Shakespeare on Pointe: Dream on ... 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' Has Become a Dream Subject for Many Choreographers

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When it comes to Shakespeare, the dance as well as the play's the thing. Just as Shakespeare is universal, dances based on his plays have been and continue to be choreographed almost everywhere. Shakespeare's plots, often borrowed from other authors, in turn supply the basis for numerous ballets -- Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, The Tempest -- there's probably a Pericles knocking around in a choreographer's closet somewhere. And, as crowd-pleasers go, Romeo and Juliet rates highest on the list, up there with such all-time moneymakers as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

A close second for Shakespeare-inspired ballets is A Midsummer Night's Dream. There are more than 140 Dream entries listed in the New York Public Library's Dance Collection catalogue, ranging from Petipa's 1876 ballet to a version on ice choreographed by Kevin Cotter for the Edmonton (Alberta) Curling Club, with figure skater Michel Slipchik as Bottom. Opera has its Dream in Benjamin Britten's luminous version; film has the 1935 Max Reinhardt-William Dieterle try for Warner Bros., with James Cagney as Bottom, Mickey Rooney as Puck, and fairy scenes choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska.

Some Midsummer Night's Dream versions are, of course, more intriguing than others. It would have been fun to see Michel Fokine's early sketch, described as "after Petipa," which he choreographed in 1906 for the Imperial Ballet school examination performances at the Maryinsky. Fokine later expanded his ideas into Les Elfes, using Mendelssohn's works, including the violin concerto. The ballet is described in Fokine's autobiography as featuring "half-insect, half-human inhabitants of the forest." It was first presented by his own troupe at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1924 and later taken into Rene Blum's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Fokine also choreographed dances for the play when it was presented at the Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1925. The choreographer who brought us the spritely Graduation Ball, David Lichine (who dance and choreographed for de Basil's Ballets Russes), chose a Midsummer Night's Dream theme for his first work. His 1933 Nocturne, to music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, concentrated on the fairies; noted for its groupings and tableaux, it "had unity of purpose, clarity of expression and sharpness of outline," according to one bygone critic.

Spoken text has sometimes been incorporated into a Midsummer Night's Dream ballet, as in Heinz Spoerli's 1976 production in Basel. Many who saw John Neumeier's 1977 version, with music by Mendelssohn and Ligeti, were struck by its inventiveness and otherworldliness. A modern adaptation of the tale was performed by Tom Schilling's East Berlin Comic Opera in 1981. More recently, former San Francisco Ballet principal Robert Sund choreographed a full-length work on the Norwegian National Ballet, which will perform it again this summer. Bruce Steival's impressive evening-length version, incorporating all elements of the plot, continues in the repertory of the Reverend Moon's Universal Ballet, based in Seoul, Korea.

Last winter Queensland Ballet, headed by Harold Collins, was enterprising enough to bring his broad and boisterous one-act Midsummer Night's Dream to the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College. Although it followed the plot in essence, there were unconventional modern touches such as a newspaper displaying headlines for a royal wedding. Queensland's impressive dancers were led by Michelle Giammichele and Anthony Lewis; Shane Weatherby was a particularly exuberant Puck.

It was in the 1960s, however, that the two most celebrated versions so far were realized -- George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream for New York City Ballet in 1962 and Frederick Ashton's The Dream for the Royal Ballet in 1964.

Balanchine's Midsummer Night's Dream, his first original full-length ballet in the United States, is a charming two-acter that includes most of the elements of the play -- the lovers, fairies, rude mechanicals, Theseus, and Hippolyta -- even though he doesn't necessarily integrate them into a single plot line. …