Grand Rapids Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Continues with Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Balanchine’s “Serenade”

By Steve Sucato and Jessica Meldrum

Michigan’s lone professional ballet company, continues its 50th Anniversary Celebration with Christopher Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, April 22-24 and April 29-May 1 at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre as well as online, May 3 as part of GRB’s 2021-2022 virtual season offerings. The production also features George Balanchine’s timeless masterwork, Serenade.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of William Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies and is a wonderful story to be made into a ballet, especially since Mendelssohn wrote such perfect music to accompany the play,” says Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko. “After waiting over two years to bring Midsummer to the stage, I am so excited to finally be able to share this beautiful ballet with our audiences.”

GRB is only the second company to perform Stowell’s hourlong Midsummer, originally created on Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2007. Stowell, the son of former Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director and principal choreographer, Kent Stowell, is currently the associate director of the National Ballet of Canada.

Stowell’s take on the Shakespeare classic begins rather differently with a modern-day wedding reception full of inebriated guests doing the bunny hop and dancing in a conga line alongside an equally tipsy wait staff. When one of the wait staff brings out a box of costumes and props, the party guests and staff decide to act out A Midsummer Night’s Dream to continue their merriment. The story then switches to a more traditional Midsummer ballet production look with magical fairies in a butterfly-filled forest, and much more. 

Midsummer utilizes our whole organization, not only the professional company members and apprentices but also our trainees and even students from our Grand Rapids Ballet School,” says Sofranko.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the story of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies, the mischief-making Puck, and the magical spells cast by them. Set to music by Felix Mendelssohn, the easy-to-follow-production has action and love triumphing over all obstacles in the end.

“It’s a comedic ballet with many stories interwoven,” explains GRB company dancer James Cunningham. “The colors of the costumes help illustrate the characters and their corresponding storylines.” Says fellow GRB company dancer Nathan Young, “This production is fast-paced with big jumps and turns and you are really transported into a Shakespearean world.”

Sharing a glimpse of what went on in preparation for the production, company dancer Alexandra Meister-Upleger shared how she and Cunningham work together to portray their characters, Helena and Demetrius.

“Our couple is loosely based on other Shakespeare plays,” explained Meister-Upleger. “Hermia and Lysander are based on Romeo and Juliet, and another main couple, Demetrius and Helena, are based on Hamlet and Ophelia.”  To get into character Meister-Upleger says she did research beforehand. “The character of Hermia is tough for me. It’s not my natural tendency to perform this type of role. I’m generally more confident, and my character, Helena, is more withdrawn.”

Cunningham says he also turned to the play for inspiration. “I usually read texts or watch a film and see how the actors portray the role and bring that knowledge to the dance steps I’m given.”

Sofranko sees Stowell’s Midsummer as a challenging ballet for his dancers but one with a lot of great dancing and fantastic music for audiences to enjoy.

Grand Rapids Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Serenade.” Photo Courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet.

Opening the program will be Balanchine’s breathtaking Serenade, danced to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic “Serenade for Strings.” The often performed ballet is widely known as Balanchine’s first ballet made in America. Using the students of his School of American Ballet, he choreographed Serenade in the early 1930s for an American audience that had not yet been widely exposed to ballet.

Serenade is one of those ballets that you never tire of watching,” says Sofranko. “The way the music fills the dancers’ spirits and the way Balanchine moves the corps of women around the stage is pure genius. It is a work of art that every ballet lover should experience.”

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