Gorgeous Midsummer Night’s Dream Stuns at Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet Principal Beckanne Sisk as Hippolyta in John Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Houston Ballet Principal Beckanne Sisk as Hippolyta in John Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2023). Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
“Are you sure that we are awake?”

It’s a question asked in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it’s exactly the question that audiences will ask themselves after viewing John Neumeier’s take on the Shakespearean classic, which opens the Houston Ballet’s latest season at the Wortham Theater Center.

Are you sure that we are awake? Did we really just witness that beautiful, stunning fever dream of a show?

Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with Felix Mendelssohn’s immediately recognizable Wedding March and a sleeping, but restless Hippolyta (Beckanne Sisk). Her wedding to the Duke of Athens, Theseus (Chase O’Connell), is nigh and the scene soon explodes with action, with the Master of Revels, Philostrate (Harper Watters), overseeing the planning of the festivities. Amidst the scurry of courtiers, officers and servants, Hippolyta sees friends Hermia (Jacquelyn Long) and Helena (Melody Mennite). Hermia is in love – requited – with the gardener, Lysander (Eric Best).

Officer Demetrius (Skylar Campbell) is in love – unrequited – with Hermia, much to his ex-fiancée Helena’s chagrin. Lysander gives Hermia a letter asking to meet in the woods, a letter that Helena finds and shows to Demetrius. Hippolyta spies the interactions of the four, before a group of craftsmen led by weaver Bottom (Riley McMurray) arrive to pitch a play they wish to perform on the wedding day. Bottom momentarily catches Hippolyta’s attention but soon her intended arrives. Theseus brings her a rose, but otherwise, it’s clear that their relationship is distant at best.

Alone again, Hippolyta also finds Lysander’s love letter to Hermia and reads it before going back to sleep, Theseus’s rose still in her hand. We then enter her dreamworld, the curtain rising and falling to reveal a world altogether alien. Tinged an eerie green by the lighting (designs of which are also by Neumeier), this realm is populated by otherworldly creatures like fairies and elves, costumed in shiny skullcaps and unitards.

Emerging from the center is Philostrate – now the mischievous fairy Puck, and soon we see Hippolyta, imagining herself as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and Theseus as Oberon, King of the Elves. The two quarrel, and an angry Oberon decides to punish Titania by giving Puck a magical rose to use on the Queen. If you shake the rose over the eyes of someone asleep, they will fall in love with the first person they see when they wake. Hermia and Lysander, and then Demetrius and Helena, make their way through the woods, as do the craftsmen. With all the characters present in the woods and Puck wielding a magical rose, we now get to see how “the course of true love never did run smooth.”
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Houston Ballet Principal Chase O’Connell as Oberon, First Soloist Harper Watters as Puck, and Demi Soloist Estheysis Menendez in John Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2023). Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
It is, of course, a testament to the brilliance of John Neumeier, that this ballet, quickly approaching 50 years old, feels so modern, fresh and innovative. Not only does Neumeier’s choice to do character doubling bring an added complexity to Shakespeare’s work, so does his world building. And the fact the Neumeier masterfully melds such vastly different worlds together – different not only in appearance, but also sonically and in terms of dance vocabulary – is a feat in and of itself.

Speaking of dance, Neumeier’s choreography is both clever and risky, with pretty much every combination of characters getting a moment to partner, and a great use of motifs and repetition throughout. Now, it’s a little top heavy, as the first of the two acts carries all the action while the second is essentially just the wrap up and the wedding day divertissements, but the action doesn’t stop and, more importantly, the characters are so compellingly played that you’ll have no problem spending the time with them.

Sisk’s Hippolyta is the driver of this story – at least, her psyche is. When we meet her, contemplating her veil and the lush train of her dress, the doubt and uncertainty she emanates speaks volumes, especially in the well-placed silence of the ballet’s soundscape. Sisk dances beautifully, equally successful at the classical vocabulary demonstrated during the pas de deux with Theseus in Hippolyta’s room, to the fierce weirdness of her interactions with Oberon, and finally the preening, twisting and turning she does in a provocative interlude with Bottom.

