Sunday, March 17, 2024

A Midsummer NIght's Dream at the SF Ballet

The San Francisco Ballet is currently presenting George Balanchine's 1962 dance version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in a lavish production borrowed from the Paris Opera Ballet. It was designed by Christian Lacroix using a reported one million Swarovski crystals, and my mind kept jumping to "It's Lacroix sweetie, Lacroix!" from the British comedy Absolutely Fabulous. Using a mixture of Mendelssohn's incidental music to the play along with additional pieces by the composer, Balanchine crafted a clever condensation of the entire theatrical work into an hour-long story ballet. Pictured above in production photos by Lindsay Thomas are Esteban Hernández as Oberon, King of the Fairies and Sasha de Sola as Titania, Queen of the Fairies just as war is breaking out between them and their followers over who gets to have a new pretty boy in their retinue.
Two years before Balanchine, the English composer Benjamin Britten wrote an operatic version of A Midsummer Night's Dream that is one of my all-time favorite operas. Like Balanchine, Britten and his collaborator Peter Pears jettisoned the first act of the play and plunged us directly into the forest for a night of misalliances, confusion, and magic gone awry in Fairyland. The chorus in the opera is written for boy sopranos and in the ballet there is a large contingent of fairies danced by young girls. They were skillfully enchanting at the ballet's opening night last Tuesday, and sported the most colorful Lacroix costumes of the evening.
The queer subtext in Shakespeare's play is present throughout the Britten opera, but not so much in the Balanchine adaptation, though Oberon and Titania never do dance together. Titania instead has a long duet with her "Cavalier," danced superbly by Aaron Robison, while Oberon spends most of his time with the young trickster Puck, in an athletically amusing performance by Cavan Conley.
The confusing who's-in-love-with-who quartet of Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius was more clearly delineated than usual as Puck keeps putting love potions into the wrong pair of eyeballs. (Pictured above are Elizabeth Mateer as Helena and Steven Morse as Demetrius.)
The heart of the play is the sweetly grotesque pairing of Titania and the low tradesman Bottom, whose head has been turned into a donkey. Alexis Francisco Valdes as Bottom was completely darling as a half-donkey being taught how to dance by Titania, Queen of the Fairies.
Near the end of the first act, Nikisha Fogo made a welcome appearance as Hipollyta, Queen of the Amazons, leaping through the air as if she could conquer the world.
In the second act, the ballet dispensed with the story altogether and reverted back to what I think of as Balanchine architectural abstraction.
Though I missed the Pyramus and Thisbe lampoon of tragic theater turned into comedy by amateur actors, Balanchine abstraction is always welcome. The act was highlighted by Isaac Hernández and Frances in a long Divertissement, with some of my favorite dancing of the evening.
The ballet has four more performances this week. Click here to check out the details.

1 comment:

Stephen Smoliar said...

I am afraid I was not as sanguine as you: . This production (as well as its one-time only predecessor) was staged by Sandra Jennings, who is basically the "resident Balanchine expert." My guess is that she had more trouble with the current cast than she had with her last effort. So it goes.