The course of true love does run smooth as Neumeier’s dream team works its magic

Just four years into his four-decade long artistic directorship of the Hamburg Ballet, John Neumeier created A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

A work for the entire ensemble, the ballet is still a staple of the company’s repertoire, a sure fire crowd pleaser, and a calling card for the company around the world. Brisbane is the latest city to see the show as a finale to the Hamburg season of music, opera and ballet at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.

Neumeier is keeping tabs on the Dream’s dream run. After the opening night last Thursday he said this was its 283rd performance.

In a speech to a gathering after the show, Neumeier explained that now, as in the year of its premiere – 1977 – he wanted to keep the ensemble busy in all his work. Nijinsky, choreographed in 2000, which had preceded the Dream this season in Brisbane, had leading roles for 15 dancers, with all the dancers in the company adding to the mosaic of the whole.

His Midsummer Night’s Dream has seven leading roles with Puck being the one holding it all together.

The mayhem created by Puck in the fairies’ forest is central to the ballet, as it is to the play, and it’s here that Alexandr Trusch works his magic in the role as the comic “merry wanderer of the night” – in Shakespeare’s words.

Falling, tripping, upended by Oberon, hopelessly confused and cheerfully trying to right his wrongs, Trusch makes Puck a lovable fool but one who, at the end, knows exactly what how he made mischief.

In the final soliloquy of the play Puck addresses the audience:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.

In the ballet, Trusch, as Puck, emerges from a back curtain and just smiles, holding the magic flower that makes everyone fall in love with the first creature they see after they wake from sleep.

And the audience get it. In fact they love it.

Neumeier’s Dream is based on a dream in which Hippolyta, who is to marry Theseus, the Duke of Athens, falls asleep and dreams of the realm of fairies in a wood near Athens.

The concept of the dream, or the sleep, is of course common in ballets, from Nutcracker to La Bayadere to The Sleeping Beauty, and is also central to the many versions of Swan Lake in which the Prince imagines the lake and Odette in a dream.

In Hippolyta’s dream she becomes the opposite of her composed yet troubled human self who is clearly worried about her forthcoming marriage to Theseus. In the fairy world, she is Titania, unrestrained in her sensuality with both Oberon and one of the comic craftsmen, Bottom (as a donkey).

For each of the three key characters in the Dream, Neumeier doubles the roles. Theseus is also Oberon, Hippolyta is also Titania, and Philostrate (master of the revels to Theseus) is also Puck. Peter Brook did the same for his landmark production of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970.

Brook believed that Theseus and Hippolyta had failed to achieve “the true union as a couple” and worked through their quarrels as Oberon and Titania.

This interpretation is also clear in Neumeier’s Dream in which the couple not only work on their differences but also their balance of power.

Guesting with the Hamburg Ballet as Hippolyta and Titania, Alina Cojocaru, first appears as Hippolyta in a bridal veil, gazing at her image in a mirror, perhaps seeing a mirror image of herself as someone less grounded in reality. As seamstresses carry her wedding train and she places a tiara on her head, her anxiety over the wedding is palpable.

As a superb actor-dancer, Cococaru’s subtle interpretation immediately brings the qualities of vulnerability and lovableness to her role of Titania.

As Theseus, Thiago Bordin is both restrained and regal. Blessed with a princely physique, Bordin is also an exceptional actor who quickly transforms himself into an impish yet bossy Oberon, who orders Puck to do his bidding and is threateningly irritable when it all goes wrong.

Anna Laudere is charming as Hermia, hopelessly in love with Demetrius (Kiran West). In Neumeier’s interpretation, Hermia is shortsighted and sweetly naive, so she wears both glasses and a bonnet which Puck finds and wears in scenes reminiscent of Frederick Ashton’s playful bits of business in his ballets Fille mal gardee and Cinderella.

Helena (Leslie Heylmann) and Lysander (Edvin Revazov) are the more romantic couple – a tall, willowy and dreamy contrast to the petite Hermia and the fusspot Demetrius, who salutes and runs in the opposite direction when she comes close.

Choreographically, Neumeier’s Dream does not break a great deal of new ground. The humans dance classical ballet steps, with a fondness for a gallop into a jete, and the fairies move in the manner of 1970s’ contemporary dance, with upstretched arms, deep plies in seconde, fan kicks and roll downs in the Pilates warm up and cool down style.

The music equates to the choreography – Mendelssohn for the humans, well played by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Simon Hewett, and recorded electronic organ music by Ligeti for the fairy creatures.

The costumes and stage design by Jurgen Rose are impressive, with the humans in Regency attire and the fairies in shiny, snakeskinny unitards with sparkly skull caps which reminded me in Brisbane as they did when I saw the ballet last January in Hamburg, of the costumes for Ashton’s Monotones.

The dancers in Brisbane knew their roles intimately, with the casting there almost identical to that of Hamburg, with the exception of the roles of Helena (danced by Helene Bouchet in Hamburg) and Bottom/Pyramus who was danced by Lloyd Riggins in Hamburg and Carsten Jung in Brisbane.

The human and fairy layers of Neumeier’s Dream are united and empowered by a third layer – the Craftsmen otherwise known as the ‘mechanicals’.

In the play Puck describes them as:

A crew of patches, rude mechanicals,
That work for bread upon Athenian stalls,
Were met together to rehearse a play
Intended for great Theseus’ nuptial day.

The craftsmen dance to mechanical sounding hurdy gurdy music emitting from the belly of a barrel organ wheeled around the stage by Klaus, the organ grinder, a character created by Neumeier.

Klaus is not a dancing role (he is played by Eduardo Bertini, who is also the production coordinator of the Hamburg Ballet) but he captures in a droll and lugubrious manner the Waiting for Godot-like demeanour of a backstage hand whose job is never finished.

Dancing by turn like pantomime dames and chorus line boys, the Craftsmen are all excellent in their individual ways, with Konstantin Tselikov as Flute/Thisbe, a comic highlight in his pointe shoe-inducing pratfalls and entrechats.

The crowning achievement of the evening, however, was the elegant pas de deux of Cojocaru and Bordin in Act II, the Awakening and the Wedding, in which her pirouettes and calm balances became a metaphor for the happy resolution of this tale of chaos.

The Hamburg Ballet season continues until September 5.

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