'Midsummer Night's Dream' steps into the space age
Although the United States is generally considered the hub of dance, many Americans have found fame and fortune in Europe. One such expatriate is Wisconsin-born John Neumeier, whose penchant for creating story ballets with an original twist has made him one of the most sought-after choreographers in Europe. Ten years the director of the Hamburg Ballet, he has now brought his troupe to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for its North American debut. The Hamburg Ballet presents an all-Neumeier repertory through March 27.
Judging by the first of the Hamburg Ballet's four programs - which will probably also be performed when the troupe appears later in the spring at the Ravinia Festival and the Toronto International Festvival - I'd say Neumeier's reputation for novel ideas holds up. The spur to his imagination is ''A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' a Shakespeare play that Balanchine and Ashton have also transported into dance with straightforward means and great success.
Neumeier's route is fancier. The crux of this ''Dream'' is to demarcate, and so isolate from one another, each of the play's three worlds through music and dance style. The betrothed aristocrats are assigned the traditional Mendelssohn score and move like ballet dancers. The rustics cavort to hurdy-gurdy tunes in vaguely vaudevillian terms. The supernaturals dance to various and assorted noises composed by Gyorgy Ligeti.
Obviously, it's the ultramodern conception of fairyland that gives this ''Dream'' its famous Neumeier twist. Usually choreographers define human characters with extreme grace and virtuosity, especially when they're woodland fairies. Neumeier's big idea is to place the supernaturals in a futuristic landscape. Accordingly, they wear sleek, unisex leotards; Oberon's crown is a shiny silver skullcap.
Twistedness is another way to regard this twist. For along with the space-age music and costume goes space-age movement: mechanical, abrupt, and acrobatic. As often happens when choreographers become obsessed with physical technology, the basic energy of a dance springs from the keep-moving principle. The big ensemble dance for Oberon's retinue looks like an aerobic class.
Well, so much for the chrome-plated fairy world of Neumeier's imagination. The mortals are treated with less splash but more respect - almost. That is, the choreography for the quartet of mismatched lovers is necessarily less gimmicky, given its base of Mendelssohn's music. Neumeier pays careful attention to delineating each character, but he goes too far in making Helena an ugly duckling. She wears eyeglasses most of the time.
Is Neumeier playing around with the idea of vision and insight? That one person's clearsightedness is another's myopia? For Puck's continual blunderings this is a most novel explanation: He's wearing the wrong pair of eyes. But is the audience supposed to be pondering these ideas at the expense of love-thoughts? Even though Neumeier devotes the second act to a celebration of the weddings, ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' is about love last of all. Mostly it's about how three strands of being cannot meet.