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Dangerous comedy: Houston Ballet's bold German Shakespeare proves love is no happy picnic

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Houston Ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream September 2014 Artists of HB and John Neumeier - Rehearsal
Artists of Hamburg Ballet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by © Holger Badekow
Houston Ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream September 2014 Artists of HB and John Neumeier - Rehearsal
John Neumeier and artists of the Houston Ballet during rehearsal. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream September 2014 artists of Hamburg Ballet
Artists of Hamburg Ballet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by © Holger Badekow
Houston Ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream September 2014 artists of Hamburg Ballet Artists of Hamburg Ballet
Artists of Hamburg Ballet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by © Holger Badekow
Houston Ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream September 2014 artists of Hamburg Ballet Artists of Hamburg Ballet
Artists of Hamburg Ballet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by © Holger Badekow
Houston Ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream September 2014 Artists of HB and John Neumeier - Rehearsal
Houston Ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream September 2014 Artists of HB and John Neumeier - Rehearsal
Houston Ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream September 2014 artists of Hamburg Ballet
Houston Ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream September 2014 artists of Hamburg Ballet Artists of Hamburg Ballet
Houston Ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream September 2014 artists of Hamburg Ballet Artists of Hamburg Ballet
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What does it take to make a dream?

The “seething brains” of lunatics, lovers, and poets, if you ask Shakespeare. For Houston Ballet, it’s another trio: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet.

This week Houston Ballet opens a season that makes more than a mere nod to the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with three works. Later in the season, the ballet will treat audiences to a reprise of John Cranko’s marvelous Taming of the Shrew and Stanton Welch’s world premiere of his own Romeo and Juliet.

But right now, John Neumeier is all the news.

 Shakespearean comedy is almost as dangerous as Shakespearean tragedy. In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, love is no picnic. 

For the first time, an American company will perform Neumeier’s celebrated A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Thursday through Sept. 14, making for one of the most intriguing premieres in years for the company.

You may not have heard of Neumeier. America’s loss has been Europe’s great gain. Indeed, Neumeier’s visit completes another hat trick accomplished by Houston Ballet, which has celebrated the choreography of Glen Tetly, John Cranko and John Neumeier, who all made their mark in Germany.

Indeed, after training in both Copenhagen and London, Neumeier joined Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet in 1962 before taking the reins at Frankfurt Ballet in 1969 and then Hamburg Ballet in 1973, where he is artistic director, chief choreographer and general manager.

Having studied with Cranko, Neumeier is no stranger to the balletic adaptation of Shakespeare. He has choreographed his own A Midsummer Night's Dream as well as Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and several versions of Hamlet. To be sure Neumeier joins heady company. But the luminaries of Shakespearean adaptation — Balanchine and Ashton, in the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cranko and MacMillan in the case of Romeo and Juliet — inspired Neumeier to react against their own engagements with the Bard.

“The complexity of Shakespeare’s text,” he said in an interview at Houston Ballet, “demands something not quite as easy as the things we’ve seen.”

For many, A Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes fantasies, faeries and lovers in woods. Easy, no? Hardly.

Shakespearean comedy is almost as dangerous as Shakespearean tragedy. In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, love is no picnic. Boy meets girl and they fall in love. Girl meets boy and they don’t because he’s in love with the other girl. All four run off to the woods to sort it out and start to fall in love with the wrong people all over again thanks to a meddlesome spirit and a magic herb.

Add a quarrelsome father, a blustering duke and his captured amazon, a faerie king and queen in need of counseling, some peasants desperate to be actors and a tradesman turned into an ass, and you have one of the most beloved and adapted of Shakespeare’s plays with respect to any artistic medium.

Yet nothing’s easy about adapting Shakespeare in spite of the fact that many of his plays have been adapted for the balletic stage for centuries. How to approach such iconic work?

“As a choreographer,” Neumeier said, “you can use anything as your inspiration.” But, “if it’s a text, the one thing you know is you cannot translate that into a non-verbal medium. I don’t want you to say, ‘Oh, I remember those words.’ You have to begin with love for the text, but it is absolutely not word for word.”

Some would say a choreographer relies on narrative — the stories that just won’t die. But for Neumeier it’s a matter of character: “It’s why we can play Shakespeare in a parking lot or outer space. The characters live so vividly they can be transferred.”

Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself lives vividly, in part because of its canny musical choices. Just as, in his view, the world of the play is divided into three distinct groups — aristocrats, peasants, and faeries—so too is the music.

For the aristocrats, there’s the traditional Midsummer music of Mendelssohn, including the famous wedding march. For the faeries there is the complex contemporary organ work of Ligeti. And for the peasants? Barrel organ.

For Neumeier, the power of A Midsummer Night’s Dream lies in the wedding that Duke Theseus anticipates in the opening of the play and that the pairs of aristocratic lovers achieve at the close of the drama. In the land of faeries, marital strife magnifies the conflict within the play. The peasants don’t get to marry but, as Neumeier put it, “people love to have a holiday, to have a picnic, to make up their own entertainment.”

 “It’s why we can play Shakespeare in a parking lot or outer space. The characters live so vividly they can be transferred.” 

Everyone’s reaching for harmony, in other words, or, “for something noble.”

“Even Pyramus and Thisbe,” Neumeier quipped, “would have been married if she hadn’t been eaten by a lion.”

He refers, of course, to the subject of the play the peasants perform for the aristocrats. That they choose a particularly bloody tale of ill-fated lovers, separated by their parents and then driven to suicide, for a wedding celebration is a measure of their charm and foolishness. The peasants slaughter the play. Of course, Thisbe isn’t eaten by a lion. Pyramus thinks she is and takes his life, prompting Thisbe to follow suit.

What a reminder that at any moment, a comedy like A Midsummer Night’s Dream might become a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet.

But isn’t that the nature of love? Shakespeare said it first, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.”

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