American Repertory Ballet
New Brunswick Performing Arts Center
New Brunswick, New Jersey
April 1, 2022
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Stiefel premiere)
On Friday night, American Repertory Ballet (ARB) premiered its first evening-length ballet choreographed by Ethan Stiefel, who was appointed the company’s Artistic Director while the Covid pandemic was still raging. The piece, a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was a fine choice. Nothing in the ballet canon can beat a reasonably faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy for prompting unrestrained warm-hearted eye-to-eye and ear-to-ear joy in an audience fortunate enough to see it. This version is no exception.
In a nutshell, Stiefel’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a beautiful production that has what it takes to entertain children and adults of all ages – with a caveat. Ballet-goers who are used to the Balanchine or Ashton (The Dream) versions, or who are reasonably ballet-sophisticated, might find it lacking in certain respects. For these audiences, by all means go when the production returns – but take the kids, and grandkids, with you.
That caveat aside, the production creates smiles from the moment the curtain opens until it closes. The set (designed by Howard Jones) is one of the finest I’ve seen – certainly for a production of this size. It’s stationary, with only one movable component, but it’s ceaselessly enchanting. [Credit also to N. James Whitehall III for its execution oversight.] When the curtain opens, the vision of the set is both magical and transporting, and the audience reacted with audible delight. It was like opening the pages of a lavishly illustrated children’s story book. From that point forward, the production, regardless of its merits, could do no wrong.
That no one here is taking him or herself too seriously (with the possible – and not inappropriate – exception of Gillian Murphy’s Oberon) is another reason that it’s so enjoyable. Perhaps most exemplary of this are the programmed curtain calls after the basic story ends, cleverly celebrated to Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” The fun is infectious – and the standing ovation that the production received reflected that.
Between these performance bookends, and with the inclusion of Mendelssohn’s beloved music and performances by a youthful and engaging group of dancers, nothing else really matters. This version satisfies all these criteria – and its simplicity is a virtue; it’s as gentle as a fairy’s kiss. But that simplicity is also what makes this version somewhat problematic.
I could stop here, but I have concerns about certain production specifics that I feel compelled to reference below. Some are nitpicky, some aren’t. But I must emphasize that my comments relate to things that the average ballet-goer wouldn’t see, or wouldn’t care about. So take the observations below with a grain of … fairy dust.
Oberon here is a puzzlement. In the original Shakespeare, of course, Oberon is a male role. Here, Oberon is played by a ballerina. But this character is clearly not a woman playing the role as a woman; she’s either a woman playing the role as a man, or asexual, or sexually ambiguous. I suspect door #3. Maybe members of the audience are supposed to fill in the blank as they wish, or don’t think of there being a blank to fill in.
But why the lack of clarity? Stiefel can make changes for whatever reason he chooses, but I chafe when a narrative is unclear. Then again, being unclear may be Stiefel’s point here also. So I’ll overlook that (as the audience clearly did), particularly since Murphy’s Oberon is so well-executed, and because this Oberon is one of the few characters to have … character. Indeed, one of the more enduring images from this production is Murphy’s Oberon in deep thought while overseeing Puck’s antics as she/he wanders through the set, in the background. It’s a Hamlet moment. And after all, Oberon’s a Fairy: what difference should its gender make (or if it has one)? Indeed, if nothing else, it’s payback. Not only did Shakespeare frequently create characters who at times might take the form of one of the opposite gender, in Shakespeare’s time female roles would have been performed by men.
But the decision to have the role played by a ballerina (the second cast has a ballerina playing Oberon also) has a collateral consequence: the pas de deux between Titania and Oberon that is a highlight of so many other productions is a casualty of this decision. [Stiefel could conceivably have kept it, but with the gender issue, and in the context of this ballet, it’s best avoided.] But here it’s replaced by a final dance involving Oberon, Titania, Puck, Changeling, and the four human lovers that goes on far too long. It was the only point during the performance where I noticed some audience members fidgeting.
