Hamburg Ballet: A Midsummer Nights Dream
Optus Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, 31 August
Hamburg Ballet’s production of John Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was in fine balance to its signature work Nijinsky, performed the week previously, showcasing the versatility not only of the company dancers, but also of Neumeier himself as choreographer.
This balletic take on the Shakespeare classic had its world premiere in 1977, early in Neumeier’s tenure as Artistic Director of Hamburg Ballet, but as Neumeier himself says, the work is still evolving and therefore appears as fresh and contemporary as if created yesterday. Faithful to the original tale apart from minor detail, it sparkles with humour and a lush sensuality that is captivating.
Music is pivotal to the work. Not only does Neumeier describe each of its three worlds of the aristocratic Athenians, the fairies and the craftsmen by their movement vocabulary, but also by the accompanying score and its method of generation.
Thus you have Mendelssohn’s original incidental music to the play performed live for the aristocrats and a recording of the shimmering organ music of György Ligeti for the ethereal world of the fairies. For the craftsmen or mechanicals, there is the mechanically generated music of a barrel organ.
The ballet opens with the wedding preparations for Hippolyta to Theseus, Duke of Athens. Opulent, blue silk curtains are the backdrop to this short prologue, which buzzes with such frenetic activity, it pulls the focus in multiple directions.
We are introduced to the main protagonists of Hippolyta (Hélène Bouchet), Theseus (Ivan Urban), Philostrate (Alexandr Trusch), Helena (Leslie Heylmann), Hermia (Mariana Zannotto), and Demetrius and Lysander (Kiran West and Carsten Jung). Neumeier quickly establishes each character’s personality with both the music and detail in the choreography.
The colour palette is of creams and pale blues, the costume design (Jurgen Rose) elegant Regency. The movement evokes the refinement of the classical idiom, all pulled together with charm and a gentle ironic wit.
As the blue silk billows away in a dissolve to Hippolyta’s dream world of the fairies, revealing a scene of smoky green blackness, the live orchestral music also cross fades to the luminosity of Ligeti’s Volumina for Organ.
The setting is matched in its otherworldliness by the fairies in shimmering unitards of creamy lycra with head hugging helmets to match. The movement also changes dramatically into a more organic construct of sharp percussive courus, sometimes in wide fourth position, angular shapes, and thrusting arms and legs.
As is often now the practice since Peter Brook’s seminal 1970 theatre production, Neumeier casts the same dancer in the role of Hippolyta and Titania, as Theseus and Oberon, and as Philostrate and Puck, thus neatly and logically tying the world of the Athenians to that of the fairies.
In this performance, Bouchet is a languid, serene Hippolyta; long limbed with finely arched feet and gloriously expressive arms. She is an equally fierce Titania, sinuous in sequined lamé as she wraps herself around Oberon, and also around the hapless Bottom (Lloyd Riggins) in a love duet of understated comedy.
Urban matches Bouchet well, with a commanding presence on stage as both characters. However, his acrobatic lifts of Titania in the beginning of Act I had some awkward moments.
The four lovers are each totally committed in their characterisations; but as the hapless and bespectacled Helena, Heylmann stands out for her beautifully detailed comic performance.
It is clear that Neumeier does not use broad, brush strokes in his interpretations. Rather he imbues his work with a detail that adds such depth it enriches our understanding almost without our being aware of it.
The Hamburg Ballet has made an indelible impression on audiences in its first tour to Australia. It is a company where each dancer is valued an individual, and chosen it seems as much for their ability not only to dance, which they do with impeccable technique and effortless style, but also to act. We can only hope for a return visit.
- DENISE RICHARDSON
The final performance of Hamburg Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at 7.30pm, 5 September 2012.