretting her loss of independence, dreaming of prior power relationships (including with Oberon, King of the Fairies) that she’ll no longer enjoy, but looking forward without regret to her union with Theseus. Oberon spies Hippolyta through pillars that separate the palace garden from the forest, crosses the boundary, and the two thereupon share a remembrance pas de deux. Theseus subsequently arrives with his retinue, including Philostrate, Master of the Revels, to discuss wedding plans, but they’re interrupted by Hermia’s father, Egeus, who pleads with Theseus to follow Athenian law, and order his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, Egeus’s chosen groom (for whom Helena, Hermia’s friend, pines), rather than Hermia’s love, Lysander. Also wandering onto the palace grounds are several ‘rustics’ petitioning to appear in a play to be performed at the wedding. Eventually, Theseus orders Hermia to comply with her father’s wishes, but Hermia and Lysander concoct a plan to elope to Lysander’s aunt’s home deep in the forest and outside the boundaries of Athenian law. Helena reveals the plan to Demetrius, and eventually nearly everyone makes their way into the woods…and into Act II.
Seeing the genesis of the legal and familial battle that leads to the forest fantasy, as well as the predicate predicament of the lovers, is a helpful aid, one that Shakespeare himself recognized by crafting the play as he did. Similarly, making Hippolyta a focus of attention is an interesting idea on many levels, as is her having had a prior relationship with Oberon – the borderline between mortals and fairies and the nobility of individuals representative of each is somewhat porous to begin with. And Hippolyta’s feisty dances with the ‘rustics’ are marvelous.
But what happens on stage in Act I at times undermines the clarity that presenting the pre-dream information is intended to provide. The appearance of Oberon and his pas de deux with Hippolyta occurs too soon after the ballet begins; it’s an unexpected intrusion and the duet looks somber (not inappropriately) and forced. Perhaps had it been staged as a memory, rather than a ‘real time’ duet, it might have worked better. Worse, there seems to be insufficient contrast between this pas de deux and a subsequent one shortly thereafter between Hippolyta and Theseus, which is equally non-passionate (she’ll be a dutiful wife, and maybe she even venerates her conquering husband to be, but she’s not in love with the guy). And then there are these two nuns who suddenly appear in full habit upstage right (representing an option that Theseus presents to Hermia if she refuses to marry Demetrius – execution or life in a nunnery), but they don’t do anything besides visualizing ‘what’s behind door number 2’.
Of greater concern is the presentation of the characters Egeus, and Philostrate. Egeus is cardboard; he has no function other than to be a nasty father who only wants what’s best for himself, and comes across as a hyper and unfunny annoyance – though, to be fair that’s essentially what he’s supposed to be. What Philostrate is supposed to be is unclear, even, apparently, to Philostrate. In the play, Philostrate is Theseus’s combination administrative assistant, entertainment producer, and wedding planner. Here, Philostrate prances around somewhat aimlessly with some scrolls in his hands, shows a few to Theseus for approval as if he were a distant cousin of Catalabutte (the king’s functionary in “The Sleeping Beauty”), and otherwise acts like a puckish jester of sorts, smiling vacuously and trying to make everyone happy. The character doesn’t work. (I recognize that Martin may have attempted to draw a subtle connection here between Philostrate and Puck, since they’re played by the same dancer. He does the same with Hippolyta’s handmaidens, who morph into Titania’s fairy entourage. But this fairy/human connection – as if one society is a ‘mirror’ of the other society – is not emphasized, and comes across more as a necessary consequence of available dancers rather than a fairy/human social commentary.)
Also, the set, though effective, may contribute to the stage looking busier than it should. The columnar boundary separating the palace from the forest, although an ingenious device that allows passers-by to wander to and from the palace portico, diminishes the available stage space. There’s not enough room for the dancers to move expansively, or for the choreography to breathe.
But with Act II, Martin sprinkles fairy dust in the audience’s eyes. It’s impossible not to love it.
The opening scene, where assorted Fairies and Fireflies frolic in the forest, sets the mood, and is a visual knockout. The dances for Titania and her fairy retinue are lovely – and more than that, they’re interesting to watch evolve, and they exemplify Martin’s facility for choreographing stage-spanning action. And the penultimate dance in the piece – the pas de deux between Titania and Oberon – is beautifully crafted, and includes a relatively unusual partnering position (Oberon repeatedly directs and secures Titania’s movement with his arm positioned across her back), which adds an inherently otherworldly quality to their dance.
