Why Dance Choreographers Love Shakespeare | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Why Dance Choreographers Love Shakespeare

George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream returns to New York City Ballet this spring.

Daniel Applebaum and Roman Mejia of New York City Ballet in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Erin Baiano

George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which returns to New York City Ballet from May 28 to June 2, 2024, is but one of many Shakespearean ballets in the annals of dance. The late, great critic Clive Barnes originally wrote this story in the spring of 2005.

The appeal Shakespeare has for choreographers, past and present, classic and modern, is nothing less than amazing. Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Tempest, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra, Richard III… Why, Martha Graham in Eye of Anguish even took on, at least obliquely, King Lear.

Fascinatingly, choreographers tend not to take the text of Shakespeare—how could they?—but instead to work from Shakespearean themes or stories. And ironically, one of the few absolutely sure things we know about the elusive Bard is that he never made up his own stories: There are non-Shakespearean “sources” for all of the plays.

So why pick on Shakespeare? The answer is clear enough. It was Shakespeare who gave these stories their familiarity and, perhaps equally important, their name recognition, the latter always a significant fact in selecting the subject for a ballet scenario.

Apart from the ubiquitous Romeo and Juliet, the most popular Shakespearean theme for dance is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the most popular music for a Midsummer ballet is Mendelssohn. The music is not an actual ballet score but instead consists of a shimmering Overture, composed right at the dazzling beginning of Mendelssohn’s career when he was 17, and the incidental music he wrote for the play in 1842, some 17 years later and towards the end of his life.

I believe the first ballet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was Marius Petipa’s version for the Maryinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg in 1876. It was this that Michel Fokine in 1906 adapted and amended for students of the Imperial School. The cast included Vaslav Nijinsky, and it proved one of the very early works of Fokine to capture the attention of the impresario Serge Diaghilev. Fokine later reworked the score into Les Elfes for his own company at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1924. In 1933 Col. W. de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo staged David Lichine’s first ballet, Nocturne, using not Mendelssohn but Rameau music, with Alexandra Danilova as Titania, Léonide Massine as Oberon, and Lichine himself as Puck.

But the four most interesting versions for me are George Balanchine’s for New York City Ballet in 1962, Frederick Ashton’s for Britain’s Royal Ballet in 1964, John Neumeier’s for the Hamburg Ballet in 1977, and Christopher Wheeldon’s for the Colorado Ballet in 2000. All, except for the Ashton, are full-evening ballets. Wheeldon’s version not unexpectedly owes something to both Ashton and Balanchine. Neumeier’s version—which is by far the most adventurous and original and incorporates modern music by György Ligeti—has also been staged by the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet.

Both the Balanchine and the Ashton have been produced throughout the world. Interestingly, apart from versions of Le Baiser de la Fée, it is only with the two contrasting, competitive Dreams that these two great choreographers went, as it were, pointed toe to pointed toe. It proves to be pretty much a tie. Ashton’s is the more Shakespearean and, perhaps naturally, the more English. Like Wheeldon’s, it has at its heart a pas de deux for Titania and Oberon, a device scrupulously eschewed by Balanchine. His version—which has a virtually plotless divertissement to various Mendelssohn pieces as its second act—is the more Germanic, with Oberon as an elf, and thus possibly the more Mendelssohnian.

Surprisingly, both ballets tell the story of the mixed doubles of lovers more succinctly and probably with more clarity than any production of the play I have ever seen. The first performance of the Balanchine was at the City Center of Music and Drama on January 17, 1962, with a cast including Melissa Hayden as Titania, Edward Villella as Oberon, and Arthur Mitchell as Puck; Patricia McBride, Nicholas Magallanes, Jillana, and Bill Carter as the lovers; and Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow leading the Act II divertissement. Since its premiere—the first original full-evening ballet to be staged in the United States—it has played a key role in the City Ballet repertory, in recent years becoming virtually a warm-weather Nutcracker.

In some ways, the choice of subject matter seems an odd one for Balanchine. He once said, “It is really impossible to dance Shakespeare ... he is a poet.” More unexpectedly he often claimed to have found his inspiration for the ballet after he saw the link between Bottom, after his transmogrification back from donkey, saying, “the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen,” and St. Paul’s famous “the eye hath not seen, nor ear heard ... the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” 

How Shakespeare’s naughty, irreligious twist could inspire this lovely ballet is anyone’s guess. But, hey, whatever works…and, quite clearly, it works wonderfully.

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