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A Midsummer Night's Dream
 

 choreography & concept: David Nixon

music: Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohnn
costume design: David Nixon

executed by BalletMet Costume Shop
scenic design:
Carla Risch Chaffin

lighting design: John Bohuslawsky


 
 
 
World Premiere of David Nixon's A Midsummer Night's Dream, BalletMet Columbus, February 11, 2000
These notes compiled by Gerard Charles, BalletMet Columbus, February 2000

 

Turning The Play Into A Ballet

When beginning to choreograph a ballet based on a play the choreographer must take into account the opportunities and limitations offered by the medium of live dance. In the case of A Midsummer Night's Dream, choreographer David Nixon has chosen to concentrate on the central section of Shakespeare's play, the realm of Oberon and Titania. It is in the world of these ethereal beings that he feels dance best lends itself to expanding the story. Although some of the complexities of the written word may be lost, the magic, grace and humor of the play find a sure ally in dance. The antics of the lovers are certainly very visual, and the grace and lightness one associates with a fairy such as Titania are qualities that classical dancers aspire to as well. Dance has also been integrated into these scenes in many versions of the play. Mr. Nixon believes the charm of the surrounding scenes lies much more in the words than the actions and would be too complicated to present in dance.

David Nixon writes, "The challenge of any new work is to develop those qualities or ideas which give life to your interpretation [of a well known story]. I wanted to make the fairy world contrast that of the mortals. I chose to cast my Oberon and Titania more diminutive in stature, capitalizing on their ability to move quickly, turn fast and spring into their jumps. This then contrasted with the longer more fluid choreography of the pairs of lovers.

"The work follows the tradition of the 19th century story ballet in that the end of the work serves mainly as a celebratory divertissement in which to showcase the dancers."

Mr. Nixon's choreographic style for A Midsummer Night's Dream has continued to follow a trend that began with his staging of Swan Lake (1998) and continued through his recent Dracula (1999). In prior works he had worked out most of the choreography on himself, creating moves that worked well on his body and then superimposing them on those of the dancers. Beginning with Swan Lake he he realized two things. The first was that it was more important to have a strong idea to carry through a work rather than to search for an illusive "clever" idea or twist to the story. The second was that with this idea he could encourage the dancers to contribute more to the work. He could offer the idea to the dancers who would then try out the movements that he would later shape and coach.

Mr. Nixon's original decision to create his own A Midsummer Night's Dream had been somewhat driven by his desire as Artistic Director or BalletMet to have a story ballet suitable for presentation at the Capitol Theatre. As a choreographer he was very familiar with was Sir Frederick Ashton's The Dream, and the esteem in which he held the work became something of a stumbling block: what could he add to this gem? Additionally he felt very close to The Dream as it was in this ballet that he danced his first principal role, that of Oberon.

The search for appropriate music is also central to any new ballet production. Mendelssohn's Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream were obvious choices to accompany the ballet, but these compositions did not contain enough music to support a full evening's work. Having listened to many compositions of Mendelssohn's contemporaries Mr. Nixon concluded that they did not offer a suitable match. He therefore looked to the repertoire of Mendelssohn to find compatible pieces that would also support his concepts for the story and character development.

Mr. Nixon has also contributed to the design of the costumes. He chose to have these inspired by the design style of the Elizabethan period, particularly the lines of the women's bodices and the men's coats. However, he realized that the full Elizabethan skirt would not be suitable to the choreography he had in mind, nor would it show the dancers' legs off to advantage. He therefore chose to shorten the skirts considerably. The main differentiation between the mortals and the fairies also came in the skirts. Mr. Nixon seeks to give the image that the fairies are clothed in flower petals and leaves by having the fairies' skirts be multi-layered and shredded. He is an avid shopper for fabrics, and when he is away from Columbus packages of materials will often precede his return to BalletMet. The fabrics designated for use in the costumes for A Midsummer Night's Dream were purchased in San Francisco; Los Angeles; Winnipeg, Canada; and Cape Town, South Africa. There are also fabrics bought on other trips that are stored away in the costume shop at BalletMet "for when the need arises."