Similarly puzzling, but not by any means fatal, are certain character name changes, particularly with respect to the character identified as “Bugzby/Bottom.” Stiefel can rename characters as he wishes also. A change in Bottom’s name is reasonable because the character is no longer one of an entourage of would-be actors rehearsing the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, as in Shakespeare’s original, because (at least) the wedding feast of Theseus and Hippolyta for which the rehearsal takes place is now irrelevant: here these characters don’t exist. So instead of an actor bumpkin, the character’s a bug-hunter bumpkin. To name him Bugzy makes sense. [And it would further cement this production as the manifestation of a children’s story book.] But his transformation into donkey doesn’t change who he is; only how he appears (as this production clearly demonstrates). Either Bugzy or Bottom would have been fine. So pick one. In the same vein changing the names of the “human” characters isn’t a problem – Helena becomes Elena, Lysander becomes Sander, Hermia becomes Mia, and Demetrius becomes Dimitri. Cool; it’s sort of an updating – and certainly moves the ballet’s locale away from Athens. But why bother? [See the children’s story book comment above.]
Other aspects of this production are more problematic.
We can accept gender changes and name changes for no particular reason as long as they don’t impact our understanding of the story. But inconsistency is another matter. One example is Puck’s search for the “magic flower.” Puck shakes his head “no” (it’s the wrong one) to Oberon after separately picking and sniffing two flowers – including the second one, which becomes the flower with the power. That’s an easy fix.
Far more critical, however, is what happens to Bugzy/Bottom. In the regular course, he’s changed from a human to a donkey on stage by the Elves, in full view of the audience. [Nice touch, even though it looks a little sloppy. And clearly it’s the Elves who are forcing this change, as directed by Puck; it’s not something that just “happens.”] Then, when his services are no longer required, the donkey outfit (including the head) is removed. Thereafter in a lengthy solo Bugzby/Bottom remembers how much fun he had as a donkey, and then gets pulled off stage by bug-catching nets (apparently the same nets that the Elves had previously used to entrap him — another nice touch). So far, so good. But before the final dance by the rest of the cast, Bugzy/Bottom returns to the stage with his donkey head on. He then wanders to the mound where he had slept with Titania, pulls the blanket that remained there over his head, and sleeps in peaceful post-conjugal contentment.
Wait. What? How did the donkey head get back on his head? Did the Elves who (presumably) pulled him offstage put the head back on? If so, why? The game’s over. Did he do it himself? If so, how? Was there an uninhabited donkey head that just happened to be in the forest? And even if it’s just a matter of suspending disbelief, why? It’s senseless as executed, both as narrative and thematically.
It’s a neat idea, though; just carried out wrong. Wouldn’t it have been far more meaningful if Bugzy/Bottom had decided to return to the source of his greatest pleasure, but as a restored human rather than as an ersatz donkey (it’s already been established in his solo that Bugzby/Bottom, as a human, can remember his period as a donkey)? And, while I’m making unsolicited suggestions, wouldn’t that also be better as a closing image than as an intro to the concluding “lovers ensemble” dance? Just reverse the order.
The absence of character development where it would have been appropriate is another issue. For example, the Changeling (here identified as “Changeling / Magical Youngster in Titania’s Care”) was a lost opportunity. The descriptive and gender-neutral change is an improvement over the usual (and Shakespeare original) “Indian boy” over whom the Fairy Royal Couple fight – and which, in this day and age, might invite comments relating to child abuse, homoeroticism, fairy entitlement, and cultural genocide. But this babe in the woods is given little more to do than smile and prance around in a gender-neutral baby outfit like a toddler who’d taken dancing lessons. He/she/it has no independent character beyond that.
Then there are the four Fairies. Although Stiefel here commendably gives them the names that Shakespeare did, aside from slight color changes in their basic costumes (and making them all female – or maybe all genderless) they do nothing except decorate the stage. Why distinguish them with character names (and costume color changes) if there’s nothing else that distinguishes one from another?
I suspect that the answer to that relates to my final, and most significant, area of concern: the dance’s choreography. With a few exceptions – Bugzy/Bottom’s solo, moments of the choreography for Oberon (Murphy gets to dance a series of perfectly-executed chaîné turns and, separately, a set of five or six fouettés) and Titania, and the previously-referenced direction and staging for the human lovers (which was very well-conceived and executed) – it’s everything choreography shouldn’t be: repetitious and unimaginative.
