Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – some dazzling dancing, in parts

Joint New Zealand-Queensland ballet production choreographed by Liam Scarlett is light-hearted and entertaining, but drags on for too long

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 12:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 12:23pm

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been adapted for ballet more than any Shakespeare play except Romeo and Juliet. The story, with its fairies, young lovers and physical comedy, lends itself well to dance, and Mendelssohn’s music (first composed as incidental music for the play) makes a delightful score.

Hong Kong has seen visiting companies perform three very different versions by noted choreographers – Hamburg Ballet (John Neumeier), La Scala Ballet (George Balanchine) and Monte Carlo Ballet (Jean-Christophe Maillot).

Now comes Royal New Zealand Ballet with a version created for them in 2015 (as a joint production with Queensland Ballet) by Liam Scarlett.

British-born Scarlett, who turns 30 this year, started his career as a dancer at the Royal Ballet in London and is now artist-in-residence with the New Zealand company. A Midsummer Night’s Dream reflects the company’s strong tradition of narrative work using classical technique and shows why Scarlett is one of the ballet world’s most promising young choreographers.

The plot has been simplified, dropping the framing device of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding and transforming the two young Athenian couples into explorers hunting butterflies in the forest, with Bottom and the rustics as their entourage. However, the essential elements (the feud between Oberon and Titania, Puck’s antics with the two young couples, Bottom’s metamorphosis into an ass) remain.

The result is a light-hearted, entertaining production. Tracy Lord Grant’s designs are gorgeous and Nigel Gaynor has done a fine job of arranging the score (and did an equally fine one of conducting the Hong Kong Sinfonietta).

Scarlett’s choreography is assured and admirably musical. The sections for the fairies are scintillating, filled with light, fast footwork; the comic passages between the lovers are packed with clever slapstick and both Puck and Bottom are well realised.

The main weakness is that at one hour and 40 minutes the ballet is too long. The first half suffers from obvious padding (the routines for the rustics serve no purpose save giving the company’s male dancers something to do); the second half is stronger but awkwardly structured – a splendidly orchestrated sequence that has everyone chasing everyone else around the stage (the high point of the piece) takes place too early, making the rest of the ballet an anticlimax.

It’s also a mistake to have Titania dance such romantic choreography with Bottom – although there are still some comic touches, Scarlett doesn’t create the necessary contrast between the Fairy Queen making a fool of herself (or something worse, in darker versions) with a donkey and her loving reconciliation with Oberon.

The company has plenty of energy and the acting was excellent, although the overall standard of dancing was uneven, especially from the men.

There was an outstanding performance from Tonia Looker as Titania, with expressive acting and ravishing fluidity of movement. She also has exquisite feet, as do most of the company’s female dancers - the four lead fairies in particular shone in this respect.

There was a dazzling turn from Shaun James Kelly as a deliciously mischievous Puck, Abigail Boyle was a very funny Helena and Harry Skinner an endearingly bewildered Bottom.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Sha Tin Town Hall. Reviewed: October 7