Tag Archives: virtual bitchslap

I Dreamed a Dream

2 Jul

So I just bought my subscription to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2010-2011 season, opting for a mini-subscription which means I get to choose four of the six shows I want to see.  Jigga-what?  Surprised I’m not going to see them all?  I’m not.  For one thing, Cinderella is running the exact same time San Francisco Ballet will be doing Symphonic Variations and quite frankly, I have priorities.  The other show I chose to omit was A Midsummer Night’s Dream mostly for two reasons…the first being that I’m a little wary of Shakespeare and the second being it’s hard for me to accept Balanchine’s version knowing Ashton’s The Dream is out there too.  I can always purchase additional tickets later so I may end up seeing it anyway but I’m a bit skeptical.  I thought of watching the recording of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is actually the PNB production but ironically the Seattle Public Library doesn’t have it.  Of ALL the libraries in the world, Seattle Public Library doesn’t have PNB’s Dream.  Of course the Balanchine version isn’t available on YouTube and after the virtual bitchslap the Balanchine Trust sent me for posting excerpts of Balanchine choreography, I’m not really all that enthusiastic to seek it out.  Thus, I find myself deterred and unmotivated to see it live.  Mission accomplished Balanchine Trust…mission accomplished.  Besides, from what I gather, the Balanchine production has children in it, which is an automatic check in the minus column.

Anyway, I’m all about the Ashton love.  In fact, I might just make July Ashton month.  I have all kinds of reading material, from a tiny pocket-sized book entitled Façade to a couple of epic tomes on Ashton ballets.  Façade was a quick read…a mini-book of about a hundred pages so really it’s hardly more than a pamphlet but it covers many of Sir Fred’s earliest works and traces his lineage, from studying under Marie Rambert, influences from Ninette de Valois, Sergei Diaghilev, Bronislava Nijinska and even a little Balanchine.  I also noticed in one of the original cast lists that Antony Tudor danced for Ashton…which I find fascinating for reasons that I’m sure will make more sense in the years to come.  Façade doesn’t discuss The Dream because it was published in the fifties but it was interesting to get a glimpse at Sir Fred’s history.  He was quite young when he began as a choreographer in his twenties and of his earliest ballets only Façade and Capriol Suite survive (which is tragic for obvious reasons but even more so when I read that some of the lost works include a wealth of Greco-Roman themed ballets like Mars and Venus, Leda and the Swan and Pomona).  It was fascinating to read snippets of reviews from that period though which echo exactly how I feel today, like the genius of his patterns or his sense of comedy (except those reviewers used words like truquage).  I always feel “comfortable” with Ashton choreography and maybe it’s because I can relate to him in some ways (a late starter in ballet with a slight build) and the more I learn about him the more the addiction consumes me.

So back to The Dream, Shakespeare-aversion aside, I decided to watch it and who better to learn from than Anthony Dowell, who originated the role?  Here’s a fun fact for you…the ballet debuted April 2nd, 1964 and twenty years later I would be born!  Another twenty years later in 2004 ABT would record their own version for DVD.  So what happens in 2024?  Your guess is as good as mine…but because it is a shorter ballet I decided to make an afternoon of it, watch the Dowell and Merle Park performance, then the master class with Dowell/Antoinette Sibley and Ashton himself, then watch the ABT version with Ethan Stiefel/Alessandra Ferri.  I won’t nitpick every difference and I think ABT did a fine production but it has to be said that the Royal Ballet performance is definitely my preferred of the two for many reasons.  Under the assumption that the general populace is familiar with the story and characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’m going to skip the synopsis and get right to the point (if you don’t know at least the basics of Dream, you seriously need to read more.  Sheesh!).  First, I love that Ashton did a Victorian interpretation of Shakespeare’s play and ABT kind of watered down the costumes and hair (Hermia and Helena being the most noticeable) to a more modern aesthetic.  Second, the lover’s quarrel between Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius is one of the funniest choreographed scenes in the history of ballet including a moment where Lysander and Demetrius are fighting over Helena, who slips away from the both of them and they accidentally kiss.  ABT changed it to a mere hug, which is so very American of them and dulls the humor quite a bit.  I hate to say that I find it a little shady in a homophobic kind of way…but maybe it’s for the benefit of an uptight American audience and my sense of humor is perhaps more in line with the British.  My aesthetic certainly is, as the Royal Ballet prefers a straighter line through the wrist and the ABT corps likes to flourish with the hands a lot, which came across as a little too floppy for me.  To quote Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the phrase “Hands!  Hands in new places!” comes to mind.

