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Wheeldon's A Midsummer Night's Dream

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(Apologies for this lengthy posting, but I hope others have seen the ballet and will add to the discussion.)

Colorado Ballet just finished its first of two weekends of its production of Wheeldon’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I went to all four performances, especially to see the different casts and to try to understand the production, which I had never seen. This was his first full-length ballet; kudos to the Colorado Ballet for giving him his first major commission when he was only 23, in 1997. For anybody within driving distance of Denver, do take a look next weekend. It’s a wonderful production, beautifully performed.

I was curious about how it compared with Balanchine’s 1962 production, in which Wheeldon danced when at NYCB. I assume he also had seen Ashton’s 1964 The Dream by the time he did his own version. I’ve seen both many times, and just took another look at the Balanchine DVD to refresh my memory. One major difference from Balanchine is Wheeldon’s focus on weaving a coherent narrative throughout. For all its glorious choreography, Balanchine’s version is a little odd with those “wedding divertissements” making up most of Act II. The performers of the central PdD that everyone loves (including me) are not real characters in the story and don’t even have names. The ensemble numbers in Balanchine’s second act, entrancing as they are, just emerge from nowhere and have only the tenuous connection of “wedding party” with the rest of the ballet.

In the printed NYCB program from June 2014, they don’t include any story notes; perhaps they just figure everybody already knows the story or will learn what they need from seeing the ballet. For Wheeldon, we get detailed program notes telling the story. (I don’t know if that was Wheeldon’s plan or if they were added later.) Perhaps more significantly, Wheeldon opens with several small vignettes with the characters of Helena, Demetrius, Hermia, Lysander, and Egeus. These appear behind a scrim on a dark stage with a spotlight on each brief introduction. Throughout the production, the focus stays on telling a coherent narrative of a rather complicated cast of characters. The final PdD, the most glorious of Act II, is for Titania and Oberon, not nameless dancers.

Another huge difference is Wheeldon’s use of extensive comedic bits throughout. Balanchine has a few that get some laughs (e.g., when the ass does a double-take when looking down at Titania’s breasts). Wheeldon extensively draws out the comic potential of the mixed-up couples in both acts. E.g., when Demetrius rejects Helena, she hangs onto his leg as he drags her across the floor trying to escape. Lysander receives a well-placed kick from Helena at one point and he leaves the stage in obvious agony. The comedy is constant and clear; I suppose some would say it was over the top. But the hearty laughter from the audience throughout reminded us that this is not a Shakespearean tragedy, although the same story elements from Balanchine often feel like that. For ballet novices, I’m sure it was a pleasant surprise to see how much fun it can be.

Another big difference: the production elements and Wheeldon’s interest in spectacle. You can see early signs of the ambitious production Wheeldon set in the new A Winter’s Tale in April 2014 in London, although not to such extremes. E.g., the set has two levels, with the back level elevated to provide a place for races, entrances, hiding, flying, etc., and to visually enhance the overall spectacle. Wheeldon also makes extensive use of flying wires, mostly for Puck, who appeared at the beginning and end sailing over the entire scene, and often appearing in unlikely places near the top of the stage. Even Oberon is briefly flown out of one scene on wires. Balanchine has Puck pulled high on “vines” at the close of the ballet, but that’s it for flying.

Wheeldon puts together all sorts of risky, complicated lifts and partnering, sometimes for groups of 3 or even 4. He likes putting a character onto another’s shoulders. Puck is on Oberon’s shoulder as they decide which of the Rustics to turn into an ass and Puck puts on the head from his high perch. At the end, Oberon sweeps up the tiny Changeling onto his shoulders and the two of them partner Titania briefly, with Changeling holding up her arms and Oberon balancing her at the waist. Wheeldon’s choreography for the men and the male ensembles was thrilling, with Puck interacting with some of the variations. High-flying split jumps, revoltades, high-speed manege - all showed off their athleticism admirably.

Apparently Tulsa Ballet and Atlanta Ballet both perform the Wheeldon version. As far as I can determine, this was his only ballet of a Shakespearean story until the new Winter’s Tale 17 years later. (Please correct me if I'm mistaken on that.) For anyone interested in studying Wheeldon’s development as a choreographer (and certainly his future biographers), this early ballet is essential viewing.

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As I doubt many have seen this production and would want to discuss this separately, I'll post this here...the Denver Post's "Fine Arts Critic" just posted his review. I don't disagree with anything he says, but it's odd that he reviewed the Saturday matinee and then just listed some cast names from that performance toward the end. I know that many dancers say they never read reviews (I've never believed that), but given the paucity of serious dance criticism nowadays, it's too bad that they won't get published commentary on their performances. When a paper uses just one critic to cover the entire spectrum of the Fine Arts, that's what happens.

http://www.denverpost.com/entertainment/ci_26628653/colorado-ballets-midsummer-nights-dream-an-ensemble-dance

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I prefer Wheeldon's version to Balanchine's, mainly because I think it has a clearer narrative. It was the first professional ballet performance that I attended (back in, IIRC, 1998) and it immediately turned me into a ballet fan.

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