Photo © Lindsay Thomas

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

San Francisco Ballet

Written by:
Toba Singer
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“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” teased out the memory of a story from the brother of the friend who accompanied me to the show. As children, in search of their after-school cookies-and-milk snack, they happened upon a sculpture by their mother of a male nude that she had left to dry on the dining room table. Seeing that it didn’t have a belly button, they decided to give it one, poking a hole where they decided it belonged. Could Shakespeare have imagined himself as Puck, for whom the romantic poetry of his time was just so much wet clay in need of a well-placed poke? The neoclassical choreographer George Balanchine chose Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the theme for one of his few story ballets, set to a Mendelssohn score that boasts more belly-buttonish humor than protruded from Balanchine’s choreography. (If you’re after a truly uprorious version, I’d recommend John Neumeier’s.)

Balanchine argued that ballet doesn’t need a story; in a well-sculpted work, the movement is the story, his signature precursor to cultural pundit Marshall McLuhan’s consideration that “the medium is the message.” When you see what Balanchine does with this story ballet, dressed here in new super-luxe costumes and sets by French designer Christian Lacroix, you wonder whether Balanchine favored the leotard over the story out of fear of his inclination to gild any lily that might happen by. 
 
Fortunately, Sandra Jennings, who staged the work, took this in hand: the stormy but occasionally heraldic overture, fairies with hyperactive arms, an array of etymological forest inhabitants, and all of it punctuated by Cavan Conley’s bounding entrances as Puck. Corps de Ballet members in bridesmaid pink and green execute academic enchainements that don’t advance the plot one jot. An ensemble of ballet students from at least three levels of the San Francisco Ballet School go in. Strange pop-up divertissements that Balanchine thought needed no introduction, splay across two acts. After Act I concluded with a modest wedding ceremony, followed by the cast shaping up for a révérence, and with no paper program to consult, a sizeable quotient of the audience thought, “That’s all folks!” Flush with jubilation, with coats on, they headed for home. 
 
Jennings’ cast had all its belly buttons in a row, led by the smooth as buttah and most exemplary Butterfly, Julia Rowe. The children’s focus and musicality kept in step assiduously with the frilly score, and one student, Luka Ganaden, who sprung up affably in a lift from stage left to right, reprised several times, stole some serious heartbeats.
 
Cavan Conley arrived with all the right stuff to play against Sasha De Sola’s self-possessed orthodoxy as Titania. Her carefully graduated cambré, in all its grandeur, rose to find him whisking back and forth in insouciant brisé volé. His tenacious rival in mischief, Oberon (Esteban Hernández), undaunted by Conley’s height, martialed nuclear jumps and leaps, and batted a thousand in his batterie. The two braved the teeming populace onstage to keep humor front and center as the bumbling plot disgorged itself. 
 
The gently regal Aaron Robison supplants the derring-do’s and don’ts with a welcome civility as Titania’s Cavalier, and Conley and Esteban Hernández share in treating us to eclipsing brisé and musically pleasing sixes.

The lovers are appropriately heady and then head-trippy, showing all the dated binary-appropriate responses that are scoffed at today with equal helpings of entitlement by the self-involved and the self-evolved.

A show-stopping moment arrives with the entrance of Hyppolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Nikisha Fogo), danced with competing infusions of speed and accuracy in an infinity of perfectly-dispatched fouetté.

In her misalliance with Bottom (Alexis Francisco Valdes), De Sola trades on her pristine elegance by firing her cambré with fuel injections of passion that leave Bottom, now in his ass’s head, confused, yes, but confusedly in her thrall. (In the Neuemeier version, each of Bottom’s Companions has a unique personality and comedy-inspired intention, giving the mishaps more stage time and a hilarious internal logic.)

A highlight of Act II is the seamless tendresse evoked in the Divertissement pas de deux danced by Frances Chung and Isaac Hernández, in which the slightest penché ends up with Chung on her rise, placing her head in the crook between Hernández’ neck and shoulder. These two dancers’ stage personalities in this music box moment are so similar in their striving for polished technique that it feels like two dancers conjoined into one well-machined moonbeam.

A lovely element in Act II is the offstage singers, led by soprano Victoria Fraser, and mezzo-soprano Lauren Bigelow and the Volti ensemble under the direction of Robert Geary.

It’s a dizzying ride, but you might feel the earth tremble when at the end, your feet relocate on terra firma.

Toba Singer

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