By creating a fusion of Shakespearean fantasy and Romantic style, Mendelssohn's incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has inevitably interested ballet choreographers--from Marius Petipa in 1877 (the same year as "La Bayadere") to Mikhail Fokine, Bronislava Nijinska, George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton, among others, in our own century.
Named "The Dream," and structured as a meditation on the vagaries of love, the one-act 1964 Ashton version is set in the familiar moonlit forest-world of Wilis, swan-maidens and sylphides.
However, the mortals who blunder into this enchanted wood are either pompous Victorian lovers--mocked a la Gilbert and Sullivan in gestural rhetoric borrowed from 19th-Century melodrama--or mindless rustics with folk dancing and British music hall traditions combined in their movement vocabulary.
Add to this heady mix of idioms a Puck who dances like a Bolshoi "Walpurgis Nacht" satyr and you can glimpse both the rich, overlapping frames of reference that Ashton exploits and the daunting challenge that his ballet presents.
A new generation of Joffrey Ballet dancers successfully met the test in the local company premiere of "The Dream" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday. Supervised by Alexander Grant, the revival achieved an ideal, Ashtonian balance between comic and lyric expression. The 16 women with wings on their backs danced like a genuine classical corps. Both sets of comic lovers (Beatriz Rodriguez and Douglas Martin, Charlene Gehm and Jerel Hilding) exulted in their fustian hand-to-brow emoting. The yokels (led by Patrick Corbin as Bottom) kicked and capered with delirious fervor.
At the center of "The Dream": three promising, problematic portrayals. As Puck, Edward Stierle danced with spectacular speed, elevation and control of intricate virtuoso steps--but he also proved guilty of ruthless audience-courting.
As Oberon, Glenn Edgerton suggested the brooding, otherworldly magnetism that Ashton intended, but at a very small scale. Moreover, as Titania, Dawn Caccamo remained content to dance neatly, never attempting the wildness that Antoinette Sibley brought to the role or even the sullen grandeur that distinguished Merle Park's interpretation.
Thus the magnificent Nocturne pas de deux for Oberon and Titania failed to become a profound, mercurial depiction of lovers' conflicts and changes, but emerged instead as merely a pretty showpiece duet, carefully executed.
It should be noted that all of the cast members on Friday were dancing their roles for the first time--and, again, that the performance succeeded in demonstrating the remarkable range of Ashton's invention. But there are depths to "The Dream" that make it a masterpiece and they need the same attention that the Joffrey staff lavished on matters of technique, style and production values.
Sensitively lit by Thomas Skelton, the atmospheric scenery and opulent costumes by David Walker represented an enlightened departure from the usual Joffrey practice of duplicating the original production of a ballet. (The 1964 Royal Ballet "Dream" had scenery by Henry Bardon.) And if the Nocturne was conducted at much too brisk a tempo, John Miner coaxed an elegant performance of the score from his orchestra, his vocal soloists (Barbara Hancock and Michelle Fournier) and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
"Monotones" and "Les Patineurs" completed the program.