Miami City Ballet Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
April 13, 2019 | Broward Center – Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA
If you were looking for a Lilly Pulitzer undersea world for Miami City Ballet’s re-imagining of Balanchine’s version of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (yeah…I was, a little), then it took you a few minutes to settle in to the dark and earthy backdrops crafted by Miami Beach native Michele Oka Doner who has been creating sparse, brown-and-tan art forms to wide acclaim for five decades now. (If you’ve ever flown out of the Miami airport, you might be familiar with her permanent installation, “A Walk on the Beach,” a display that spans 1.25 miles and is seen by more than 40 million visitors each year.)
For this ballet, the idea was that the dancers would experience the Shakespearean story where the land meets the sea. And they do explore this world of Doner’s imagination, with costume nods and scenery and setting systems, some more subtle than others.
To this homage to Mother Ocean, let me say this: no one loves being a Floridian more than I do. The idea of sand meeting sea excites me every day, and the impulse to bring this joie de coastal vivre to a big Balanchine ballet makes sense. But…consider this: the sea and shore idea is huge; Shakespeare is huge; and Balanchine choreography is huge. Editing becomes key.
The metaphors and symbols that make Miami and South Florida seem often more carnivalesque than serious can easily get mixed—crossed even. Adding lighting and costuming and new takes on old Renaissance expectations can be a lot. It was a lot.
Honestly, at moments during the performance at The Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the well-intentioned tribute to land-meets-shore South Florida did get in the way of the very deep and devoted talent pool of dancers under the direction of Cuban-born, Miami-raised Lourdes Lopez.
Lopez is described as tough but supportive of her dancers, and her vision and willingness to experiment continues to bring audiences and funding to the eastern coast of the peninsula state. Lopez has the talent, the venues, the support of her community, the breadth of Miami’s well-developed artistic community at her fingertips, and now, at the end of the company’s 30th year, she has the re-telling of a classical fantasy tale under her belt—and possibly a few lessons learned to carry forward.
Before we even talk about the performance and staging, it seems important to call out the access to the arts that this company provides South Florida fans. I sat in the cheap seats – three rows back on the balcony level. For 29 dollars, I had an amazing view and great acoustics.
The night before, I attended the drag review at Lips and paid 12 dollars for admission with a minimum of 15 dollars of spending required once inside. So for about the same price as the drag review in Fort Lauderdale (also a show worth attending, by the way), I witnessed a story ballet under the direction of Balanchine expert in Lopez. And the full orchestra accompanied the performance – and there was a chorus, too…an operatic chorus! Anyone attending this performance, where tickets went from my range to $110.00, surely noted the good value.
Before the curtain comes up, the orchestra sets the tone, a tone that seemed to be in a race with itself. The strings come off the mark first, playing and racing at a tempo and with a touch so filled with giddiness that it seems, in the early moments, that perhaps the strings will outrun each other. The curtain’s ascent helps tame that maniacal pace as the dancers attack – charging the stage with a verve that did, in fact, grow more appealing with the giddy-if-feverish falls and rise of the accompanying musicians.
The romantic ballet in the first half of the production is replete with pantomime and storytelling – with comings and goings and all the trappings needed to create the chaos of the midsummer night rêve. And the sea-meets-shore sets, dark, primarily, with hints of sparkles on tutus reminiscent of jellyfish, are punctuated almost too overtly with a bright silver lamé chair that replaces the Botticelli-esque shell and style from Balanchine’s 1962 understanding.
The talent of the dancers, the story-tellers, is clear from the beginning. As they orient themselves amid the agitated tempo of the music and the original sets and scenery that play with audience expectations, their lines are sharp; their attack on each passage is polished and direct.
But in a story that is so dependent on gender and traditional roles, the edge or force of ‘things masculine’ really doesn’t arrive until Oberon takes the stage alone, and alone, he brings the much-needed masculine prowess and force that will anchor the remainder of the pantomime and prolific set inversions that dominate the games on this midsummer night.
Less can be said of the physical presentation of Oberon’s counterpart, the eternal mischief, Puck. Dressed more in the colors of a Seattle-based grunger riding the bus on a midsummer afternoon than the mysterious and masculine Puck of the 1960s, our 2019 version is nondescript and yellowandgreenandbeige folly on the form of a very proficient and focused dancer.
Please understand that each member of this dancing company is fantastic and worthy of holding your attention, and, for the most part, your praise. The long, flowing hair of our three female heroines leans into the idea of the shore/sea location. And the silver shell, a bit more like South Florida’s ubiquitous Ross Dress for Less than Venus rising, does serve as the center for all scenes when dream/rest is required. And, again, the impulse to re-imagine, or to re-tell, is important if a company and a choreography is to grow.
But it is also important to remember that when one has a bench this deep of quality dancers, less is always going to be more for the audience.
Was a manatee head more interesting than a donkey head? Perhaps. But what was really interesting were the athletic abilities of these dancers. Amid sea shells and sea weed and lighting designed to resemble kelp, these glorious, young, lithe, agile, focused, committed dancers delivered a delicate-yet-driving performance of a complicated puzzle of play and plundered identity in the classical Shakespearean sense.
If you remember that this story was written by an Englishman near the end of the 1500s, with the musical score added in 1842 by oh-so-young and German Mendelssohn, then both were translated to ballet in 1962 by a Russian in New York, then re-told again in 2019 with a beachy, ocean flair, it is pretty hard to imagine that the story still comes through. But it does.
To my right, the friend who had been at the original show saw all the same elements and noticed the alterations made by this performance – some hits and some misses. To my left, the ballet newbie is now a fan and was excited to see the classical second act end with all that is right being restored to the world with less costuming and overlays and more reliance on the dancers themselves.
Miami City Ballet has been serving her audience for thirty years. This performance marked the end of that thirtieth season and showed a pretty full house that a strong dance foundation is in place. May this foundation enjoy many new interpretations of treasured works—all with the pizzazz and pop that make Miami a pastiche to welcome manatees, mayhem, and all the magic of a midsummer night’s dream.
Featured Photo for Miami City Ballet Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Takes Balanchine to the Beach of the company in George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream © Miami City Ballet
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