A Midsummer Night's Dream
at the Shubert Theatre, May 15-19
By Maura Troester
During the past two years, Ballet Chicago's artistic director Daniel Duell and associate artistic director Patricia Blair have fought the good fight for the survival of their company. At times it seemed that to base a classical ballet company in Chicago was an absurdity. This city has a long tradition of inhospitality to home-grown ballet troupes. Perhaps it has something to do with what dance critic Edwin Denby once observed: "Ballet is absurd by nature. But its absurdities are civilized ones." It seems that obnoxious absurdity is fine and dandy in Chicago performances. Civilized absurdity, however, raises a few eyebrows.
Ironically, Ballet Chicago's acceptance of its own civilized absurdity is the charm that's distinguished the company and kept it alive--and it's the charm that will keep it alive in the years to come. Quietly and persistently, Duell and Blair have been saying that, yes, this is classical ballet. And, yes, it has a lot of conventions that seem goofy to a meat-and-potatoes audience. Through thick and thin Ballet Chicago has maintained a delicate dedication to this absurd form of communication, in which women balance on their toes and men wear white tights and velvet. Little by little they've built a company that seems to grow stronger every year and make a virtue of its own absurdity.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is Ballet Chicago's 1996 Spring Festival offering, choreographed by Bruce Wells for the Boston Ballet. This collaborative version of the Bard's masterpiece sometimes floats and occasionally clunks along to its expected resolution, in which true love conquers mortal stupidity and everyone is happily married to the right person. The clunks come when dancers get mired in technique and forget they have a story to tell. The floating comes when the company not only transcends technique but transcends the original story, creating a magical reality unique to ballet.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the concluding moments, during composer Felix Mendelssohn's final few lush stanzas, which provide choreographers an opportunity to bring this raucous story to a gentle conclusion. Here all the disparate elements of this production--white tights and asses' heads, 35 kids and a world-renowned guest artist, fairies and mixed-up love--come together beautifully. The children, playing fairies, circle around their queen, Titania. The lights dim, and she prepares to float out of our reality. Down on one knee in supplication, the fairies raise small round orbs above their heads. When they do, the orbs light up and the fairies are transformed into fireflies, re-creating that midsummer twilight moment when the real becomes magic. This moment gives absolute credence to Shakespeare's fairies and sense of human folly, capturing a charm rarely conveyed in theatrical productions of the play.
It's a shame that Ballet Chicago has such a short season. With a little more time, all the moments onstage might be as rich as this one. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a character dance, and its humor relies on the strong articulation of each character's foibles. Wells's choreography is beautifully rich in its humor and humanity, but the company didn't have enough time to fully develop this, nor was the run long enough for them to ripen in their roles. And ironically Duell took a risk in casting Johan Renvall, guest artist from American Ballet Theatre, as Puck. Renvall is a seasoned, consummate performer, so at ease in his role and his body that he almost made the rest of the performers pale by comparison.
This is a small complaint, however. The production was full of delicious moments, such as Helena's thwarted attempts to escape the love-sick Lysander and the goofy bravado dances performed by the rustics. Ballet Chicago has also developed a strong corps, supported by an incredibly precise and serious group of 35 young dancers as the fairies. The company's precision, delicate attention to detail, and deep respect for the civilized absurdity of the art made A Midsummer Night's Dream a delightful, gentle affair.