Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Week

This week I immersed myself in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, starting with the Houston Ballet performance on Saturday, September 6. It was an amazing ballet, about which I'll write much more below. It was so wonderful, in fact, that I immediately wanted to see it again (and not just because I'd had a coughing spell that made me miss fifteen minutes of the first act -- that was just a convenient excuse to go again!). So I went to see it again on Friday, September 12, choosing that night because I wanted to see the same cast. In between the two performances, I also watched the 1999 movie version of this work (starring, among others, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Stanley Tucci). I also listened to the story contained in the audiobook Shakespeare for Children by Charles and Mary Lamb.

And I have to say, knowing the story as well as I did by the time I saw the second performance really made a difference for me. By the time the two pairs of lovers get to the woods, there is no mistaking what is going on, but during the opening scenes of the ballet, it can be difficult to understand who loves whom, who is indifferent to whom, and who is outright annoyed by whom. This is through no fault of the dancers or choreography, but simply because it's not possible to watch all of them at once, especially when different things are happening on opposite ends of the stage. When I saw it the second time, I caught many things I'd missed the first time around, in large part because I had a better idea what to look for.

In my mind, the ballet was beautifully cast. I was thrilled to see all three female prinicpals in the leading roles, and thought they each had the right one. Melody Mennite is particularly good at comedic roles (although also a beautiful, romantic dancer), and so made a wonderful Helena. Sara Webb was the lovely Hermia, and Karina Gonzalez transitioned perfectly between Hippolyta and the otherworldly (almost alien) Titania. The ballet underplays Hippolyta's role as Queen of the Amazons, making Hippolyta instead a girlish and reluctant bride-to-be without the overtones of conquest, but considering how much the ballet has to convey in such a short time, I thought this was a wise choice.

Not enough can be said about Connor Walsh as Puck. I sat in the Loge Boxes in the first performance and the balcony the second; I could have kicked myself for forgetting to bring opera glasses both times, but I could see Connor Walsh's comic facial expressions even from the balcony. My husband and I always hope to see him in the lead the nights we attend, because we think he is easily the best male actor in the company, and that doesn't come at the expense of athletic and dancing ability. He is incredibly powerful.

In the other leads roles, Aaron Robison played Theseus and Oberon. Like Karina Gonzalez, he made the transition well, looking alien and freakishly angular as Oberon, but romantic and dreamy by the time he reappears as Theseus in Act II. Linnar Looris conveyed Demetrius' arrogance and self-importance well, and was a great counter to Helena's ludicrous attempts to hang on to him. Ian Casady was appealing as Lysander. James Gotesky, one of my favorite dancers in the company, played Bottom, and Christopher Coomer also stood out as Flute, who in turn must play the female role of Thisbe in the play presented by the Mechanicals at the wedding.

The comedic elements of this ballet are terrific. Instead of having to listen to Helena in the play as she literally tells Demetrius that she will be his spaniel, and he can kick and beat her without changing her love for him, we can watch the more lighthearted interpretation in which Helena hangs on Demetrius in a pathetic manner that yet manages to be more funny than sad. By the time Demetrius and Lysander are both fighting for Helena's affections, and poor Hermia is trying to figure out what's going on, it's hysterical. And when Puck finally has to unravel the disaster he's created, his clumsy attempts to physically put the right couples together are laugh-out-loud funny. I don't think this ballet misses a single opportunity for physical comedy.

There were only a few minor things about the production I would have changed. I loved the fairy costumes, but would have liked to see the primary fairy roles (Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth) just slightly distinguished in their dress. I'm not sure how they could have done this precisely, because the usual trick of a sash or a ribbon or a slightly different color would not quite have worked with their flesh-colored, slightly metallic skin-tight leotards. There was one point when I could tell that two of these four characters were dancing, but only because I recognized the dancer, Katherine Precourt, and knew her to be in that particular role. (It says something in itself that I could recognize her without opera glasses, from that far away, while in identical costumes with her hair completely covered, but I believe I would recognize her shape and her dancing even if she had a paper bag over her head. She's intense and powerful.)

Similarly, I would have liked to see a tiny bit more to Puck's costume. I wanted something just slightly twiggy or leafy. Puck is a lot different than the fairies, and I wanted that represented a bit more.

I had one moment of disconnect when Demetrius and Helena have their spotlight dance at the wedding, in this case because of the music. I could not tell from the program what piece of music they danced to, and it's possible it was still the main composer (Mendelssohn), but out of nowhere the music for this couple because almost Asian or eastern, and slightly exotic, and somehow completely out of keeping with the comedy of Helena and with the pageantry of the rest of the scene. I have a vague idea that this music was supposed to represent Demetrius' culture or something -- in ballet, you get a lot of prospective grooms, or fathers presenting their daughters as prospective brides, with exhibition dances that clearly represent their particular ethnicity or culture. But I didn't get any hint early in the ballet that this was meant to be the case with either Demetrius or Helena.

I wish I could have also seen the alternate cast, in particular Jessica Collado as Hermia and Emily Bowen as Helena. I'd also love to see how Aaron Robison danced Bottom the Weaver, quite a different role than Thesius/Oberon.

Later this season, Houston Ballet will perform The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet. I'll be brushing up on both works in other media before seeing the ballet performances. The more you put in to Shakespeare, and to ballet, the more you get out of it.

[Top and bottom photos are Aaron Robison as Oberson and Katrina Gonzalez as Titania; middle photo is Linnar Looris as Demetrius and Melody Mennite as Helena. Photos are property of the Houston Ballet].

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