O’Connell is a bit aloof as Theseus until that pas de deux in Hippolyta’s room, which begins with O’Connell dancing with a sleeping Sisk. It builds into something triumphant, with Sisk lifted, carried, steadied, and adored. But as Oberon, O’Connell is commanding and powerful. Of course, shows of strength and athleticism are nothing new at Houston Ballet, but that doesn’t mean they should be taken for granted.

Watters undergoes the greatest transformation in Hippolyta’s dream, going from an austere, businesslike Philostrate, orchestrating the wedding preparations with a keen eye and a chilly presence, to the wickedly sly and sensuous Puck. Mischievous, and just this side of meanspirited, Watters is mesmerizing on stage. His Puck is playful and smirky, someone who occasionally stops to enjoy the mayhem he’s set in motion, and he has a particularly exceptional chemistry with O’Connell’s Oberon, who he both schemes with and gets reprimanded by in some striking partnering sequences. His movements are precise and controlled, and he gets in on the comedy often, at times finding himself in the middle (literally) of the mixed-up lovers.

Mennite takes a very comedic and very physical turn as Helena. Between her Mr. Magoo-like nearsightedness and desperation for Campbell’s stiff and stately Demetrius, we get to see Mennite throws herself onto Campbell’s back, into his arms, and faceplant at least once. Best’s Lysander and Long’s Hermia have a little less to work with than their counterparts, but still manage to capture the sweetness of love from the moment they take their first exaggeratedly comedic steps toward each other. Best gets an extra shout out for so easily going from joyfully dancing with Hermia to pursuing Helena with a feral gleam in his eye.
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Artists of Houston Ballet in John Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2023). Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
McMurray’s Bottom leads the craftsmen, a group made up of dancers Samuel Rodriguez, Neal Burks, Jack Wolff, Aaron Daniel Sharratt, Elivelton Tomazi and Nikita Baryshnikov. Synchronized and coordinated, their movements are artfully artless and perfectly match the musicality of the organ grinder. At court, their nerves show in their feet. In the forest, they are prone to pointing, foot stomping, and becoming tangled together, lending the production a beautiful chaotic energy.

In the second act, the craftsmen finally grace the court (and the audience) with their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, a play about two Babylonian lovers who live in connected homes but are forbidden to be together by their parents. The appearance of a lion, followed by a misunderstanding, results in the pair’s self-inflicted deaths, and while that may not sound like a knee-slapper, it becomes one in the inept, amateurish hands of Bottom and his motley crew. In particular, we get the payoff for the pointe shoes previously given to Rodriguez’s Flute, who goes on to deliver some show-stealing pratfalls as Thisbe.

The design of the fairies and their realm may be the first things that come to mind when thinking of Jürgen Rose’s costume and scenic design, but equally impressive is the palace and its people – rich, courtly and romantic. They allow for Neumeier to set the dancers up in some beautiful tableaus.

Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra deftly handle Felix Mendelssohn’s music, while György Ligeti’s ominous organ sets the scene for the fairies. The soundscape is well-balanced, with the unrelenting tension of Ligeti’s music and the fairy realm getting an occasional but welcome break with the the on-stage organ grinder that accompanies the craftsmen and the return of Mendelssohn’s score with the two Athenian couples.

If there’s one elephant in the room about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s that the love-struck behavior of the characters (some under the influence of magic, some not) fall under the category of “coming on strong” at best and assault at worst. There are also clearly issues of consent at play. And while there may be a discussion to be had there, Neumeier’s dream conceit leaves the piece fairly insulated. After all, far be it from me to question how a person’s subconscious manifests anxieties about sex, marriage and love.

Performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. September 9, 15 and 16; 2 p.m. September 10 and 17, and 1:30 p.m. September 16 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Through September 17. For more information call 713-227-2787 or visit $25-$220.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.