REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Nijinsky (Brisbane Festival) | Playhouse
“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania?” Well, it was certainly a hairy night in the forest, if the appearances of the four young lovers (Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander) are anything to go by. They’ve been sleeping rough in their falling in-and-out-of-love journeys, while Titania, falling in love with the gross Bottom in the guise of an ass, doesn’t have it much easier.
The Hamburg Ballet was the star attraction at this year’s exciting Brisbane Festival, bringing its interpretations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the life of Vaslav Nijinsky to the Queensland Performance Arts Centre. The world-class double-act was a treat.
It certainly helps if you know the story of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedy before you see this show, because the three plots are tangled enough to begin with, and without any words to clarify the situation, who does what and with which and to whom can be problematic. But if you can differentiate between the Court, the Fairies and the Mechanicals, which the settings and costumes make it easy to do, you can just forget about the plot and let it all unfold as it should, and by the second act you’ll have a fair idea.
John Neumeier’s staging of this exquisite ballet is, astonishingly, 35 years old, but in both choreography and concept it’s as fresh as next week. Cheeky, sexy, sly, suggestive, laugh-out-loud funny and daringly radical as well as overwhelmingly beautiful in the best traditions of classical ballet, it is up there with the best in the history of the genre, as has been proved by its constant reprieves over the years.
Where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose, in the Court, where Hippolyta, danced by guest star Alina Cojocaru, is preparing for her marriage to Theseus, Duke of Athens. Here we have the whole box and dice of the choreographer’s designer’s tools — French Empire costumes, delicately sumptuous; dance routines encompassing every trick in the book; true love running both smoothly and bumpily; and even gross humour with Bottom and his team of rough mechanicals, who dance as if they were on a defective production line.
That’s just the prologue, where the story is set up, and it’s good enough to satisfy anyone. But wait! For now we move into the enchanted woods, on a starry starry night, where the trees shimmer in silver and move mysteriously around the stage, while Titania, queen of the fairies (Cojocaru again, in the standard doubling of roles) is arguing with Oberon, King of the Elves (Thiago Bordin, doubling as Theseus). It’s not, as in Shakespeare’s play, over the little Indian slave boy, who doesn’t appear in this ballet, but there’s real hostility between them, evidenced not just in the often brutal choreography, but in the bodies of the dancers themselves.
The big surprise is in the fairies. No froth-and-bubble tutus here, but sleek flesh-coloured uni-suits, giving them all an androgynous look, almost as if they were creatures from another planet. And indeed much of the choreography suggests this, too, with many of the movements being quite robotic. The unreality is matched by the uni-suits of Titania and Oberon themselves, shimmering with fish-like scales, and helmets making them equally androgynous.
Here Alexandr Trusch comes into his own as Puck, also sleek, sinuous and androgynous, flirting with Oberon in a very suggestive way that verges on the edge of paedophilia, and disturbing the natural order of things with the love-dust from his magic flowers which he mischievously sprinkles into the wrong eyes . These are fairies to be afraid of, not to soothe and comfort, but they are as alarmed as Titania when she awakens and finds herself in love with the monstrous Bottom, transformed into an ass.
Of course all’s well that ends well, and we go back to court where the Mechanicals perform their clod-footed play about Pyramus and Thisbe to entertain the triple-marriage participants. This sequence, here presented as a Divertimento, is as funny as any dancing I’ve ever seen, and brought the house down.
But this is a romantic comedy and cannot end on a raucous note, so all is brought back to order with more standard classical dance traditions like pas-de-deux, arabesques, and every trick in the standard manual, brought here to dizzying heights.
This ballet gave us a night of nights, a thing of beauty that will last for ever, if its current longevity is any indication, and a total denial of proud Oberon’s statement, because it is indeed well met by moonlight. Thank you, John Neumeier, for taking us into such a magical world.
Then Nijinsky. Beautiful, tragic, mad Nijinsky. To call him the Rudolf Nureyev of the early 20th century would be to do him a disservice, because he was not just the finest ballet dancer of his generation, but possibly of all time. He revolutionised the art and the direction of dance, and changed audiences’ perspective of the male dancer. He was sensual and wore very scanty costumes, and his androgynous body echoed his bi-sexual lifestyle. Scandalous to the point of outrageousness, his own choreography, especially that of L’après-midi d’un faune (The afternoon of a faun), where he mimed masturbation with the scarf of a nymph, caused a riotous reaction when it premiered in Paris.
So how does one portray this tortured soul on stage? There have been plays and films about him, but never, as far as I’m aware, a dance piece. This extraordinary ballet has been choreographed, designed and staged by the legendary John Neumeier, leader of the Hamburg Ballet for the last 40 years. It is the story of Nijinsky’s life, but very much a discontinuous narrative, beginning with his last dance in front of an exquisite but unimpressed Edwardian audience, which then morphs into a series of vignettes about his life and his most famous roles — Harlequin, the Spectre of the Rose and the Golden Poet. His own family — parents and brother, the latter a sad boy also doomed to madness — also appear in this first half, and they mix and meld with the ballet sequences as confused but beautiful imaginings in Nijinsky’s febrile mind.
The ballet, created by Neumeier himself, is an exquisite fantasy, and it’s probably a self-defeating task to work out who is whom in the historical narrative, because all the performances have a dream-like quality. Of the dancing itself there can be no criticism, because the Hamburg Ballet is renowned throughout the world, even if we in Australia are not familiar with the names of its stars. So even if the dancers are not familiar, they are peerless, and the choreography is out of this world, as it should be in this dream-like production.
The emotional energy matches the physical energy of the dancers, and I wasn’t the only one on the edge of my seat during the World War I sequences, or in tears at the death of Nijinsky’s sad little brother.
The details: The Hamburg Ballet’s Nijinsky and A Midsummer Night’s Dream played the Playhouse at QPAC as part of the Brisbane Festival from August 27 to September 4.