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Hamburg Ballet

‘Ein Sommernachtstraum’
(‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’)

June 2006
Hamburg, Opera House

by Norman Reynolds


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On Wednesday June 28th the Hamburg Ballet danced John Neumeier’s ‘Ein Sommernachtstraum’, the 262nd performance since its 1977 premiere. Since 1798 there have been more than 50 ballets based on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, including Balanchine’s 1962 version and Ashton’s ‘The Dream’ of 1964. Most of them use Mendelssohn’s music, often supplemented by other music. Neumeier’s treatment is much longer than either Balanchine or Ashton, in fact he fills in the gaps left by Shakespeare. He too uses Mendelssohn’s incidental music, opus 61, but supplemented by other Mendelssohn music from ‘Heimkehr aus der Fremde’, op 89, ‘Ruy Blas’ Ouverture, op 95, Overture ‘Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt’ op 27 and Incidental music to ‘Athalia’, op 74. This music is reserved principally for the aristocratic mortals, Theseus, Duke of Athens and his court. For Titania, Oberon and the Fairies we have some Mendelssohn with organ music on tape by Ligeti, including ‘Etude No 1 – Harmonies and Volumina’ and ‘Continuum for Cembalo and Etude No 2 for organ – Coulees’. For the mechanicals there is a barrel organ playing music from an LP entitled ‘Musikautomaten unsere Grosseltern’ consisting of traditional music and a fragment of ‘La Traviata’. So in this way the three layers of ‘society’ are differentiated.

Neumeier doubles up some of the main roles:- Helene Bouchet was Hippolyta/Titiana, Otto Bubenicek Theseus/Oberon and Yukichi Hattori Philostrat (Theseus’ Master of Ceremonies)/Puck.

Prologue - We begin in Hyppolyta’s room at court, a curtain and pelmet at the back, a daybed and an artist’s easel, an artist is painting her portrait. A very large train for her wedding dress is receiving its finishing touches, with several embroidresses sewing away. We meet the lovers, whose story begins to unfold. The dance idiom is modern classical. The artisans present their text for the play. Hippolyta is left alone. She reads a love letter from Lysander to Hermia, dropped on the floor. She falls asleep and starts to dream as the daybed makes its way offstage.

Act One – the fairies appear. They wear sleeveless silvery, grey-green tights with close fitting shower or swimming caps. Titiana and Oberon wear tights of a more gold-brown hue, giving the impression of netting, but in fact more like lycra covered in sequin-like spots. Their shower caps are more silvery. Overall a wet look. The dance idiom is modern – lots of slow arm movements, rather like swimming, but more vertical than horizontal, it must be moving about, not in water, but in a different medium, probably a different dimension. There are three clumps of bare-rooted willows which rearrange themselves from time to time in different patterns. Caught by the moonlight they glisten most wondrously. In their roots live the fairies. Mist floats in the air. Often the backdrop is a starlit sky. Later we shall see the fairies walking in slow motion, walking across the stage, walking backwards across the stage. The mechanicals occasionally appear and vanish again, wheeling their three-wheeler barrel organ. The lovers, lost, enter and re-enter.

The lovers are well differentiated. Demetrius, Alexandre Riabko, wears a military dress jacket, Lysander, Ivan Urban, a check jacket, bespectacled Helena, Joelle Boulogne, a short red bodice, Hermia, Anna Polikarpova, an elegant white dress. Puck steals Helena’s spectacles. Wearing them may explain why he makes a real mess of the magic flower and causes such confusion. The spectacles have a psychedelic effect on him. The dancing too is spectacular, vicious, Macmillanesque, only more so. Titiana walks on Oberon’s shoulders effortlessly and reaches up to the stars. She disappears, reappears and floats in a mass of upside down fairy legs, and melds into them again like a slug. Demetrius treats Helena like a sack of coal, whirling her around and flinging her on the ground. Not once, but often. Puck labours hard to fit the right lover to the right lover. He throws and drags them together, and always ends up squashed between them. But no matter, he is in a different dimension and finds a wormhole to wriggle free. He is always smiling, a puckish little puppy making up to Oberon, and boy can he dance solo.

The mechanicals, I thought, were less easily identifiable. Even their names were changed – Zettel, Flaut, Squenz, Schlucker, Schnauz, Schnock and Klaus – guess which is which. Perhaps they looked more Germanic than Elizabethan English. Probably Shakespeare’s wordplay in this instance is impossible to express exactly in ballet. Balanchine treats them very cursorily. It improved when they got their costumes – Lion with his hand-knitted dreadlock wig and the bloody handkerchief, Moon, Sun, Wall was two conjoined characters with extended hands, that is it was like a curtain with an artificial hand at each end of the curtain pole, like a pair of clown’s trousers with a man in each leg. Imagine how that was choreographed! The star was Flaut as Thisbe, Stefano Palmigiano, at first given a pair of pink pointe shoes in which (s)he gave a fetching performance. At the actual show she had bright scarlet shoes to match her lips and cheeks. Overall they were hilarious and quite up to the original play. There were several nice touches, such as the Alain-like pointing from ‘La Fille’. They seemed to enjoy it. The audience certainly did. Zettel the weaver, Lloyd Riggins, is Bottom, also Pyramus. He wears, I think boots, not pointe shoes as in Ashton, and asses ears rather than a complete donkey’s head. Just as well considering the elaborate dancing for this scene.

Act Two – The Forest, Hippolyta’s Room, all is resolved. The Duke’s Castle:- at the back an entrance with curtains draped artistically at either side, several colourful flower arrangements, a grand defilement of the whole company, pas deux from the lovers. More dances. A second act in the tradition of classical ballet. Then the play within the play. More dancing, we think it’s all over. Shakespeare did: he wrote the end of this play as if he had a train to catch. If you’re watching Neumeier and you have a train to catch, you let it go. Then Titania and Oberon reappear and dance a fantastic final pas de deux.

Hamburg audiences tend to reserve their applause to the end, but on this occasion there were so many brilliant performances that applause was inevitable. At one time the orchestra had to play forte forte to break through the applause and keep up with the flowing action. Allow ten to fifteen minutes for curtain calls, flowers. John Neumeier appears – standing ovation.

Weren’t the dancers tired after all this – maybe, but tomorrow it’s ‘Fenster Zu MOZART’.

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