The Dream is Frederick Ashton’s one act take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was not the only person to base a ballet on Shakespeare’s play, nor indeed the first to employ Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for the purpose. He was, however, unique in not introducing any of Mendelssohn’s other compositions into the mix, with arranger John Lanchbery simply adding a few transitional lines.
Ashton’s piece cuts the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta, reduces those of the Rude Mechanicals, and concentrates on the woodland scenes involving Titania, Bottom and the quartet of lovers. The result is a delicious ballet that features wonderful tableaux and has a lively sense of humour, yet ultimately grounds the expression of character within strong balletic movements. The slickness of the choreography is remarkable: when Demetrius (David Pickering) and Helena (Itziar Mendizibal) appear he instantly rotates her 360 degrees through the air. When Puck leaves Bottom, following the latter’s restoration to human form, his route off the stage involves a clamber up some rocks, departing out of view behind a tree, and reappearing on the other side before finally exiting the stage. It may not sound that impressive when written down, but it is such attention to detail that ultimately defines Ashton’s creation.
Alina Cojocaru delivers a heart-stopping performance as Titania; she has a gloriously fluid style, her legs flowing freely and yet moving in perfect harmony with her arms. Stephen McRae (replacing the recently departed Sergei Polunin for this opening night performance) is equally magical as Oberon. There is both a formality and lucidity to his gestures, and he creates this wonderful sense that his limbs are exploring the very air through which they cut. Valentino Zucchetti’s movements are equally precise, so that it feels as if Puck represents a more mischievous side to Oberon’s own character, while Jonathan Howells is a tremendous Bottom, dancing en pointe even in his hoofen state. The ensemble scenes with the Fairies, however, feel slightly less tight with the footwork clearly audible.
The music holds just as much appeal as the performances. The London Oratory Junior Choir contribute some beautiful singing, while soloists Katharine Goeldner and Toby Spence ensure that the second piece of the night, Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, proves just as memorable.
There’s a stark but pleasing contrast between the two pieces. The hour-long Song of the Earth uses Mahler’s interpretation of Chinese poems, which speak of youth, ageing, life and death, and possesses a more intense, sombre tone than The Dream. There is undoubtedly variation in MacMillan’s choreography, and even a dash of humour in the frog or crab-like movements that he introduces, but the many innovative steps are there to highlight the frailty of the human condition rather than provide light relief.
The triumvirate of Tamara Rojo as the Woman, Rupert Pennefather as the Man and Carlos Acosta as The Messenger (of Death) proves a strong one. Rojo, in particular, conveys fragility as she falls to the floor from en pointe, with Pennefather catching her at the last possible moment. There can be few moments in ballet more moving than the end of Song in which the main trio advance slowly towards the audience, their entire bodies rising with each forward step, and their flowing arms overlapping each other. The obvious connotations of death may chill the heart, but the potency of the manoeuvre cannot fail to move it.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.