On Friday night, the San Francisco Ballet, George Balanchine, William Shakespeare and a giant cast of San Francisco Ballet dancers tumbled together in a joyous, beautifully performed production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” first mounted by Balanchine on New York City Ballet in 1962, and last performed by San Francisco Ballet on the opera house stage in 1985.
(Sadly, due to coronavirus health threats, remaining War Memorial Opera House performances have been canceled, according to the company’s website).
Every year, young U.S. students slog through Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with no idea why the 16th century Bard is such a big deal or his language so impenetrable.
Balanchine has come to the rescue. Credited with inventing “American” ballet, the Russian-born choreographer’s abstract dance can seem as daunting as Shakespeare’s layered plays. But Balanchine knew his way around cheesecake and comedy better than most neoclassical choreographers, and was able to go toe to toe with a play as frolicsome, hilarious and humanist as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He does it by physically organizing the multi-layered action and distilling movement to its most eloquent so that even the skeptical teenager might get it and be wowed.
The action opens on a glade in midsummer near Athens where, in Europe, the solstice is a time for joyous festivities including bonfires, feasting, dancing and singing. It has long been celebrated as a turning point in the calendar, full of mischief and transformation.
Shakespeare provides four distinct groups of beings and plots, and Balanchine weaves them together like one of the spider webs that adorn the front of the stage, designed by the late Martin Pakledinaz.
There’s Theseus, Duke of Athens (Luke Ingham), and his bride Hippolyta (Jennifer Stahl), the fierce Amazon queen.
There are the two couples of Athenian lovers who are out of synch, and six “mechanical” workmen who are amateur actors.
Then there is the fairy world of Oberon (Joseph Walsh) and Titania (Yuan Yuan Tan) and their mischief-maker go-between, Puck (Esteban Hernandez). Together they both mirror and upend earthly goings-on.
The genius of this ballet is that, rather than exposition, Balanchine offers a glorious vaudeville evening, where character and plot are physicalized through condensed action and overlapping spaces and times. San Francisco Ballet brings exactly the right depth of character to movement that ranges from slapstick to high poetry.
Nowhere is this most evident than in the interpenetrating worlds of the fairies and the humans. It begins with Tan as Titania and Walsh as Oberon, distinguished by their lofty and remote movement style, but also, like humans, capable of being foolish.
Mad at his wife, Oberon makes his sidekick Puck, the mischief-maker and play’s glue, use his mercurial and naughty ways to embroil the humans in a scheme to force Titania to bow to her husband. Hernandez nearly steals the show with his crisp, explosive dancing and troublemaker energy.
This invisible realm stands apart from, and merges, with the world of the young lovers who are febrile, dopey, charming and unaware that forces far greater than they are in charge.
Dores Andre as Hermia telegraphs this aptly when, bewitched by Puck’s flower essence, she repeatedly sleepwalks through the woods. Meanwhile, the two young men who want to claim her —Benjamin Freemantle as puppy dog Lysander and clueless Demetrius danced with bravado by Ulrik Birkkajaer—run after her or each other, swords drawn, occupying different parts of the stage unseen by the other.
The invisible is also apparent when Puck transforms the worker Bottom into an ass and makes Titania fall madly in love with him. Bottom (Alexandre Cagnat) would rather eat the grass.
Then there are the dances for dance’s sake that add a diaphanous magic. Titania’s retinue of fairies seem plucked out of a late 19th century spectacle — the kind Isadora Duncan might have danced in vaudeville — and at times engage in movement that looks lifted from a Busby Berkeley picture.
Wona Park, who dances a poignant yet pristine Butterfly, encapsulates the sensuous yearning that speaks to the forces of the Felix Mendelssohn score. She becomes only more eloquent as the night wears on. Though the corps still has some problems with its pointe work, the members performed beautifully, as well.
In Act 2, Oberon has Puck “fix” the off-kilter magic in order to align the couples, and like a good 19th century novel, it leads to marriages at Theseus’ court and a vision of a society stabilized by harmony.
Holding it all together is Mendelssohn’s score — by turns magical, ceremonial, hopeful and lamenting, played luminously by the ballet orchestra under Martin West — and Pakledinaz’s romantic set designs with panels of roses mirroring the complex beauty of the mortal and immortal coils that bind the characters. Sandra Jennings, who staged it, made it “read” seamlessly.
San Francisco Ballet Program 4
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: Due to coronavirus health threats, remaining performances have been canceled.
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sf ballet.org
Note: San Francisco Ballet staff will be contacing ticket holders about next steps in light of the cancellation.