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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 MAY 2018 — What one retains from the March 2017 staging of Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Opéra Bastille is a glorious pas de deux, sandwiched between the two acts, and a wealth of beautiful, extravagant costumes designed by Christian Lacroix based on the original creations by Barbara Karinska. The success of the ballet, created for the New York City Ballet in 1962, is also due to the fabulous ‘Shakespearian’ score by Felix Mendelssohn who composed the extraordinary overture in 1876 at the age of 17. The music is an astonishing reflection of William Shakespeare’s play.

Midsummer Night’s Dream was Balanchine’s first original full-length work and while ostensibly based on Shakespeare’s play, it was music made dance, or rather, Shakespeare once removed. The ballet itself, visually most attractive, lacked the depth and mystery of John Neumeier’s version (1977), as well as the magic and humour of the timeless Shakespearian production of Frederick Ashton created in 1964. One is tempted to say that the Russian/American choreographer was more attracted to the score than to the English genius’ poetry.

The choreographer, more at ease with plotless abstract works, rushes breathlessly through an intricate and complicated plot, integrating scenes taking place in two different worlds, the supernatural and the human and complicating things further by a marriage of state at the end. The work also comprises the tangled love lives of at least 4 different couples,(or 5, if one includes the nameless couple who stole the show with their pas de deux), none of whom are given the time to fully  develop their role.

Hannah O'Neil as Titania, Queen of the fairies
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Agathe Poupeney

In brief, Titania, Queen of the fairies refuses to give her husband, Oberon, her little Indian boy, and he seeks revenge by ordering his servant, Puck, to shake a magic powder over her while she sleeps to make her fall in love with the first living thing she sees, namely the hapless Bottom, who is given a donkey’s head. Meanwhile, in another part of the forest,  Hermia and Lysander who are in love are running away to escape Hermia’s family who are forcing her to marry Demetrius, whom Helena loves,  with the mischievous Puck subsequently messing up who loves whom with his magic powder. Both men declare their love to the bewildered Helena, while Hermia is left bewailing her fate. To confuse the issue further, Bottom the weaver is taking part in a play, "Pyramus and Thisbe" with his co-workers, and there is also the state marriage of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, the forceful Queen of the Amazons, captured in battle.

Rushed through in I hour 10 minutes, and dominated by Titania, the luminous Hannah O’Neill, with her attendant fairies, elves, and insects, interpreted by pupils from the Paris Opera School,  one had nevertheless the time to admire the delicately painted scenery with the tall forests and luxuriant vegetation, designed by Christian Lacroix, as were the costumes of the gauzy winged bugs and butterflies, with their shimmering head dresses and sparking outfits embroidered with sequins and Swarovski crystals. A stunning scene was that of Titania reclining in a giant sized shell, as from a painting by Botticelli. Antoine Kirscher was an agile Puck with his high, nimble leaps, but artistically, he lacked humour and his interpretation was somewhat forced.

Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Despite the fact that Oberon was never meant to be a tall, stately prince, newly nominated étoile, Hugo Marchand*, a ‘danseur noble’,  was both forceful and refined in his one, highly complicated solo, originally created for the shorter, darker, ebullient Edward Villella. More surprising was the choice of the promising young Ida Viikinkoski, small, slender and fair, as Shakespeare’s swarthy, powerful Hippolyta. She acquitted herself well and her remarkable solo resulted in an outburst of spontaneous applause.

Act 2, in contrast, proved to be an abstract divertissement, beginning with the beautiful pas de deux by two nameless characters, and interpreted with musicality and grace by Marion Barbeau and Florian Magnenet. But oddly, no wedding guests were watching it, and it seemed to have little to do with neither Act 1 nor Act 2, but no matter, it was the highlight of the work. Slow moving, light, and fluid, it held the audience spell-bound. It was maybe Balanchine’s ideal of love signaling the end of the disputes.

Marion Barbeau and Florian Magnenet
Photo: Agathe Poupeney

The rest of the work, barely a half-hour, was the pure Balanchine one has grown to expect, made visually lovely by Lacroix’s scintillating tutus, of white, sugar-pink and gold.  It was nevertheless a bit of a puzzle, turning as it did, into a rather dull wedding-party with cloak swirling Duke Theseus, Audric Bezard, well cast in this rather static role at its centre.

*Hugo Marchand, 24, was nominated danseur étoile on March 3rd after a performance of Pierre Lacotte’s La Sylphide in Tokyo.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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