"A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Northern Ballet Theatre
March 5, 2008 – Edinburgh Festival Theatre
Over the last few years, Northern Ballet Theatre has brought a series of mostly underwhelming productions to Edinburgh. This year, however, the company has returned with a revival of the sparkling "A Midsummer Night's Dream". First presented in 2003, Nixon's ballet is a truly original dance version of the Shakespeare classic. Set on the sleeper train from King's Cross to Edinburgh Waverly in the late 1940s*, "A Midsummer's Night Dream" not only strikes a special chord for Scottish audience, but is also the finest example of the dance-theatre hybrid that is the company's trademark. Perfectly attuned to the strengths of his company dancers, Nixon's choreography cleverly captures the passion, chaos, humour, tumult and drama that result when the worlds of fairies and humans collide.
In Nixon's "A Midsummer's Night Dream" the Shakespeare's human characters are re-conceived as members of a ballet company. Lysander, Demetrius, Helena and Hermia are principal dancers, Puck the ballet master and Nick Bottom the company carpenter. To simplify the story line, Nixon eliminates some characters, but slightly oddly chooses to keep the less central Theseus (the Artistic Director) and Hippolyta (the prima ballerina), rather than the fairy rulers Oberon and Titania. Here, Hippolyta is in love with Theseus, but their romance is derailed when he decides in the midst of a rehearsal for "Romeo & Juliet" that it is time for her to retire. After a chaotic rehearsal, the company slides into the berths on sleeper bound for Edinburgh. When Theseus finally drifts off to sleep, his dreams transport the company members into the fairy realm.
To create the 'ballet company' atmosphere, the curtain is left up while the audience is arriving, revealing a semi-staged, semi-natural warm-up. While giving the dancers less privacy, it sets the stage for the ballet by blurring the line between reality and fantasy. The production contrasts stage-real with the stage-fantasy through the use of colour; the palette for the ballet company is black and white, the fairy world a riot of colour. The use of black and white is particularly striking as Nixon (also the costume designer) has an eye for pattern and contrast. The costumes, combined with Duncan Hayler's outstanding sets make the ballet feel like it's snatched out of an old black and white film. Hayler's sets are also some of the finest created for the ballet stage. The centerpiece is the train set –improved from the cramped original – which zooms out of the station and then splits into sections, each representing a sleeper compartment. As the story plays out, the sections are spun around to reveal cramped berths. The constant 'open and shut' motion of each section allows the story to move back and forth between characters and interactions.
But it is not the sets alone that define this production, but the combination of clever scenery with inventive choreography and top notch dancing. In some other Northern Ballet Theatre productions, Nixon's choreography comes across as a poor second to the storyline. However, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", the dance flows naturally into the story and vice versa. Mixing Mendelssohn' with a bit of Brahms, Nixon succeeds both in stage skimming corps work and an elegant pas de deux for Hippolyta and Theseus. The highlight of the ballet, though, is a truly inventive and side-splitting series of 'battles' between the four human lovers. When Puck causes chaos by dousing the wrong man in the magic love potion, Helena finds herself wooed by two men, Hermia by none. Chaos ensues in the form of a beautiful choreographed comedic sequence, with the two men grappling, wrestling and playing tug-of-ear over Helena. At one point, all four end up in one of the beds, the men fighting over Helena, whose trying to escape whilst Hermia is battling for attention. A huge amount of precision and strength needed to manage the tricky jumps and acrobatic moves, and all four dancers are outstanding.
Pippa Moore and Christopher Hinton-Lewis appeared in the first tour of the ballet to Edinburgh in 2004, and were superb as Demetrius and Helena. Georgina May and Kenneth Tindall completed the human quartet. Aside from some issues with the diction in his few spoken lines, Hironao Takahashi, tall and elegant, was the perfect Theseus. He had little difficulty with the fast petite allegro steps in his solo, though the floor seemed to magnify the sound of the landings. Keiko Amemori doesn't yet have the gravitas that the now retired Chiaki Nagao brought to the role of Hippolyta, but was touching in her own way. No fault could be found in the partnering between Takahashi and Nagao, which was smooth and natural.
While the leading dancers were of high quality, the corps dancing – particularly that of the men – was noticeably weak. The company has seen a number of departures in recent years, especially amongst the up and coming male dancers. Currently the company has but two principal dancers, and just five men above coryphée level. This lack of male talent was likely the impetus to reconceive Robin Puck as a female role. Nixon's Puck, even when danced by a man, was fairly androgynous, so the switch of sexes is not as jarring as might be expected. In fact, Victoria Sibson's take on the crop-haired balletmaster was to me far superior then that of her male predecessors. Sibson has a knack for timing, and the ability to convey a whole thought with the slightest flick of a hand. Where the gender-reversal did come up short was in Act 2. Nixon's choreography was created for a demi-caractere male dancer, and Sibson, though technically clean, lacked the muscular strength and power to really pull off the jumps and beats.
In the end, Northern Ballet Theatre is about dance and theatre, and it's the characters and the details in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that make it such a delight. Darren Goldsmith's Nick Bottom is a sweet, but simpleminded carpenter who has a brief transformation into a donkey. Goldsmith, one of senior dancers in the company is a consummate actor, as well as a solid dancer. Steven Wheeler's prissy Wardrobe Manager is a howlingly delightful collection of gay clichés, all in good fun. He's matched by the sternly-suited Stage Manager, a black-bobbed Ginnie Ray. The attention of these dancers to the detail in their characters is second to none, and their dedication raises the level of the ballet up a notch.
In the end, all wake up from their dreams, and each lover finds his or her proper match. By the time the sleeper pulls into Waverly, all is well, and the performance in Edinburgh is followed by a trio of engagements. The boogie-woogie 'cast party' doubles as a chance to showcase each couple or dancer, providing a fond farewell. Bravo to Northern Ballet Theatre, and may the company travel up north again with such a wonderful production!
*For those not familiar with British trains, Edinburgh Waverly is the main train station in Edinburgh. There is still a sleeper train from London to Edinburgh, but it departs from Euston Station. In addition, despite the name in the program, I don't thiink there has ever been a sleeper called the Flying Scotsman (which was the name of an engine and also now the nickname for one of the direct afternoon trains to London). The sleeper is know as the Caledonian Sleeper.