As for the lead dancers, there was kind of a split—few ballerinas can tell a story like Alessandra Ferri, and who better to be the “Ferri Queen” (ha…ha…oh) Titania?  Ferri is magnificent and her partner Stiefel as Oberon is in all likelihood the cleanest dancer on Earth.  Unfortunately, Stiefel’s acting was a little off for me…he does a lot of wide eyed, crazy expressions that make his Oberon look a little loony.  You can’t take away from his technical brilliance and classical line but the characterization wasn’t my favorite.  To me, Oberon is immature, arrogant and a little abusive, but not crazy.  Enter Anthony Dowell, who has a sort of brazen, chafed look that really makes you believe he is displeased with Titania’s defiance.  Merle Park is sweet and impish, like a sassy little butterfly but what I preferred in Ferri was an ability to combine that delight with a sense of regality.  Titania doesn’t defy Oberon simply because they’re married, but because she is quite used to being royalty in her own right.  Meanwhile, the Pucks of both productions were enjoyable though, with Herman Cornejo literally flying about the forest and the Royal Ballet dancer (who I can’t identify unfortunately) being much more of a ham.

Ashton’s choreography is of course perfect and wonderfully unbiased.  He has the same love for transitional steps as he does the big flashy bravura ones with more attention towards overall effect rather than making a singular impression.  Choreographing Oberon on Dowell as he did, he took full advantage of his line and plié, giving Oberon many arabesques when the typical choreographer will give a male role maybe a step into an arabesque to start a variation or maybe a turn in that position.  Meanwhile, Ashton makes the arabesque a motif for Oberon, putting in arabesques in demi-plié, tipping over in a penchée (a move usually reserved for women), tour sauté (a series of little hops that turn in place) as well as working in and out of the position.  Para example, Ashton has Oberon do this heinously beastly series of different pirouettes, all of which have to end in a little penchée which is insanely hard given the quiet, sustained notes from the music…the effect can easily be ruined.  I had a teacher who once gave us similar exercises in class and contrary to what your brain may tell you, you have to be pretty aggressive when diving forward because hesitation won’t get you to where you need to be.  It really is as simple as getting from Point A to Point B, but ballet is kind of ridiculous.

For music aficionados, The Dream has an AMAZING score my Felix Mendelssohn (as if there were another!).  Mendelssohn has been kind of underrated in the ballet world, with this probably being the most prominent work with his name attached to it.  Ashton uses a John Lanchberry orchestration of the overture and incidental music Mendelssohn wrote that was inspired by the play.  It fits the mood so perfectly and kindled images of fireflies in dusky forests for me, which I sorely miss for you see, there are no fireflies west of the Rocky Mountains…I don’t get how Seattle people know when summer has arrived without fireflies!  Although given the weather as of late I’d say summer is still not here yet…it can’t be…but I digress.  I think the Mendelssohn score is one of the finest I’ve heard in ballet…although I’m holding out for something spectacular to his violin concerto.  Anyone up for the challenge?

I’m actually pleasantly surprised that I’ve fallen in love with The Dream (oh Ashton, you cad, you!) and that I can say I love a Shakespearean ballet.  It’s definitely up there in my top ten.  So do partake and pick your poison below (Royal Ballet or ABT as well as the master class with Sir Fred):

The Royal Ballet’s The Dream in six parts:

American Ballet Theater’s The Dream in six parts:

Titania and Oberon’s pas de deux master class in five parts:

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