Beyond the integration of the chorus, there are other ingenious touches in Act II that take it far beyond the ordinary. When Puck attempts to carry out Oberon’s instructions, his attempts to identify the lovers is somewhat of a throwaway, but it’s hilarious. (He’s a fairy, after all, and a hermaphroditic one at that; how would he know?) Having the besmitten Titania’s lovemaking with the Ass formerly known as Bottom take place with the shell-bed’s back to the audience, so only her ecstatic arms are visible, is a cute and funny touch. The conclusory pas de quatre of sorts (the two commoner couples, Hippolyta and Theseus, and Oberon and Titania) ties the romances and the story together neatly. And the piece’s concluding image – after the other characters depart – of Puck grabbing the Changeling, placing him/her/it on his knee (in most versions, the Changeling is a boy; here the Changeling’s sex, if there is one, is intentionally unclear), their backs to the audience, and presenting to his little friend the twinkling world that belongs to the fairies, is every bit as wonderful as Balanchine’s ending.
My only complaint with Act II is the number of stage slaps. One or two are funny; after that, the device becomes slap-shtick.
Samantha Gullace is perfect for the role of Hippolyta. She’s a relatively tall, dominant-looking dancer who possesses an innate regality that Martin’s choreography exploits. Although she (as well as much of the rest of the cast) seemed a bit nervous at the ballet’s premiere and had some difficulty finishing phrases cleanly, her execution improved considerably as Act I continued, and she handled the scene with the ‘rustics’ with impressive timing and demeanor. Her Theseus, Mattia Pallozzi, looked somewhat lost on Thursday, and although his acting improved on Friday, some coaching to help him add a sense of gravitas might be helpful.
At the premiere performance, Alexander Dutko’s Oberon was the model of a fairy king; his execution, partnering, characterization, and overall élan were flawless. His Titania on Thursday, Karen Leslie Moscato, danced both powerfully and delicately, and reprised the feather-light bourrees that she displayed so vividly as the company’s Juliet. Friday’s pair of Oberon and Titania was less successful. Shaye Firer did excellent work on her own as Titania, but her Oberon, Marc St-Pierre, appeared uncomfortable in the role. But for excellently executed turns in fifth, everything from make-up to timing to partnering looked off.
For the four human, non-royal lovers, two dancers split the roles of Hermia and Demetrius, while Helena and Lysander were played by the same dancer each night. Thursday’s Hermia, Nanako Yamamoto, dances with clarity and displayed sufficient comic ability, but the histrionics were on a lower decibel level than those of Friday’s Hermia, Monica Giragosian, who shared Ms. Yanamoto’s technical skill (though perhaps with a bit less finesse), but was considerably more colorfully animated. St-Pierre did a commendable job with Demetrius on Thursday, but Dutko brought the same superior comic qualities and timing skill to his role as Demetrius at Friday’s performance as he did to Oberon the previous night. As Helena and Lysander, Andrea D’Annunzio and Cameron Auble-Branigan performed well both evenings.
The character of Puck ties the story together – if that performance doesn’t work, no matter how good the rest of the cast may be, the ballet fails. Jacopo Jannelli delivered a marvelous Puck – filed with energy, humor, and heart. And Joshua Kurtzberg’s Bottom was presented with appropriate comic flair.
The other participating dancers are too numerous to specify here, but they all did fine jobs, adding texture and an important ‘likeability’ factor to the performance. But I must mention the Changeling, Emily Jorgensen, a student dancer from ARB’s affiliated Princeton Ballet School. It’s a non-dancing role, but her animated face and gestures made it easy to understand why Titania and Oberon were fighting over her.
Finally, the performance of the Mendelssohn music by the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, under the leadership of Kynan Johns, Director of Orchestras at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, was top notch in every respect, and contributed immeasurably to the overall success of the production. And the costumes and cute pointed fairy ears added visual credibility (costumes designed by Michelle Ferrante; wings and headpieces designed by Cathy Hazard).
Although Act I may require some fine-tuning, overall, Martin’s new “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a delightful addition to ARB’s repertoire, and a particularly welcome fantasy on a cold winter night.