What Dances shall We have: Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at SF Ballet

Bottom (Alexandre Cagnat) and Titania (Yuan Yuan Tan) observe the magic. (Photo – Erik Tomasson | Illustration – Sky Alsgaard/SF Ballet)

“Through the house give gathering light,
By the dead and drowsy fire:
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier;
And this ditty, after me,
Sing, and dance it trippingly.”

– Oberon (written by William Shakespeare), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act V, sc. 1, 351-6)

*[PLEASE NOTE: this review covers the opening night performance from the evening of 6 March 2020. Shortly before the performance, Mayor London Breed’s office sent out a notice explaining that, due to concerns over the Covid-19 Coronavirus, all large-scale events on SF-owned property will be cancelled until the 21st of March. As the performance below took place, the SF Ballet – which performs in the City-owned War Memorial Opera House – sent out their own notice informing patrons that all further performances of Midsummer have been cancelled. (As of this writing, they are currently working out options for those who had already purchased tickets.)]

(Erik Tomasson/SF Ballet)

It’s amusing how often Midsummer is put on for children and family audiences. Oh sure, there are the sitcom-esque bickering couples, goofy acting troupe, and the immortal trickster who turns a man into a donkey. But let’s be honest: Shakespeare’s most famous comedy is the story of characters who are too – let’s say “enamored” – to think straight. No matter what magic goings-on take place, it still comes down to the tale of folks who get into trouble for letting their libidos do the thinking for them. (SF’s own We Players cranked this element up to “11” with their extra-randy take on the story.)

Finding the right balance between “amusing” and “amorous” is the balance Helgi Tomasson chose to walk when he chose to take on the story. Fortunately, he did so as Artistic Director of the SF Ballet, where balance is their stock and trade. Tomasson’s history with Mendelssohn’s ballet adaptation actually goes back nearly forty years, beginning with his portrayal of Oberon in the 1982 NY Ballet production. Three years later, he arrived in SF with George Balanchine’s choreography to stage the production for the West Coast.

Now he’s returned to one of the highlights of his early tenure. Although the show was only performed for one night, it was a memorable night for those of us lucky to be there.

You know the story: love-struck Helena (Mathilde Froustey) pines for callous Demetrious (Ulrik Birkkjaer) who’s trying to woo Hermia (Dores André) away from Lysander (Benjamin Freemantle). As this is going on, a conceited actor named Bottom (Alexandre Cagnat) is working the nerves of his troupe, and Fairy King Oberon (Joseph Walsh) is having a row with Queen Titania (Yuan Yuan Tan). Throw in the mischief of Oberon’s assistant Puck (Esteban Hernandez) and you have a classic tale of everything outlandish that can happen actually happening. This time, on pointe.

Oberon (Joseph Walsh) sends Puck (Esteban Hernandez) to find a flower. (Erik Tomasson/SF Ballet)

And even before all of that begins, we find ourselves captivated by Martin Pakledinaz’s set design. Before the curtain rises, it’s covered by a separate shroud meant to resemble a shimmering spider web – complete with Tolkien-esque giant spider. Upon lifting the curtain, the set pieces of the Athenian woods resemble cut-out illustrations from and early-20th-Century picture book. Having also created the costumes, the color-coordinated designs make it easy to identify the young lovers in lieu of dialogue. And little additions like Puck’s faun horns give nice, subtle nods to the story’s Greek mythology inspiration.

But what of the dancers? Balanchine’s choreography is fluid, but complex. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tomasson resurrected his ’85 production (now under the staging of Sandra Jennings) simply to prove that he and his corps actually could. Balanchine’s spins and pointes are skillfully pulled off here. One of the highlights – and there were many – featured Hippolyta (Jennifer Stahl) receiving a well-deserved applause for pirouetting so many times it seemed as if she’d travel through time. Similarly, Titania’s (Tan) pointe-heavy duet with Oberon (Walsh) in the second act is as intimidating as it is romantic.

If the high mark of skill is to “make it look easy,” then Jennings, Tomasson, and their corps here illustrate a level of skill only achieved through ceaseless dedication.

Titania (Yuan Yuan Tan, right) and her cavalier (Tilts Helimets, left) enjoy a moment away from Oberon. (Erik Tomasson/SF Ballet)

Which, again, makes it all the more regrettable that we opening night patrons were the only ones to see the show. Although one can rightfully question the repeated use of Midsummer as a children’s story, the fantasy one display in the opera house worked wonders on the children in the audience. And the adults as well. Like the story we observed, the SF Ballet’s production of Midsummer will, sadly, be only a fleeting memory from a single night. But, like the story it portrays, it’s a delightful tale that its dreamers will remember fondly.

GRADE:                                                            A

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was scheduled to run until the 15th of March at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.
HOWEVER, the SF Ballet has been forced to cancel remaining performances, by instruction of the Mayor’s Office.
The show ran roughly two hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For further information about the production (as well options for those with tickets to cancelled performances), please visit the production’s official site here.

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