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Royal Danish Ballet

‘A Midsummer Night's  Dream

February 2010
Copenhagen, Royal Theatre

by Jane Simpson



© Costin Radu

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John Neumeier is a favourite choreographer of the Royal Danish Ballet and its audiences: his Romeo and Juliet fights off all other contenders, he made his Little Mermaid for the company for Hans Christian Andersen's 200th anniversary year, and his Midsummer Night's Dream (En Skærsommernatsdrøm in Denmark) will pass its 100th performance in Copenhagen during the long run which opened last week. Dream has been in the RDB repertory for nearly 30 years but it's some time since it was last staged, so that all the featured soloists were new to their roles.

A few tips for anyone who hasn't seen the ballet before:

  • Don't take it too seriously - it's mostly an entertainment, out of the same drawer as Cranko's Taming of the Shrew and Bintley's Sylvia.
  • Forget Ashton's and Balanchine's versions - this is nothing like either of them.
  • Forget quite a lot of Shakespeare too - the Indian boy, for instance: Titania and Oberon quarrel but we're not told why. More importantly, and more hard to understand, Neumeier completely changes the character of Hippolyta - you would never guess that the timid, rather sad girl in the Prologue was the strong, proud Queen of the Amazons.
  • Be prepared for the musical coding: Mendelssohn for the mortals, Ligeti for Oberon's kingdom, popular tunes played on a barrel organ for Bottom and his crew.
  • Note that Hippolyta, Theseus and Philostrate double as Oberon, Titania and Puck - quite easy to miss if you don't know the dancers.
  • Don't let the rather tedious first half-hour make you remember that you left the oven on and must rush home - once the lovers get to the forest it perks up a lot.

Midsummer Night's Dream fits the RDB so well that you might think it had been made for them. Although Hippolyta/Titania and Theseus/Oberon get the headline casting, this is essentially a company ballet, with seven big dancing roles and two character/comedy parts of almost equal importance. Neumeier gives the quartet of lovers much more to do than in other versions I've seen, and he includes more of the story than either Ashton or Balanchine, so that the mechanicals get to do their ridiculous play in the Duke's palace. The leading couple have two big pas de deux in the last act - a private, 'awakening', romantic one and a more formal, public, classical one - but I'd bet that what most people will remember a couple of months later will not be those - however starry the casting - but Thisbe in her red pointe shoes, Bottom changing into a donkey, and feisty little Helena fighting for her love. The RDB dancers grab opportunities like these with both hands and it's good to see, especially after the rather dispiriting showing they'd made a couple of days earlier in a different programme.

 


Royal Danish Ballet in A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Costin Radu
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window


The big story at the opening performance was the appearance of the Royal Ballet's Alina Cojocaru, making her debut as Hippolyta/Titania. Although it's a bit hard on the rest of the company to have their first-night thunder stolen by a visitor, they treated her like a welcome and honoured guest - lots of applause from the dancers at her curtain call, and a kiss and a bouquet (decorated with ribbons in the Danish colours) from Nikolaj Hübbe. The 'Hippolyta' scenes - the prologue and the second act - cover familiar emotional territory for her but it was interesting to see her, in the same ballet, given the opportunity to show the other side of her talent, known to London dance-goers through her performances in Mayerling and Manon: as Titania, tricked into a passion for the transformed Bottom, she rolls around the floor with him in a display of voracious sexuality which those who've only seen her as a demure Aurora would never suspect her capable of. Her duets with Oberon consist mainly of acrobatic lifts and very tricky partnering; it's not until the two pas de deux with Theseus towards the end of the ballet that we finally get to see the true beauty of her dancing.

Lovely though she was, this was very far from a case of 'Cojocaru and some other people'. The RDB has some very classy dancers of its own, amongst them Mads Blangstrup, returning this evening to a major role for the first time after a long absence through injury - a happy occasion for the company, as he's been badly missed. As Theseus he's not required to do much more than look extremely glamorous and change from cool stand-offishness at the beginning to rapturous adoration at the end, all of which he does to perfection. Oberon, though, looks very much harder work: even with a partner as tiny as Cojocaru, all those lifts must be quite exhausting. He looked a little cautious at times but it's excellent news that he's back in good enough shape to get through the evening.

 


Alina Cojocaru and Mads Blangstrup in A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Costin Radu
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window


Of the four young lovers, Helena and Demetrius get the best choreography and are the most fun to watch. Jodie Thomas made a wonderful Helena: tiny, determined and desperate, she must have had the whole house rooting for her, although we might wish that the object of her affections - vain, thoughtless Demetrius - was a bit more worthy of such devotion. He was strongly and dashingly danced by Ulrik Birkkjæer, whilst the quieter, more temperate Lysander was sympathetically done by Gregory Dean. Good, constant, Hermia is the least interesting dramatically, but Amy Watson found enough in her to make her a real character.

Christopher Rickert has had some good roles already this season, but I had no idea he was capable of the sort of off-beat comedy that Neumeier's conception of Puck requires. He started slowly, not really hitting his stride until the bit where he tries on Helena's lost spectacles and keeps bumping into the scenery. From then on, though, he convinced me, and he also made a very elegant Philostrate in the court scenes. I doubt anyone at all was surprised to find Thomas Lund cast as Flute/Thisbe - he's a brilliant comic, whether launching himself into unsteady pirouettes on pointe or just sitting on an imaginary chair and getting on with his sewing. Neumeier makes Bottom's transformation a much subtler affair than, say, Ashton's version: no donkey's head, just a little wreath which may perhaps suggest large ears. Instead we see the man turn into the beast before our very eyes, and Jean-Lucien Massot did this magnificently, his amazement as his hands seem to become hooves unforgettably conveyed. He has a strong, masculine presence and made an excellent foil for Cojocaru's fragility in their erotic gambolling.

 


Thomas Lund as Flute/Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Costin Radu
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window


There are some nice demi-soloist opportunities for more junior dancers, too, and even a section for a dozen little girls from the school - as I said, a true company ballet and very pleasing to watch from that angle. On the way home, doubts may creep in about both the emotional content of the piece and the quality of Neumeier's choroegraphic invention, but there's more than enough fun and action, very well done, to carry us along with it in the moment.


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