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. Act II features a wedding celebration with a brief windup in the forest so that Puck (a role originated by Arthur Mitchell) can saunter on to clean up -- "I was sent with broom before / To sweep the dust behind the door" -- thus bringing the revels to an end.
A fixture in NYCB's repertory, Dream is now traditionally performed at the end of NYCB's spring season (and this year from July 15 through 18 during its Saratoga stint). It is an ideal production to display Balanchine's overall vision, including as it does numerous parts for children from the School of American Ballet, character parts, and neoclassical pas de deux for the principal couple (originally Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow) who dance the Act II divertissement. Balanchine, we're told, was himself an elf at age eight in a Midsummer Night's Dream production in St. Petersburg, so it's not surprising that his memories of performing in it and other Petipa ballets, such as The Sleeping Beauty, should prompt him to include enchanting parts for children. Mr. B choreographed the all-important roles of Titania and Oberon on Melissa Hayden and Edward Villella. Suzanne Farrell, a memorable Titania, danced the role with Villella in a 1966 movie, directed by Dan Eriksen. Maria Kowroski, a fast-rising NYCB corps member [see Dance Magazine, September 1996, page 54], made an impressive debut in the role last year.
When Ashton choreographed his long one-act ballet The Dream, he was, recalls Dame Antoinette Sibley, "taking a risk with Anthony [Dowell] and me." They were an untried partnership when Ashton cast them, without telling them, to begin with, that they were portraying Titania and Oberon. "We thought we were one of the pairs of lovers," says Sibley. "It began to dawn on us who we were when the little boy, the changeling, came in. Then one day Fred said, `You're the leaders of the inhumans.' In preparation I read every page of the play. It was a gorgeous and wonderful experience made even better when we saw the sets and costumes by Henry Bardon and David Walker. The only thing was, for the first performances, Fred made me temporarily dye my hair green, which wasn't a good idea because it was hard to get out. Later I had a wig with ringlets -- `to dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,' as Titania says at one point.
"In the great reconciliation pas de deux," Sibley continues, "Fred visualized us ... as one body -- Anthony and I were similar in proportion. He wanted everything mirrored, speedy, but with a melting quality. Anthony is a left turner and all our diagonals were different. A falling-at-an-angle look was a leitmotif through the choreography. First night was the homage to Shakespeare's four hundredth birthday, but at that time, The Dream wasn't a smash hit. I think all the screams and huzzahs went to Rudolf [Nureyev], who danced Hamlet and in Kenneth MacMillan's Images of Love, based on Shakespearean sonnets. But, of course, The Dream has remained in the repertory and even become a classic. Anthony and I danced it for twenty-five years! I've coached every single Titania ever since, my latest being Sarah Wildor, who people say looks a bit like me."
In honor of Sibley's close association with The Dream, a bone china Coalport figurine of her as Titania was recently issued through the auspices of the Royal Academy of Dancing, of which she is president, as part of its limited collection.
Because of its undeniable Englishness, new British productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream seem to be mounted often, two notable past ones being Alex Roy's for his London Ballet Theatre in 1981 (music by Rossini) and Robert de Warren's for Northern Ballet Theatre the same year (to Mendelssohn). If anything, however, U.S. regional companies are embracing it just as enthusiastically. Dreams have been dreamed up by the Louisville, Berkshire, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh ballets, to mention just some. Bruce Wells's full-length production, premiered by Connecticut Ballet in 1978, was done last season by Ballet Chicago, with Johan Renvall as Puck. Peter Anastos set his 1994 Cincinnati Ballet Dream on Washington Ballet this year, with Jeanene Jarvie as Titania, Runqiao Du as Oberon, and Alvaro Palau as Puck. Toni Pimble's version for Eugene Ballet was performed in February by Nevada Dance Theatre. Maine State Ballet presented artistic director Linda MacArthur Miele's production in April. Norwegian National Ballet, performing Robert Sund's Dream, opens the Biarritz International Ballet Festival next month.
This year has brought several new and important productions. Pacific Northwest Ballet's honorable staging of the Balanchine work, with handsome new sets and costumes designed by Martin Pakledinaz, went on view in May. In February, twenty-three-year-old Christopher Wheeldon's full-length production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for Colorado Ballet attracted critics to Denver to see what this wunderkind could do with his first fulllength work. Colorado's artistic director Martin Fredmann commissioned Wheeldon, a valued dancer with NYCB [see Dance Magazine, November 1996, page 50] because he believed that Wheeldon, a promising choreographer, "could tackle this challenging job with grace, objectivity, and, ultimately, success. I'm delighted with the ballet and reassured by the confidence we placed in him."
Wheeldon drew on both Balanchine and Ashton (he's danced in both versions) for inspiration for a work that, at the same time, is entirely his own. "I tried to follow the play as closely as I could," he says. To explain the convoluted plot and subplots, he includes as a prologue an exposition (following Shakespeare) that spells out how Aegeus, the angry father of Hermia, forbids her to marry Lysander, wanting her instead to wed Demetrius, much to the dismay of Helena, who loves Demetrius and is his true love. Wheeldon points out that "the play is male dominated; it's really quite sexist. However, when it came to Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, who marries Theseus at the end of the play, she's a problem, as other choreographers have discovered. I didn't feel that the character was important to this ballet."
His treatment of the fairies is particularly inventive. Puck actually flies, giving added airiness to the mischievous creature, and the children of the Academy of Colorado Ballet, coached by school director Patricia Renzetti, perform fluttery dances, helping to propel the action. "Rapturous" was the way Janine Gastineau described Wheeldon's last act pas de deux for Oberon and Titania [see Dance Magazine, Featured Review, May, page 68].
No doubt we will see new productions of Shakespeare's enchanting play, written originally for a professional company of actors to perform at a nobleman's wedding where Queen Elizabeth I was guest of honor. The text provides for dance, as well as song. As Titania says, "If you will patiently dance in our round, and see moonlight revels, go with us . . ." We'll go, of course, and happily dream on.…