Irene Hsiao

Hamburg Ballet’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the War Memorial Opera House, February 12-13, 2014

Photo by Holger Badekow

Photo by Holger Badekow

Of all Shakespeare’s characters, I might aspire to be something grand and evil, a Lady Macbeth or a Volumnia, an uncompromising Coriolanus, a keen-witted Beatrice, but I know deep down that I am a Helena, awkward, ambitious, and unable to be loved without a lot of help from fairies who feel their intervention would somehow increase their amusement. It was therefore with some anxiety that I noted that instead of the willowy blonde Helena indicated by Shakespeare’s text, John Neumeier’s version contained all the classic visual markers of incorrigible dorkdom: heavy black eyeglasses, shrimpy little body, and she’s wearing a Little House on the Prairie style bonnet, for crying out loud. A picture of neurosis, she runs on stiff legs, hands tensed into fists—she actually rips her own bodice open at one point, she’s trying so hard. I have no pictures of this because, unsurprisingly, such figures don’t sell ballets. I had to remind myself that, as Neumeier said when I interviewed him earlier this week, this was not Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but a ballet inspired by that text. I will have to periodically remind myself of this as I write. [1]

The scene that greets the eye when the curtain rises, of Hippolyta trying on her wedding gown in front of a billowing blue silk backdrop, is visually striking but difficult to follow. This is not Hippolyta the Amazon. This is Hippolyta the nervous bride, dragging a ten-meter train like a ball and chain. The stage fills with a hive of attendants who sew and groom and otherwise seem to reinforce the idea that a wedding is the most sartorially significant day of a girl’s life. In the hubbub, the mechanicals enter as a mass, whirling and bobbing around each other like a deranged cuckoo clock—who let these yokels into the royal bedroom, anyway? Overwhelmed, the girl takes a nap. But you can’t try to find the story in Neumeier’s Midsummer, which makes Demetrius (Otto Bubenicek) an officer and Lysander (Edvin Revazov) a gardener and turns the initial premise of arranged marriage into a convoluted scene of note-passing that inexplicably drives everyone like hounds into the woods.

Photo by Holger Badekow

Photo by Holger Badekow

Lit by electric stars and filled with foil trees, the woods are as foggy as the surface of Mars before scientists realized there was no water on it. The fairies, dancing to the migraine-inducing strains of Gyorgi Ligeti, are hairless and strange, made of ice and moonrays, streamlined for contortion. They don’t seem to take much pleasure in frolicking through the forest; rather, they are compelled by instinct to make petroglyph shapes with their bodies. The divine Hélène Bouchet, skittish and demure as Hippolyta, becomes a radioactive Titania ruling over an inhospitable domain. The feud between her and Oberon (Thiago Bordin) seems to have no cause other than that she prefers roaming the stage astride some other fairy’s shoulders.

At this point, I began regretting that I had so assiduously reread the play before watching, because the words of the Bard stick in the mind and attempting to narrate the action will only make me feel swindled and dull. (Though the fairy costumes did echo the line, “And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin / Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in”—Titania and Oberon wear fabulous scaled unitards that made them look like demonic reptiles—yes! So literary!). Anyway, isn’t it a bit stupid that I should try to retell a tale already told perfectly? So the melee in the woods begins properly with the entrance of the Athenians. Helena’s glasses fall off as she kicks her little legs in the air, dangling over Demetrius’s shoulder in an effort to take him down, because even funnier than rabid dorky girls that no one wants is a rabid dorky girl who can’t see anything (to her credit, Silvia Azzoni played the role with an intensity that did not lapse into cuteness). The fairy trickster Puck (Alexandr Trusch) puts them on and looks insufferably hipster (ok, the glasses are actually a nice choice, emphasizing the errors distorted vision can lead us to, much like the folly of love, while at the same time providing a plausible reason for his mistakes, which is something even Shakespeare got wrong—fairies never make mistakes; only humans do).

The love juice. This is not the love that leads Hermia to declare she would rather join a convent “Ere I will yield my virgin patent up / Unto his lordship, whose unwished yoke / My soul consents not to give sovereignty.” No, the best way I can describe it is like reverse roofies, because everyone who gets a dose becomes alarmingly rapey, tearing off their clothes and grabbing at each other’s soft parts. Titania gets her hit and comes onto the transformed Bottom. This is usually played for laughs (I mean, that’s the point, right? Pranking your immortal spouse?), but in this version, it is not funny—because Bottom the Weaver (Carsten Jung) doesn’t get more than very fake looking ass ears clipped onto his head and he is otherwise a shirtless man who clearly spends way more time chopping wood and slinging stray shot puts than winding balls of yarn, and why wouldn’t you, if you were a healthy serpentine empress with the entire woods under your icy command, prefer that to your shiny unitarded mate?

By daybreak, everything has gotten very out of control and dirty, and by that, I mean that the hair falls out and the costumes get ragged and everyone has caked soot on their faces. In other words, it’s like a very bad hangover. No one knows exactly how, but everyone winds up with the right lover, so who cares? End, Act I.

There was a second half to this ballet that mostly consisted of wedding festivities and a portrayal by the mechanicals of “a tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe, very tragical mirth.” And it was.

Photo by Holger Badekow

Photo by Holger Badekow


[1] Frederick Ashton’s 1964 The Dream is one of my favorite ballets. I saw it some years ago danced by the Joffrey in Chicago. It’s a concise and clever gem, capturing the drama and the characters in bright, poetic strokes in a single act that lasts less than an hour. The humans are pretty much interchangeable, leaving the focus on the fairies, which we all know are the real stuff of ballet. The play in fact supports this interpretation—Lysander argues,

I am, my lord, as well derived as he,
As well possess’d; my love is more than his;
My fortunes every way as fairly rank’d,
If not with vantage, as Demetrius’;

Later Helena describes her idyllic youth embroidering and such with Hermia,

We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds,
Had been incorporate. So we grow together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition;
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one and crowned with one crest.

Neumeier’s Midsummer is not this, though, as others have pointed out, the fairy scenes seems to draw from another of Ashton’s ballets, Monotones II.

It should also be noted that the dancers of the Hamburg Ballet are utterly exquisite.

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5 comments on “Hamburg Ballet’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the War Memorial Opera House, February 12-13, 2014

  1. Eva Bovenzi
    February 14, 2014

    Just saw the ballet tonight with Alina Cojoracu. Too bad she wasn’t given more to do. The male dancers were especially, good—Konstantin Tselikove as Puck and Silvano Ballone as Demetrius were standouts. But WAY too many lifts and awkard, almost dangerous, descents. I feared for the men’s spines. I actually enjoyed Bottom’s troupe most of all.

    • irenechsiao
      February 14, 2014

      Ahhh! You saw Alina Cojocaru!!!!! Tell me more!!!!!

      I liked the little divertissement at the end, too, but honestly worried that doing “bad” ballet is rougher on the body than good ballet —

  2. Andrew Chen
    February 15, 2014

    if all dance reviews could be as illuminating as this, i think the art of ballet appreciation would be elevated to another level in our culture today. this prompts me to dive into the bard’s words once more.

    • irenechsiao
      February 15, 2014

      what an incredibly generous comment! and you can’t go wrong reading Shakespeare, unless you read Comedy of Errors…

  3. Pingback: Hamburg Ballet, Othello and Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler at the Harris Theater, 23-27 February 2016 | Irene Hsiao

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