Instant Replay: Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Online by the SF Ballet

(SF Ballet)

“When they next wake, all this derision
Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision…”

– Oberon (written by William Shakespeare), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, sc. 2, 370-1)

It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? It’s been two-months-shy-of-a-year since I last attended an SF Ballet show, and it certainly seems as if the worldwide lockdown is a dream from which we have yet to wake. The rollout of several vaccines is akin to us all beginning to stir, but we aren’t awake just yet. Yet, we can all agree that the morning can’t come soon enough.

Compounding this dreamlike state is sense of déjà vu. After all, the aforementioned SF Ballet show I attended was the very same one I’m reviewing today. That original review was for the opening night performance of the Balanchine-choreographed A Midsummer Night’s Dream (set to Mendelssohn’s score). Mere hours later, it was announced that the opener would be the only performance of the production. As the days and weeks went by, it was soon announced that it would be the only SF Ballet performance of the year.

Which is a shame because – as stated in the review above – it was a really good show; one I’m glad to have as my (to date) last-attended live performance. Fortunately, the show’s producers had the forethought to capture the show for posterity. Shortly after the full run was cancelled, the entire cast were gathered together to put on this performance for an empty theatre. And, like their fellow troupes around the world, they’ve brought the show online and into everyone’s homes.

Loyal subjects (Joseph Warton, Joshua Jack Price, Mingxuan Wang, Swane Messaoudi) dance in the court of Hippolyta and Theseus. (Photo © Erik Tomasson)

As such, it would be inaccurate for me to review the show twice. (Suffice it to say, it still holds up after a year.) But I can still comment on the online presentation. After all, companies of all sizes have poured a great deal of time and energy into reinventing the audience experience in the year of the livestreamed show. Small and medium companies like Killing My Lobster and Shotgun Players, respectively, have made the scrolling chat an integral part of the viewing experience: the online audience is allowed – nay, encouraged – to heckle! Larger companies like ACT have the resources to go a step further and create an entire online layout and pre-recorded curtain speeches.

The SF Ballet certainly pulled out all the stops this past December when they commissioned a fully immersive VR environment for their annual production of The Nutcracker. It raised the bar for how an online production could be presented. So much so that the “no frills” approach to Midsummer can’t help but feel lacking by comparison. Again, the show itself is great, but when you go from an interactive digital facsimile of the War Memorial Opera House to simply a like with a Play button, the two just don’t compare.

Add to that the somewhat erratic editing choices, which occasionally seem to be made arbitrarily rather than rhythmically. One sequence had the cuts jumping from a stage-wide audience-POV shot to medium close-up and back again in rapid succession without much rhyme or reason. I’d love to see the costumes up close as much as I want to keep track of every dancer, but it shouldn’t be a slightly jarring experience.

Queen Hippolyta (Sasha Mukhamedov) strutting as only a queen can. (Photo © Erik Tomasson)

But that’s hardly the fault of the Ballet troupe themselves. I just hope they’ll look at some of those other online productions and consider a way to incorporate the audience in a way that makes them more than a mute spectator.

Most notable of the video was the absence of an audience. This was particularly distressing because it’s unthinkable to imagine an audience not applauding the amazing performance we see. Yet, each flawless pirouette is followed by an uneasy silence. I give the SF Ballet credit for not going the professional sports route and simply dubbing in audience applause like an old sitcom, but that makes it no less unfortunate that a production Midsummer – a show that ends with the line “Give me your hands if we be friends…” – has no such friends to show their appreciation.

Still, the show itself is as fine a production as it was to see live a year ago. The element most holding back its online resurrection is the fact that the live theatre experience truly is impossible to recreate in the digital environment, despite many valid attempts. Hopefully, the dawn is rising on the time when we can take those seats again. No one should be denied the applause they deserve.

GRADE:                                             B-

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is scheduled to stream until 10th of February on the SF Ballet official website.
The stream runs 1 hour 43 minutes with no pre-programmed intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Categories: Theatre

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