Amongst the blur that was 2020, a few key dates stand out. March 6th is one. It was the last evening I saw a dance show in a theater – Joffrey Ballet at Cal Performances. Across the bridge on that same night, San Francisco Ballet (SFB) was celebrating the highly anticipated return of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his 1962 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. I was set to see Dream later in its run but sadly, due to COVID, March 6th would be this Dream’s only live performance.
Hopefully, Dream will be back on the War Memorial stage sometime in the future. But in the meantime, SFB has elected to bring a recently filmed version of the ballet to its audiences as the first program of 2021. And what a lovely way to kick off the digital season! Dream is charming, good fun, delightful escapism. Martin Pakledinaz’s costume and set design burst with color and joy. Mendelssohn’s score marries grand largesse with delicate expressive dynamics. But the real triumph is how Balanchine was able, in a relatively short time – the two-act ballet runs 1 hour, 40 minutes – to capture the story’s ensemble essence. Yes, there are some roles that are more involved than others, but to fully relay Dream takes a total company effort. One just has to look to the source material to understand. In the comedic work, Shakespeare introduces abundant characters and narrative threads. There’s a wedding and those who provide entertainment at the festivities. Two other sets of young lovers are enmeshed in a passionate quadrangle. Fairies and sprites. Anesthetizing flowers. Trickery, craftiness and magic. A transformation from man to donkey and back again. So much action, a significant cast and a lack of spoken word – would this dance version be up to the task? Indeed, it was, though familiarity with the play and/or the general synopsis doesn’t hurt. Characters interact with confidence. Each scene flows into the next with ease. There is hope that the various storylines will all end in ‘happily ever after.’ An eccentric group of beings inhabiting the same space at the same time – Dream is a dazzling romp.
A fluid, float-y ensemble of mythical creatures, led by lead butterfly Julia Rowe, usher the audience into the sylvan setting and introduce us to the mischievous Puck, portrayed by Cavan Conley. A trickster who facilitates most of the narrative shenanigans, Puck’s physical vocabulary is all whimsy and glee: double attitude jumps, parallel pirouettes and pas de chats alongside high knee running circuits. This was another triumph of Dream. Personality and character are intricately woven into the choreography. Through Balanchine’s steps and phrases you can see who each individual is. In short order, more of the cast descends upon the scene, including the quarreling monarchs who reign over the forest, Titania and Oberon (Sasha De Sola and Esteban Hernandez). Oberon’s powerful choreography – turns, leaps, crisp directional changes and beats galore – is made for dancers like Hernandez, who has incredible technique and ballon. With expansive shapes and fluttering boureés, De Sola’s Titania gleamed with regality and elegance. And the partnering must be given its due. Because of all Dream’s different characters and pairings, the ballet has its fair share of pas de deux. Corps, soloists, principals – everyone handled their duets with incredible aplomb. Partnering was consistently strong, steady and secure. The best I’ve seen in a while.
Act II opens with familiar wedding processional music and a grand full-cast wedding march. While quite beautiful and stately, the main draw of Act II is the performances at the nuptials: a dance for six couples and a featured pas de deux. A celebratory, ornate tone pervaded both, with the group variation showcasing elaborate canoned timing. Danced by Frances Chung and Ulrik Birkkjaer, the main pas de deux was perfect for a wedding. From the simplest grapevines to ethereal lifts to courtly promenades, it was all romance.
Like many companies, SFB has got the streaming process well in hand; there weren’t any technical glitches or hiccups to contend with. Though I will say that when the video pans back to provide a wide shot of the entire stage, it’s pretty difficult to see much detail at all, either choreographic or patterning. One aspect of the streaming experience that I loved (and wasn’t expecting) was the opportunity to see the orchestra. During the prelude, the camera moved throughout the orchestra pit – a view we never get to see. It was so lovely to witness how the instruments are really engaged in their own dance, particularly the bows in the string section.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is available via streaming until February 10th, 2021.