Dance Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Northern Ballet

When: 21st May / Where: Milton Keynes Theatre

I’m going to start off by saying that I think Northern Ballet are fast becoming my favourite dance company. They manage to be entertaining, inventive and visually dynamic all at once. The range of work they take on tour is impressive and being a relatively small company, you get the sense that there is more room for the dancers to spread their wings a little. I unfortunately missed their recent performances at the Linbury, but was delighted to be able to see their balletic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this week.

For those unfamiliar with the original play, see a plot summary here or read Northern Ballet’s own summary here. NB had reimagined the play through the lens of a 1940s ballet company, giving us an unusual narrative: ballet dancers playing ballet dancers. The stage was set up to resemble a studio, with the company arranged as if warming up as the audience walked into the theatre. Once the curtain was officially up, we observed the company drifting about, preparing for rehearsals. Through interactions, we were able to identify out Hermia, our Lysander, our Helena and our Demetrius. The artistic director (our Theseus, Tobias Batley) strode in all in white, sharply reprimanding his dancers and pushing one ballerina aside (our Hippolyta, Martha Leebolt) in favour of another, their disagreement over his rejection of her as Juliet informing us of their romantic connection (and disagreement over her career). All of these small interactions mirrored the play perfectly, setting us up for the confusion that follows. I had trouble spotting Bottom and Puck in the scenes in the studio and at the station, although I had no trouble identifying them in the dream.

Northern Ballet always seems to have the most beautiful set and costume design. The ballet wear and 1950s outfits were gorgeous; complete with hats, gloves and (during the dream sequence) some fairly lovely underwear/pyjamas. The set and costumes were all in monochrome, lending an old-fashioned air and contrasting beautifully with the vivid colours of The Dream sequence in Act Two. The set was beautifully designed, with the bare, simplistic studio followed by an amazing, noir-ish train station set, that echoed films like A Brief Encounter. The train moved off stage seamlessly, folding into itself, with the interiors of the carriages appearing later, ingeniously hinged and on wheels, to allow the dancers to appear to be coming in and out of their compartments. The Dream set was mostly bare, save for a bright and patterned lighting design scheme (there was something that resembled a rocket hanging from the ceiling, which I have yet to figure out). Beds drifted down from the ceiling carrying our young lovers, reminding us that this is all a hazy, sleepy dream. The costumes again were exquisite; otherworldly and encompassing different textures, they were starkly different to the previous act.

The performers playing Theseus and Hippolyta also play Oberon and Titania (King and Queen of the Fairies), their pas de deuxs mirroring each other in movement as well as in plot. Their dancing was lovely, but far less interesting than what was given to the other performers, which seemed a shame. The scene depicting the fierce bust up between Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius in Act Two was full of fun, the choreography smart and humorous. A particular stand out for me was Helena (performed by Michela Paolacci the night we went) who was tiny and impish, hurling herself relentlessly at Demetrius, an irrepressible ball of adoration. What Northern Ballet does so well for me, is their exploration of narrative and storytelling and conveying so much about plot and interaction in their movements, as well as emotion, and this was evident throughout.

As much as I enjoyed the performance, there were a few negative spots for me. The recorded donkey brays employed for Bottom, especially in his interactions with Titania, are um…creepy. There’s no other way to say it. They are so incongruous to the rest of the score that they ring out like a harsh alarm bell, shattering any sense of magic the scene has built. The mechanicals felt like an afterthought, only clearly appearing briefly in the Dream section and perhaps the ballet could have been streamlined without them. I did feel that the performance was a little too long; the dance number at the end, following the uniting of all our couples felt superfluous, as did Puck reciting the final lines of the play at the ballet’s close. I would far rather have seen him dance a solo than hear him speak and it seems odd that they included such a long chunk of dialogue.

Aside from those minor niggles though, I thoroughly enjoyed A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I felt it captured the play’s spirit well and was a witty and joyful performance. The set and costume design was spectacular and the dancing light and energetic. Go see if you get the chance!

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