A summer’s dream in a Hamburg winter

More than three decades after its premiere, John Neumeier’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is still charming audiences, just as it did on a drizzly winter’s night last Friday at the Staatsoper in Hamburg.

The ballet is a bonbon, but it’s also something much more. Neumeier’s interpretation of the Dream, created for the Hamburg Ballet*, seems to me a summation of his life in dance at the time it was created – 1977. By then, he had immersed himself in the dance worlds of the United States, Britain and Germany.

With three strands of choreography, danced to music ranging from Mendelssohn to Ligeti to barrel organ melodies, Neumeier’s Dream refers, both cheekily and subtly to the choreographers he had worked with in Europe, to the hoofers he loved to watch on screen in his early days in the US and to his later passion for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes of the early 20th century.

But Neumeier’s Dream is not just an anthology or summation.

Neumeier added his own unique signature in the way his choreography expresses the warmth, playfulness and vulnerability of the mortal and otherworldly characters who populate Shakespeare’s tender comedy.

Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine had both made their versions of the Dream before Neumeier and while their ballets are probably better known, Neumeier’s is more multi layered, in that the mortal characters of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, his betrothed, Hippolyta, and Philostrat, (the Master of the Revels at Theseus’s court), all have their alter egos in the realm of the fairies and elves.

Theseus becomes Oberon, Hippolyta is also Titania and Philostrat is also Puck.

Neumeier’s production begins with a prologue in which Hippolyta reveals her anxiety about her planned wedding to Theseus.

The prologue ends as she falls asleep, like Madame Recamier on a chaise, then dreams of another place where fairies and elves make mischief and mortals wander at their peril.

In this elfin world, trees shimmer and seem to breathe in a sulphurous green glow.

Similarly, the choreography undergoes a sudden change from the mortal world, in which the lovers, including Demetrius and Hermia, and Lysander and Helena, are restrained and polite and dance in the formal patterns and vocabulary of classical ballet.

In the moonlit place, inhibitions are cast aside and eroticism rules. The pas de deux that follow have their moments of Afternoon of a Faun-like ecstasy and abandonment. Limbs intertwine, bodies pile up in comic, karma sutra entanglements and the women slide across the men’s bodies like silvery snakes.

Choreographically, however, the clock is wound back to the world of 1960s/1970s’ ‘contemporary’ ballet, in particular that of Glen Tetley and Frederick Ashton’s work of 1965, Monotones.

The dancers wear shimmering unitards and headpieces that resemble bathing caps, just as they do in Monotones.

Within the comical pas de deux of the various lovers are reminders of Kenneth MacMillan’s drunk scene in the ballet Manon, in which the villain, Lescaut, almost drops his mistress as he staggers across the stage with her upended in his arms.

Into this double Dream world enters a third layer, that of the rustic gang of Bottom, Flute, Quince, Staveling, Snout, Smug, and Klaus who in turn, begin to rehearse the characters of the play within the play, Pyramus and Thisbe.

Mendelssohn’s familiar music for Midsummer Night’s Dream (including the wedding march) accompanies the mortals’ scenes, while the fairies and elves dance to Ligeti’s disharmonious organ music, and the Rustics prance to a barrel organ churning out melodies that might just as well accompany the chimney sweeps of Mary Poppins the Musical, or the comic clog dance of Ashton’s Fille mal gardee, or a ba-boom vaudeville act of the 1920s.

There are touches as well of Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton camping about in drag in Cinderella, in particular when Flute is instructed to play the part of Thisbe. Flute slips into a dress and scarlet pointe shoes in which he/she attempts to balance yet continually pratfalls – a trick much harder than it might look at first glance. (He/she also dances in a doll-like, ballerina manner – another Ballets Russes’ moment in its nod to Petrouchka).

In Friday’s performance, Konstantin Tselikov was a loveable Flute – reluctant, bumbling yet brave and ultimately hogging his moments in the spotlight.

But the glue that holds the ballet together is the role of Puck, danced with tremendous joie de vivre and wit by Alexandr Trusch.

The running gag of Neumeier’s Dream is that the love spells cast by Puck descend into disaster due to his very silly experiment with Helena’s spectacles. He pops them on after she loses them in the confusion of the fairy world.

Peering from behind his newfangled glasses, Puck’s view of life and love is hazy at best. Such is the nature of infatuation.

On Friday, Alina Cojocaru (guesting from the Royal Ballet) was a sweetly modest Hippolyta who became a tigerish Titania and then reverted to Hippolyta who regained her composure and confidence as a regal bride.

Having recently seen the Bolshoi Ballet dance The Sleeping Beauty, it was fascinating to contrast that company’s distant formality with the humanity and warmth of Cojocaru. Those qualities were always evident even as she navigated with apparent ease Neumeier’s difficult choreography.

Thiago Bordin was her Theseus and Oberon. He is clearly a major star of the Hamburg Ballet, technically impeccable and handsome, resembling the former Royal Ballet principal, Jonathan Cope.

In the role of Helena, Hamburg Ballet principal dancer, Helene Bouchet, was charming, spirited and goofy, when called for, while the company’s newest principal, Anna Laudere, (with her beautifully arched feet), was a sleek and passionate Hermia.

The women’s partners, in their completely different roles, were eloquent and strong. They had to be – all that carrying and lifting of their lovers is tough work. Otto Bubenicek was the uptight, salute-obsessed Demetrius and Edvin Revazov the headstrong and romantic Lysander.

Choreographically, this Dream doesn’t break any boundaries but dramatically, it works very well, wrapping the audience in its cocoon of romantic comedy.

Last Friday, Cojocaru’s sparkle and charm represented the icing on the cake – or in this case perhaps, the sweetness of the soufflé.

* The ballet has been danced by many different companies including the Bolshoi and the Royal Danish Ballet. Photos of their productions are shown here. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to source any images from the Hamburg Ballet’s production.