Grand Rapids Ballet Company
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
Grand Rapids, MI
May 9-18, 2014
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
In keeping with Grand Rapids Ballet Company’s penchant for contemporary reinterpretations of story ballet classics that has included updated productions of Romeo & Juliet and Swan Lake, the world premiere of choreographer Olivier Wevers’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream May 9 at Grand Rapids’ Peter Martin Wege Theatre was a one-of-a-kind re-envisioning of Shakespeare’s familiar tale that was clever and entertaining.
The two-act family-friendly ballet set to a score by Felix Mendelssohn’s with added incidental music such as Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” and a version of the song “Mr. Sandman” was set in the 21st century and told through the eyes of pre-teen Nick Bottom (Ethan Kroll). In it young Nick represents the changeling boy from the Shakespeare tale that fairy king Oberon and fairy queen Titania quarrel over. Wevers’ takes that minor character and turns him into the focal point of the ballet. Nick is a bookworm who dreams of being an adult and running for president. Wevers’ marries that storyline with Shakespeare’s original creating a fantasy world where young Nick sees himself simultaneously as his own age in the changeling boy role and as the adult character Bottom.
Act one of the ballet opened on an all-white stage with several stacked modular blocks as set pieces. Young Nick with the aid of projected text introduced the ballet’s main characters that included Oberon (Nicholas Schultz), Titania (Yuka Oba), Puck (Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida) and his older self danced by Stephen Sanford.
Delivered with rapid fire pace Wevers’ utilitarian contemporary ballet choreography effectively moved the storyline along while peaking interest at every twist and turn. Titania and her band of fairies all in white swirled around Oberon in teasing fashion, while Oberon’s entourage of “Shakers” that he abused with “three stooges” fervor swept him up like a king seated on his throne and delivered him in front of an unimpressed Titania. Throughout the ballet Wevers pitted Oberon and Titania in a competitive, sometimes sexually charged battle of who had the upper hand in their marriage. More often than not it was Titania which didn’t sit well with Oberon.
A bit light on technical dancing and the bravura elements found in many classical Midsummer productions, Wevers’ very accessible choreography infused with slapstick humor was dense with expressive and expansive movement.
A member of Grand Rapids Ballet School’s junior company, Kroll as young Nick was endearing and expertly played to the audience, especially in a pre-dream bedroom scene in which Oba as his mother was outwitted by him trying to get him to go to bed.
After another scene set to hip hop music of young Nick having a nightmare in which he was tormented by bullies who took his belongings, the ballet settled into Shakespeare’s familiar Midsummer storyline of comedic manipulations of hearts and minds. Two mortal couples, Hermia (Connie Flachs) and Lysander (Steven Houser) along with Helena (Hannah Wilcox) and Demetrius (Dave Naquin) fall victim to Oberon and the mischievous Puck’s magical meddling. Romantic affections are re-routed from one lover to another creating the ballet’s familiar fun-filled series of mishaps. While the bulk of the ballet’s characters engaged in a cartoonish level of physical humor pushing each other around, Oberon’s disagreeable demeanor had him for much of the production coming off as not very likeable. His aggressive behavior with Puck and the Shakers bordered on the type of bullying young Nick feared.
As with many Midsummer productions the character of Puck stole the show. Yoshida in the role was a wild jokester who regularly changed hats from a baseball cap to a chef’s hat and reveled in creating chaos for the other characters. He bounded about the stage vaulting himself onto and under set pieces grinning ear-to-ear at his disruptiveness.
Wevers’ most interesting variance from Shakespeare’s original occurred in the final scene of act one where adult Nick Bottom, danced with nerdy awkwardness by Sanford, was transformed from a campaigning presidential candidate (instead of a traveling actor) into a suit-wearing donkey. Belgian-born Wevers’ had some fun with the American political landscape of red and blue states by replacing Bottom’s red tie with a blue one and then repurposing it as Bottom’s donkey tale.
Act II of the ballet found Titania under a spell in which she has fallen in love with Bottom as donkey. A situation in keeping with Shakespeare’s story but a bizarre one for the dreaming young Nick who essentially watched his older self make out with Titania who in his dream represented his mother. That situation and the misdirected affections of the mortal lovers were rectified when Oberon ordered Puck to put all parties to sleep with an enchanting fog fired from a CO2 gun and then afterward used the “love nectar” from a special flower to magically set things right.
The ballet’s finest dancing came toward its end during an intense pas de deux between Oberon and Titania in which the pair rekindled their love. Schultz and Oba displayed wonderful partnering skills in Wevers’ driving choreography filled with fluid lifts and turns. Oba was alluring in swirls of movement that intertwined her body with Schultz’s and the two exchanged small leg bumps that nudged each other into motion.
The ballet concluded with the requisite fanfare in which the cast celebrated their happy-ever-after situations.
Apart from the hardcore ballet purist, it would be hard not to deem Grand Rapids Ballet Company’s contemporary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream a glowing success. Inspired performances by GRBC’s dancers coupled with Wevers’ fresh approach to the story and vibrant choreography along with Michael Mazzola’s atmospheric lighting made for a most unique and entertaining approach to any Midsummer ballet and one certainly worth repeating for years to come.