April 29, 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Finnish National Ballet

A Midsummer Night's Dream, choreography by Jorma Elo. Pictured: Samuli Poutanen as Puck, with students of the
Finnish National Ballet School. Photography by Sakari Viika, courtesy of Finnish National Ballet.

Stars sliding down from the sky, moonlit fairies, a secret forest, magic love potion, confused lovers, dreams and awakenings, mirth and happy endings... It was a wonderful evening, set to Mendelssohn's music, sparkly like the cava I had during intermission, sensual like a midsummer breeze, a breath of fresh air into the world of ballet. I had seen Jorma Elo's work before, so I knew to expect innovative and exciting choreography - but Midsummer Night's Dream is his first full-length story ballet... How do you even translate a play into dance? Seated in the audience of the second cast dress rehearsal, I tried to recall what Shakespeare's play was about... I had not done my homework on purpose, because a choreography should be able to stand and dance on its own.

The curtains open, and Puck appears. Bare-chested, green tights, with devil's horns on his head. He is holding a big red folder, marked "PLAY", and goes about contorting his body, sniffing and tasting the air. One wicked half-grin, and the entire audience is sold. I was lucky enough to see both casts, at the rehearsal and premiere, and I have to say this: both Pucks are fantastic. Frans Valkama is a natural choice, in appearance (that grin!) and personality. Samuli Poutanen (first cast, premiere) was equally marvellous. Some facial expressions were perhaps more pronounced (compared to Valkama), but I was seated closer that time. As a dancer, you have to project into last row - subtle does not show. In movement, Poutanen appeared more forceful, especially when he hurtled himself across the stage in breath-taking grand sauts I don't even know the names of. Both Poutanen and Valkama are technically very strong dancers, but it's always been their expressive personalities that have appealed to me the most. Hint to the Artistic Director: Put these two Pucks into a gala dance-off!

After Puck's introduction, a free-standing stone wall with ancient Greek drawings comes to life - we literally see characters stepping onto stage. It's far more traditional than what I expect. Dancers are posing, walking. A marriage proposal is mimed by pointing to the ring finger of the extended hand, just like it has been in every other story ballet. All very elegant and beautifully presented, including a refined pas de deux, but to me it lacked Elo's trademark innovativity. Prologues should set the mood and give background information, but personally I'm weary of anything involving mime. I talked with a few audience members and they shared my initial bewilderment. That's when a very old gentleman told us to "always do our homework!" But is it really necessary to be well versed in Shakespeare before you can view a ballet based on his play? One lady told me that she soon gave up trying to understand every twist, turn and motive. She simply sat back and enjoyed the dancing.

Nicholas Ziegler as Theseus and Daria Makhateli as Hippolyta, with artists of FNB. Photo by Sakari Viika, courtesy of FNB.

After the premiere (my 2nd viewing), I thought about it some more. The duke of Athens (Theseus) and the queen of Amazons (Hippolyta) are supposed to represent order, in contrast to the dream-like world of Puck and the fairy queen Titania. What could be more orderly than purely classical ballet? When the stone wall turns again, the ballet comes back to live. This time, the narrative is carried by the dancing: a young couple (Hermia and Lysander) is in love and wishes to marry. But Hermia's father wants her to marry another man (Demetrius) instead, which she refuses. Then there's Helena who is in love with Demetrius, but he wants Hermia... The father asks for the king's (Theseus, Duke of Athens) support and Hermia is commanded to obey. I like how the characters have distinct choreography. Demetrius (Johan Pakkanen and Tuukka Piitulainen) especially stands out, an angular contrast to the softness of Hermia and Lysander. Ilja Bolotov and Eun-Ji Ha, a couple in real life as well, bring their young love sweetly to life. Elo takes full advantage of Eun-Ji Ha's fearless and secure technique (her balances are breathtaking), and she delivers. Petia Ilieva (2nd cast) is a beautiful Helena, her dancing effortless and lush... She is a woman in love. How could Demetrius be so blind? Linda Haakana's Helena feels younger, a sweet but silly teenager compared to Ilieva's more mature Helena. I'm happy with both interpretations. Ballet needs personalities, not clones!

