A Digital Midsummer Night’s Dream

San Francisco Ballet

Written by:
Toba Singer
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It’s rare to see a Balanchine-choreographed story ballet, let alone one featuring a plotline as serpentine as Shakespeare’s impishly comic “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In this interpretation, Shakespeare and Balanchine conspire to lampoon all manner of hierarchy, tasking the prankster Puck with wreaking havoc in an enchanted forest filled with befuddled fairies, sleep-inducing flora, strange and estranged bedfellows, and a gang of last-millennium slackers, one of whose corona is the head of an ass. How timely, and also how resonant, given that Shakespeare lost a child to the plague of another era, as devastating as today’s Corona.

It was as if this streamed production anticipated the end of the current pestilence, and arose from its ashes, bandbox fresh with an array of new and delightful treats to set before us. Cavan Conley, Soloist, and a relative newcomer to the company, slipped into the Puck persona as if it had been custom-designed for him. The camera caught his bright-eyed piquancy and measured peri-surgical interventions with a matching precision, whether he was going about setting devious traps, or house proud, sweeping up every last trace of telltale fairy dust.

Esteban Hernandez, who dances Puck in a different cast, in this one dances Oberon. Having matured into a full-bodied noble over what would have otherwise been two dark seasons’ time, he shows us his formidable dramatic aspect. Frances Chung’s poise and versatility reflects  brilliance in her bewitching quicktwitchery, as well as a finding, finding, and more finding quality of  pliancy in her adagio pas de deux with the juicy Ulrik Birkkjaer. Lead Butterfly Julia Rowe’s elbows describe travel patterns at warp speed, as she darts hither and thither. She is bursting with good tidings in the opening scene, rounding up the rest of the cast like a coryphée who knows that her job is to herd cats trapped in the bodies of fairies, flora, and fauna. Elizabeth Powell marshals timeless spirit and technique in her well-placed interpretation of Hermia. Tiit Helimets as Theseus is presidential, if not commanding, leveraging pomp where circumstances would normally invite apoplexy.

Sasha Mukhamedov is a new (Soloist) face in the crowd. She dances the role of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, with a determined centeredness and focus, especially in her fouetté, recalling the self-possessed bravura of retired principal Joanna Berman.

As Titania, the seasoned Sasha De Sola, is the mother ship in this galaxy far, far away, yet brought closer than ever thanks to streaming. Whether under sail, engaging her own assortment of joy-inspiring powers, or a somnambulant spell cast by Puck that puts her in the thrall of an ass (the endearing Lucas Erni), she is, with each beat, seamlessly creating and recreating her character.

The technical enhancements afforded by the camera deserve mention. Dancers benefit from a forgiving filming schedule, so that  the terror, tension, and battle fatigue of soldiering through a theater run is absent on screen. The camera offers a pit-side orchestra perspective, so that we can see Martin West conducting the Mendelssohn score, and the attentive faces of the musicians. The overture in its specific weight relative to the production is thus rendered grander with added dimension from the singers. For the trend-weary who have suffered through choreographers integrating video into multi-media performances, with screened elements cut in as radical “statements,” or screened sets overbuilt as photophobia-producing clutter, streaming gives us something much more providential. Here we see this same amazing technology offered in a proportion that properly serves the work. It is not performative, but productive, doing what it does best to bring us closer in, even as we remain physically distanced. It’s an irony posing big dilemmas, yet begs for rethinking how best to bring ballet out of the theater and into the world beyond the fourth wall, the wider globe that Shakespeare strove to both reach and reflect in all its tragi-comic rondure.

Toba Singer

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