Best Ballet Ever?
A Houston Ballet stunner: Midsummer Night's Dream is a sexy vision, one of company's best works ever
I suppose it was a trip last year to northern India that got me contemplating Buddhist and Hindu perceptions of time. In the ancient Hindu Puranas, one “deva” year is equal to 360 human years. Devas and their female counterparts, the devis, are usually compassionate deities, and they experience time differently than we do.
This idea is not particular to the East. In the Holy Bible’s Second Epistle of Peter, for example, “…with the Lord a day is like a thousand years.”
I am unaware if Shakespeare intended Titania, Oberon, Puck, Cobweb and all his other fairies to perceive the passing hours as so much longer than those of mortals — they are not gods, after all — but it is a fascinating notion asserted by choreographer John Neumeier for his ballet setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When the pristine luxury of the Athenian court starts to overlap with the exotic woodland of the Fairy Realm, we can see for our very own eyes the effects of the temporal clash.
In the past five years, this could be the most stunning performance Houston Ballet has offered, and that is certainly saying a lot.
These two groups have their own style of choreography and their own kind of music, as well. As I write these words, I get goose bumps just re-imagining that thrilling shift from the Prologue to the first Act last night at the Wortham Theater Center.
Houston Ballet is the first American company to dance this great masterpiece, which the Hamburg Ballet premiered in 1977. Neumeier has said that he keeps perfecting the choreography every time he sets the ballet, which means also that he gives great attention to how new dancers slip into these well-considered roles. I’ll warn you right now that this review might be filled with superlative comparatives, if not a bit of hyperbole here and there.
Thursday night, I knew I was witnessing unfettered greatness, both in the conception of the work and in its execution. In the past five years, this could be the most stunning performance Houston Ballet has offered, and that is certainly saying a lot.
In its arrangement, the story is clear without being simplistic. When the motley crew of “rustics,” led by a weaver named Bottom, enters the scenario and eventually performs their lowbrow version of Pyramus and Thisbe, Neumeier adds a third layer to his danced version of Shakespeare’s popular comedy. Where the Athenians have Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s sweeping Overture and Incidental Music to the play as their accompaniment, and the fairies an assortment of bizarre organ music by Hungarian composer György Ligeti, the rustics have a live mechanical street organ they carry around the stage with them. Even a bit of Verdi makes its way into the mix.
The dancing throughout is sublime, in the sense that it moves far beyond mere technical perfection. The company looked stellar in every sense of the word. Neumeier’s choreography is often dense and reckless, bordering on the acrobatic. It calls for subtlety as well, sustained adagio passages, expertise in pantomime, and theatrical prowess.
There are numerous lifts that are also splendidly weird, and a wide assortment of partnering that reflects the various eccentricities of the characters. It goes without saying that it is all very sexy, as well, though Neumeier shows the erotic potential of the story without ever being vulgar.
It goes without saying that it is all very sexy, though Neumeier shows the erotic potential of the story without ever being vulgar.
Soloist Aaron Robison, in the dual role of Theseus and Oberon, was particularly impressive as the latter, which called for several athletic duets with principal dancer Connor Walsh. I have always felt that Walsh had a great gift for comic roles, and this is without doubt his funniest interpretation in many years. He is an absolute wonder in this ballet and deserves a crown of laurels, even if it’s unlikely he would ever rest upon them.
Christopher Coomer, sporting a pair of red satin pointe shoes as Thisbe in the Divertissement, is unforgettably comic. Karina Gonzalez as Titania/Hippolyta embodies everything this ballet calls for, from ethereal illusion to sexy sophistication. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, which is a maddening pleasure in a work where 10 things always seem to be happening at once.
I found none of the dancers lacking, and wish I could mention every last one by name.
This might sound crazy, but the overwhelming beauty and elegance of this Midsummer makes these dancers seem other-worldly, as if they are visitors from some other non-human realm. They danced for nearly three hours in the premiere, but to a mortal such as me, it seemed like only minutes.