Now that all arts consumption is online, geography is no barrier, and there are chances to see shows that rarely land on UK shores. San Francisco Ballet opens its 2021 digital season with one such work, George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from 1962. In Britain we have our own classic take on the Shakespeare comedy, Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, made two years later in 1964. But while both are based on the same Mendelssohn music (originally composed for a production of the play), they’re notably different.
Ashton’s version is shorter, more focused on drama and comedy, and built around a swooningly romantic duet for Oberon and Titania. Balanchine doesn’t even have the fairy king and queen dance together, which perhaps says something about his stance on true romance – or his interpretation of Shakespeare’s, at least.
This was Balanchine’s first original full-length ballet, even though he’d been choreographing for more than 30 years by this point (he was a master of the one-act work). One could argue, however, that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is two one-act ballets put together, since the plot happens wholly in the first act and the second comprises a wedding illustrated with the kaleidoscopic geometry of pure dance Balanchine does so well.
The romantic tangles created by Oberon and Puck’s mischief play out among the two young couples lost in a magical woodland complete with butterflies, bugs and sprites. Cavan Conley’s Puck has jaunty motifs, scissoring feet and a big hammy grin, skipping over the impatient 3/8 metre of Mendelssohn’s scherzo. The company as a whole are more than capable of handling the pace. Oberon’s (Esteban Hernandez) role is packed with quick-beating allegro, feet a-blur. Hernandez jumps his way through scene after scene, his batterie light not laboured.
Meanwhile, Sasha De Sola’s fairy queen Titania is quite above it all, basking nobly in her own perfection. The veneer never slips, even when she wakes to find Bottom in her bed, she merely pushes him aside, barely bothered. A bit of an anticlimax, perhaps, but in line with a story where, as adeptly as these japes and trivial love triangles are outlined on stage, it all feels of so little consequence. Maybe in a live performance the sense of occasion and the energy of the room would make this matter less, but despite the abundance of movement and colour on stage, it’s an example of the reduced experience that comes with the small screen.
There are standout moments, nonetheless. Sasha Mukhamedov’s Hippolyta, arriving with a pack of crushed velvet-clad hounds to help restore order, striking arabesques as sharp as the arrows shot from her golden bow. And best of all, amid the regal patterning of Act II’s nuptials, a new pair of dancers suddenly appear. The characters are not even given names (they’re marked only Divertissement in the programme) and yet given the most connected, sympathetic, honestly in love choreography of the whole show. They are, in this case, Frances Chung and Ulrik Birkkjaer, and as the pace slows to serenely conjure the deep slumbering hours before dawn, Birkkjaer shows himself to be the most sensitive of partners, floating Chung into the air with not a whisper of effort, nudging her from one supportive arm to another, Chung hovering in between. The delicacy of it is delectable, whatever the screen size.