The Setup: Choreographers have never shied away from adapting the works of Shakespeare to world of ballet, but A Midsummer Night's Dream is an altogether different endeavor. There's the large roster of characters to deal with, the circuitous nature of the key relationships, and not to mention the transitions in and out of a fairy world. Dance doesn't lend itself well to backstory, but it does lend itself to tales of passion. Choreographer John Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1977) is all body; no text needed here. Houston Ballet opened its 2014-2015 season with Neumeier's classic last Thursday night, becoming the first American company to perform the work.
The Execution: Dream opens with the approaching wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens to Hippolyta. Her friends Helena and Hermia help her through the evening's preparations. During the course of the hustle and bustle, Demetrius, an office of the court, and Lysander, the gardener, enter with amorous intentions. Demetrius was formerly engaged to Helena but now pursues Hermia. But Lysander and Hermia are in love, while Helena still pines for Demetrius. Hippolyta's wedding jitters are compounded by the fact that she knows her betrothed has a wondering eye for the lovely ladies at court. She falls asleep, with her impending marriage to the Duke of Athens weighing heavily on her mind. In Neumeier's iteration, this is where the real magic begins.
The Fairy Realm in Act I isn't that of English folklore. Designed by Jurgen Rose, the fairy-scape of Neumeier is less fantastical in visual aesthetic than it is sci-fi. The whimsical and otherworldly is evoked by an almost minimalist stage; three identical trees bloom an eerie green hue in the shadowy lighting and create a mood of ominous wonderment. The dancers are costumes in peach unitards and move about like probing insects. If these are fairies, they are fairies of the future.
Even 37 years after its creation, the choreography of the Dream section feels avant-garde. It opens with a mass of cavorting bodies, arms and legs moving as sinuously as snakes. The narrative arch is that Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander are enchanted by Puck to fall in love with the wrong partner, but the most compelling dancing here comes from the sprites. They fill the stage in sharp geometric patterns, each group moving with a distinct quality. One is sharp and precise, the other in slow motion lugubriousness.
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At this point it's best to forget the narrative and enjoy the non-classical shapes and facings. There is a moment when a group of men enters downstage in a repeated sequence: a relevé, to a deep plié in second, then a beat of the hands, and the phrase repeats itself. There is story going on behind them, but their spaceman line dance is what captures the imagination. The stage is full and busy, but never fussy. Neumeier's staging requires the viewer to be an adult, to make an informed decision about which formation will be his/her focal point.
The Dream borders on a hallucinogenic-induced haze. Stunning image overlaps stunning image, as when Hippolyta is brought on stage in a life, and she is guided down a human staircase. Then her horizontal body is manipulated in the air by a continually changing platform formed by six pairs of arms and legs. She then comes to rest on the shoulders of a singly posed dancer. The group work here is a feat of strength, but also of imagination.
The Verdict: When experiencing an artist's reimaging of a masterwork, I think it's appropriate to ask what the new rendering says that the original does not. Shakespeare's comedy says that love is a complicated; it's an amorphous, convoluted, and at times, a downright ridiculous thing. But Neumeier's choreography, especially his mesmerizing partner work, says that and so much more. Love is a complex beast, but one that is beautiful once tamed.
A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through September 14 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 501 Texas Avenue. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit the ballet's website.