Essentially, the four Fairies, the five Elves, and the five Fairy Attendants, although clearly separate groups of dancers, dress the stage and act collectively as would a corps in such familiar large-cast classic story ballets as Swan Lake. They may be relatively unimportant as characters, but they handle a significant portion of the dance’s choreography. The Elves, first out, all look like Elves on steroids and move exactly the same way. There’s no variety. Then the Fairies and Fairy Attendants emerge, with each group dancing essentially the same movement throughout each group’s ensemble work, concurrently. For all these groups, the few examples of sequencing (still the same basic choreographic movement, but executed sequentially rather than in tandem), and the occasional arrangements around a central character that provide good photo ops, are forms of visual relief.
The low-level of choreography here is so obvious that I can only conclude that there must have been some plausible reason for Stiefel to have limited the choreographic palette for these groups as he did. He’s a better choreographer than that.
What first comes to mind is a decision to treat these entities as a sort of continuing shtick. But, if that was the rationale, it applies only to the Elves, who here are somewhat comic characters to begin with.
If there’s any overall justification for the choreographic simplicity, I can think of only one. ARB is in a rebuilding phase. Many of its long-time dancers are no longer with the company. Indeed, in this two-cast series of four performances, the company (which includes only eleven dancers, inclusive of four who are new to the company and two relatively long-time company members who are not listed for either cast) has been supplemented by six Apprentices, four members of ARB2, and six Trainees. Consequently, at least on the surface, the experience level is relatively thin, and perhaps Stiefel didn’t want to risk taxing their ability with greater complexity.
In any event, assuming that this was the rationale for the overall weak choreography, and recognizing that my other concerns may be considered a product of a congenital tendency to overthink, ARB’s new A Midsummer Night’s Dream does what it’s intended to do and does it well. It’s certainly simpler than ARB’s immediately preceding incarnation, choreographed by its former Artistic Director Douglas Martin, which was equally beautiful (even if primarily for its second act) and far more comprehensive, complex, and cerebral – and that invited its audience to think. But maybe (and maybe for that reason) this one will sell more tickets.
The ARB dancers executed their assigned roles well. Those who delivered particularly estimable performances were Erikka Reinstierna-Cates as Elena, Clara Pavel (an Apprentice) as a feisty Titania who held her own when she danced together with Oberon, Aldeir Monteiro’s Puck, Seth Koffler (a member of ARB2) as Bugzy/Bottom, and of course Murphy, the company’s Artistic Associate (as well as a Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre) as the ambiguously-gendered Oberon. Other dancers, all of whom did fine work, were Annie Johnson’s Mia (she is the second cast’s Oberon), Jonathan Monteparra’s Sanders, Hernan Montenegro’s Dimitri, Nanako Yamamoto’s Changeling, the four Fairies (Shaye Firer, Madison Elizabeth Egyud, Samantha Huebner, and Hailey Rumsey-Lasersohn), the five Elves (Jonathan Carter, Andrea Marino, Tiziano Cerrato, Leandro Olcese, and Anthony Pototski), and the four Fairy Attendants (Michelle Quiner, Jasmine Jasper, Avery Snyder, and Aoi Tashiro). And a nod to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra – and its conductor, Kenneth Bean – for its sparkling rendition of the score, to the complementary lighting (designed by Joseph Walls) that enhances the set; and to the costumes (designed by Janessa Cornell Urwin), which add buoyancy to the fantasy and, where suitable (e.g., Titania’s costume), a smidgen of unexpected zest. And I would be remiss not to recognize the company’s resurrection of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s adaptation of Mendelssohn’s composition for the 1935 Hollywood film that starred, among others, James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck. Its lighter tone perfectly suits the scale of this production.
Stiefel’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream marks a new beginning for ARB, and I expect it will become an ARB staple as time goes by. Sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia ballet powerhouses, a Spring-Summer cash cow to augment the company’s profile and supplement its resources would be the equivalent of a fairy’s kiss.