March 10, 2018
The premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Dresden marked an intriguing juncture in the development of ballet. Two English choreographers share the bill: Fredrick Ashton, the man who established the English Royal Ballet tradition, and David Dawson trained in that tradition and now taking it into a new dimension. Despite there being over half a century between Ashton’s The Dream (1964) and Dawson’s The Four Seasons (2018) and for all their obvious differences, this pairing made a curiously satisfying evening.
It was also a remarkable evening for the Semperoper dancers, a dynamic and cosmopolitan ensemble, who showed their ability to master the seismic changes that have taken place in ballet training and performance over this period.
Dawson has enjoyed a long and creative relationship with the company and although a number of the cast of sixteen are new to his work, they rose to the demands as to the manner born. In The Four Seasons, he reaches a new level of maturity, and despite the huge outpouring of energy, the ambience is enigmatically reflective. From the opening scene, a stage alive with arms quivering like spring tendrils, the work deftly synchronises with Max Richter’s iconic score, structured meticulously to reflect the constant changes in mood and dynamics, depth and tempo. Dawson’s characteristic choreography of soaring lifts and hyperextended limbs finds a new configuration, a quiet confidence and clearer definition, the pieces fitting in the puzzle with ease and accuracy.
This is an ensemble piece: sixteen dancers committed heart and soul from the first step with prominence given to three central couples. Sangeun Lee, a gentle beauty whose limbs of infinite length and grace constantly catch the eye, had a strong and able partner in Gareth Haw. I loved the youthful attack and unbridled enthusiasm in the coupling of Alice Mariani and Julian Amir Lacey that threatened to bubble over at any moment and did in one blissfully alive instant. Jón Vallejo who has worked with Dawson for many years, can always be relied on to come up with the goods and tonight was no exception as he blazed like a comet across the stage while his partner Zarina Stahnke, showed an appealing vulnerability belied by incredible strength. But there was challenging material for all (not to mention the challenge of the quick changes of lycra body-suits on hot sweaty bodies). Yumiko Takeshima, Dawson’s long-time costume collaborator, opted for simple unitards in a range of muted shades that show the working bodies to perfection.
With Dawson you expect high artistic standards in all elements, but this ballet exceeded expectations. As Dawson breathes new life into ballet’s formal frame, Richter’s recomposed Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, tempers the heady baroque passions into postmodern intensity, the solo violin brilliantly performed by Daniel Hope with Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Benjamin Pope. Eno Henze, set designer, and Bert Dalhuysen, lighting, have between them conjured a constantly changing display of shape, colour and light that places the dance in a setting where it glows like a jewel.
Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, which opened the programme, is a comic masterpiece roughly an hour long and packed with fine choreography ranging from classical pas de deux to high comedy to virtuoso dance. Titania, (Anna Merkulova) and Oberon, (Denis Veginy) are a feisty pair, more at home in the dark Romantic forests of Lower Saxony than the leafy home counties and with just a touch of Henry Fuseli.
Veginy was a brooding presence from the opening, a demanding master of young Puck and a fiercely passionate lover in the final duet. Merkulova, was a flirty, bubbly Titania always ready with a sharp riposte which made her enchantment all the more embarrassing. Ashton’s choreography can be a challenge for dancers trained in the Vaganova style and Veginy definitely seemed more at home in the virtuoso sections. Titania and her fairy host fared better, a perky and precise cohort, with neatly pointed feet exquisitely dressed in David Walker’s intensely Romantic costumes.
James Potter, plucked from the corps to play Puck had a night of it. With a jump that explodes like a firecracker, pirouettes that spin to order, topped by a lively personality, he was eminently suited to the role and thoroughly deserved the huge cheer he got at the curtain calls.
This is a ballet that gives satisfaction in both dance and drama. The quartet of confused lovers were excellently cast: Christian Bausch as Lysander and Casey Ouzounis as Demetrius, scored with inherent comic skills, aided and abetted by Aidan Gibson as Helena and Svetlana Gileva as Hermia. Ashton’s witty choreography is a gift and the quick glances, catches and near misses were all expertly timed. Alejandro Martínez was a lusty Bottom in donkey guise and appealingly honest in his befuddled recounting of the dream.
Semperoper Ballett had the guidance of Antony Dowell, creator of the role of Oberon, to add the finishing touches to the ballet and his expertise and attention to detail was evident in a fine recreation. The Four Seasons is a co-production with the Dutch National Ballet so hopefully there will be many future opportunities to enjoy this intriguing and stimulating double bill.