Eun-Ji Ha as Hermia, with Ilja Bolotov as Lysander. Photo by Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

The scenery so far has been sparse: a black background with single illuminated stone wall. But as we enter the forest, stars descend from the sky like leaves on a tree. It is a beautiful vision. Fairies come alive, moving as multicellular organisms, framing their queen Titania in odd and wonderful patterns. Jorma Elo recycles and repurposes time-honored steps, then adds is his own movement: organic, angular, witty, ingenious. Port de bras and port de têtes are intricate, rich in texture. As a result, everything feels revitalized, lush and joyful. There are whimsical details you could almost miss: the stars sliding from the sky, literally. Those stars (or fairies) are small ballet students wearing illuminated pouffy skirts and hats. It is not entirely clear what their function is, but they are adorable. The one thing that I do miss: more light. The corps de ballet appears as if it were lit only by moonlight, which makes dancers' faces almost disappear. By comparison, Queen Titania stands out (as she should).

Tiina Myllymäki as Titania, with artists of the Finnish National Ballet. Photo by Sakari Viika, courtesy of FNB.
Tiina Myllymäki as queen Titania is everything you could ask for, and more. Expressive, musical, tender, yet fierce. She takes Elo's choreography and makes it her own. Sergey Popov and Michal Krcmar are perfectly cast as Oberon, impossible to decide which one I liked better. Popov is tall, elegant and blond... Krcmar boyishly handsome, athletic, charming. Both have beautiful lines and mad technical skills, in leaps and turns, and partnering. Popov danced the premiere with Tiina Myllymäki, Krcmar partnered Rebecca King in the dress rehearsal. Rebecca King did well, rising from understudy to leading role. That's ballet for you: one dancer's injury is another's opportunity. King definitely rose to the occasion, her dancing strong and secure. But my award for "Dream Team" has to go to the first cast, because of the beautifully expressive Tiina Myllymäki.

Wilfried Jacobs and Tiina Myllymäki. Photo by Sakari Viika, courtesy of FNB.

One character is still missing: Bottom. Wilfried Jacobs prances around with his folksy theatre ensemble, in preparation of the royal wedding (as alluded to in the prologue). It's a merry group, providing comic relief amidst the love-sick. It liked that Elo uses dancers' indivdual strengths. Instead of both casts dancing the exact same choreography, he lets two men do their own thing: Xiaoyu He pulls of acrobatic breakdance moves (and I lack that particular dance vocabulary to describe it), while Alfio Drago fouettées like there's no tomorrow. In Elo's dream, the entire corps - men and women - gets to dance at their maximum ability. There is no standing in lines and formations, only dancing. I love it! But back to Bottom. When Puck bestows him with the head of an ass, I could not help but fall a little in love - even without magic potion. Jacob's ass is heartbreakingly funny (and I bet that's a sentence he never expected to read). He partners the enchanted Titania with an endearing and hilarious mix of bewilderement and how-lucky-am-I. Their pas de deux is one of the ballet's highlights.

Meanwhile, love-lorn lovers are bewitched and bewildered - Puck confuses the young athenians and sprinkles the magic onto Lysander, who falls in love with the first woman he sees: Helena. Things get even more confusing when in attempt to fix things, Demetrius is also enchanted - and now falls for Helena. It would seem that affections and lust are easily interchangeable. In the end, the spell is lifted, and lovers reunited. Order is restored. The scenery changes from blue-toned midsummer night to sunny day, with golden and amber colors. A triple-wedding ensues and the story ends in a firework of dance. It feels like a celebration, all the way into last row. But who wants to wake up from this dream?

- Johanna Aurava

More notes and observations:

- The music by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy - absolutely magnificent.
- The world premiere of Jorma Elo's Midsummer Night's Dream was at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2010.
- Nicholas Ziegler a most regal Theseus, and Daria Makhateli as Hippolyta... Oh my, what stunning extensions - a true Amazon queen! I've had the good fortune of taking class with Nicholas Ziegler - he's a really good teacher! It's always weird seeing someone you know in character, on stage.
- When Titania wakes from her enchanted dream and realises she's been with an ass, she's almost too quick to shove him off her bed. Realisation and reaction are simultaneous, the comic timing feels off. But perhaps it was not meant to be that funny. By the way, I felt really sorry when Bottom the Ass was discarded so ruthlessly. Titania is not the nicest lady.
- The Indian Princess. Again, without knowing the play (where the princess is a prince instead), it's unclear who she is and why Titania and Oberon fight over her possession. She is moved around like a chess pawn, always in the same pose, not giving the young girl much to dance.
- I got to meet Jorma Elo! He is so cool... Down-to-earth and really nice. Not that I let it affect my review or anything.
- You don't have to understand ballet to enjoy ballet. But I would advice reading at least a summary of Shakespeare's play. A bit of homework makes the experience even richer. 

Michal Krcmar as Oberon and Frans Valkama as Puck. Photo by Sakari Viika / FNB.

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