Left – Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman. Photos – Daniel Boud
Ballet and fairies are a match made in heaven. Ballet seems the perfect art form for depicting fairies and fairies the perfect subject for showcasing ballet. From the moment The Dream starts, with a flutter of green skirts and petite wings as fairies flock the stage, it feels truly like a dream becoming real before your eyes.
The dream in question is the perhaps the most famous one in western art, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. This ballet adaptation was crafted by British choreographer Frederick Ashton in the 1960s, using a score originally written as incidental music for the play by Mendelssohn.
With lush costumes from the Dutch National Ballet and Opera and an ethereally graceful cast, Shakespeare’s vision of fairies playing games with mortals who have stumbled into their moonlit wood is realised beautifully. Titania (Madeleine Eastoe) is graceful and haughty, Oberon (Kevin Jackson) elegantly brooding, and mischevious spirit Puck (Chengwu Guo) as wild and vital as a satyr at a Bacchanal.
Of course, Midsummer Night’s Dream is not just a vision of fairyland, it is also a screwball comedy featuring squabbling couples, bumbling peasants, love potions and a man who gets turned into a donkey. While it’s the fairy scenes that make your heart soar watching The Dream, possibly its great success is in making effective comedy through ballet. A sense of humour underlies the choreography, portraying personalities and relationship dynamics with deft visual wit. One high point is the transformation of the peasant Bottom (Joseph Chapman) from flat-footed bumpkin to trotting donkey. Often a slightly daggy part of the play, when wrought as a shift in physicality and dance style it is immensely satisfying to watch.
In some ways the comedy is even more effective in dance form. The text of Midsummer Night’s Dream is not without its awkwardness: the couples, both human and fairy, say some nasty things to each other and the view of gender relations is at times uncomfortable for a modern audience. As much as I love Shakespearean wordplay, often by the end of Midsummer’s I’m disappointed the couples have got together because they’ve been such jerks to each other. In ballet form, these issues with the script dissolve. The conflict within the relationships, presented as dance, becomes a game that is delightful to watch.
The Australian Ballet is presenting The Dream with two other pieces by Ashton. Monotones II and Symphonic Variations are very different in tone. They are dances without story or character, written as responses to pieces of classical music by Erik Satie and César Franck. Monotones II is a work of austere grace. Symphonic Variations is similarly abstract and also engagingly complex, performed by a sextet of dancers in ever-shifting relation to each other, their physicalities reflecting the flowing mood of the score like the physical embodiment of music. One of Ashton's earlier works, first performed in 1946, it is stunning to behold.
The three works together not only showcase Ashton’s remarkable range as a choreographer but also provide a complete night of entertainment, taking you on an emotional journey from the meditative to the ebullient. It is everything you could dream for a night at the theatre.
The Australian Ballet presents
music Felix Mendelssohn | choreography Frederick Ashton
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre | 100 St Kilda Road Melbourne VIC
Dates: 6 – 13 June 2015
Tickets: $209 – $39