January 22, 2021
Back on March 6, 2020, San Francisco Ballet gave its first performance of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 34 years. Thanks to COVID-19 and a city-wide shutdown, it was to be the only performance of the run. How appropriate, therefore, that the company’s 2021 Digital Season should open with the ballet, and a recording made in the empty War Memorial Opera House just after that March evening. Beautifully filmed and danced, it was just the tonic for a cold, grey, snowy winter day.
Balanchine’s ballet may not quite have all the characterisation of Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, made two years later, and especially for Oberon and Titania, but he remains faithful to Shakespeare’s play. In Act I, to the Mendelssohn score used by Ashton, he shows with brilliant clarity the spat between Oberon and Titania, and the confusion caused by Puck’s misadventures with magic spells and the four human lovers.
Balanchine then goes a step further and, using music from other Mendelssohn works including Symphony No.9 and the overture to Son and Stranger, in Act II shows us the coming together of fairy and human worlds three-way wedding between the Duke of Athens and Hippolyta, Helena and Demetrius, and Hermia and Lysander. Full of gorgeous choreography, it is very much a plotless response to the music, dance with very much the atmosphere of a formal, regal wedding, albeit one under the stars in the forest. Balanchine even manages to give us a sort of ‘play within a play’, rather cleverly transforming it into a ‘ballet within a ballet’, a sublime pas de deux danced by a fourth couple who do not appear anywhere else in the work.
Cavan Conley as Puck energises the stage, stealing every scene he is in. Mischievous, impishly naughty and playful, he is just perfect, especially in the havoc he creates in his dealings with the human lovers. Supremely confident in his own abilities, the look on his face that suggests it’s the humans who are the problem rather than him, is a delight. He also produces some super jetés and dizzyingly fast turns.
Those humans are fabulous too, especially Sarah Van Patten as Helena, at first somewhat confused and unloved, then even more confused and hilariously over-loved.
Whereas Ashton leaves us in no doubt that, despite their tiff over the Changeling Boy, Titania and Oberon really do love each other, Balanchine suggests the relationship is a little more diffident. They do make up in time for the Act II wedding, but even here there is a cool formality about them. Interestingly, they never really dance together, which maybe says much.
Esteban Hernandez is a strong Oberon, full of royal bearing. His batterie in his fast and difficult solo is gin clear. As Titania, Sasha De Sola melts with the music. She also makes the most of the duet with the now donkey-headed Bottom. Balanchine’s approach here is comic but quite touching and tender. I love the moment when she gently teases him with a handful of grass, which he shows rather more interest in than he does her.
Balanchine makes the most of the 24 children (here from the San Francisco Ballet School) who dance as assorted bugs, giving them ‘proper’ choreography and roles. It is they who first introduce us to the fairy world, and they who get to reclaim the forest at the end.
Crowning everything is that Act II ‘ballet within a ballet’, however. Perhaps Balanchine’s most evocative depiction of mature love, the pas de deux with Ulrik Birkkjaer and Frances Chung is quite irresistible. Subtle and full of grace, it is, dare one say, also a ‘dream within a Dream’.
Chung is unbelievably light. Every step, every articulation is spellbinding. She finds time everywhere, and suspensions in unexpected places. There is one moment where time almost seems to pause as she falls then melts into Birkkjaer’s arms. His partnering is strong yet soft. His face is a picture of happiness. A magical couple dancing magical choreography. You really don’t want it to end.
Right from the opening curtain that resembles a glittering spider’s web and giant spider, Martin Pakledinaz’s sets are divine too. His Athenian wood is dark and mysterious but never frightening. I particularly like the Act II designs with its slim pillars and trees that look like cut outs. His tutus are gorgeous and his colour-coordinated costumes for the human lovers make it easy to identify who is who.
The magic continues right to the end, Puck carried aloft on a spider’s web as the children return as fireflies, their light shimmering in the darkness.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is available to February 10, 2021. Visit www.sfballet.org for tickets.
San Francisco Ballet’s 2021 Digital Season then continues through to June. Click here for details.
Next up, from February 11, 2021, is a triple bill featuring a new work from SF Ballet Soloist Myles Thatcher alongside archival captures of Dwight Rhoden’s LET’S BEGIN AT THE END and Mark Morris’ tongue-in-cheek Sandpaper Ballet. Click here to purchase digital packages.