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The Synopsis of David Nixon's A Midsummer Night's Dream


Our tale begins in the woods where nighttime brings the revels of the fairies. Amidst the antics of the night creatures wander four lovers and a peddler with his jovial partners. Lysander and Hermia, very much in love, are fleeing Hermia's father who insists she marry Demetrius. Hermia's best friend, Helena, is madly in love with Demetrius and hopes to win him for herself. To that end she has revealed Hermia's plight to Demetrius.

 

Meanwhile, the fairy kingdom is bristling with electricity in anticipation of the confrontation between their Lord and Lady. Titania, Queen of the fairies, has refused Oberon, her Lord, the gift of a changeling child. Oberon is infuriated, and both have stayed clear of one another until this night.

 

As Titania enjoys the revels of her fairies, Oberon descends upon them unannounced. The two quarrel, resulting in Titania fleeing with the changeling child. Oberon is enraged and seeks the help of his trusty servant, Puck. Oberon reminds Puck about a special flower that possesses a magical juice which, when placed in the eyes, causes Cupid's arrow to soar through the heart of the next person upon whom those eyes gaze.

While Puck is away, Oberon is disturbed by the noisy arrival of Helena and Demetrius. Helena implores Demetrius to forget Hermia and instead return her love. Regardless, Demetrius continues his search with Helena close to heel.

Puck returns with the special flower to bring Oberon from his contemplative mood. With the flower in hand, Oberon sets off to place the juice upon Titania's eyes as she sleeps. He instructs Puck to muster up a strange bedfellow for Titania to fall madly in love with and also to place the juice upon Demetrius' eyes that he may return Helena's attentions.

Titania and the fairies arrive in the glade. The fairies attempt to sing Titania to sleep, but she still appears agitated after her confrontation with Oberon. Titania finally slumbers, and the fairies depart. Oberon arrives unseen, places the juice into her eyes, and then departs.

Lysander and Hermia, fatigued by their night's adventure, wander into the glade to seek a spot upon which to rest. Lysander, who feels they are all but married, is eager to show his feelings to Hermia. She reminds him that it is best to wait. Stumbling into the glade, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, and places the magic juice upon his sleeping eyes.

Still in pursuit of Hermia, Demetrius also comes upon the glade and quickly ducks away to escape the grasp of Helena. Helena, tired and afraid, sees Lysander, and wakes him in hopes of aiding her search for Demetrius. Upon awakening, Lysander immediately pledges his love for a bewildered Helena. As his bravado persists, Helena believes this is a mean plot to further humiliate her and runs from Lysander's grasp.

Hermia awakens to Lysander's disappearance and also runs into the night. Puck, confused in his search for Titania's bedfellow, stumbles upon Bottom the peddler and his partners. Puck chooses to transform Bottom's head into that of an ass. When his friends discover the change, they flee the area. Making a great deal of noise, Bottom wakens the beautiful Titania, who was sleeping nearby. Titania instantly declares her love for Bottom. After much celebration, the two retire to her bower.

Upon arriving to see that Puck's work went better than planned, Oberon is disturbed by the quarreling of Hermia and Demetrius. Hermia continues her search, but Demetrius lies down to rest. Oberon, realizing Puck's mistake, sends Puck to find the others while he himself takes care of Demetrius. Meanwhile Helena and Lysander return to the glade. Helena discovers Demetrius, who wakes speaking words of undying devotion to Helena. The two men begin fighting for Helena and the scene turns into a brawl when Hermia arrives. The men go off in search of weapons with which to duel while the women escape one another.

Oberon and Puck use their powers to lure the lovers away from one another and to sleep. Puck places the couples in their appropriate pairings, and then places the magic juice once more upon Demetrius' eyes.

Oberon awakens Titania, who realizes her dream of Bottom is a reality. Titania graciously accepts Oberon's arm and the pair are reconciled. The lovers awaken, joyful in their harmonious pairings. Bottom also realizes that it was quite a night.

The story ends with a wedding celebration for Helena and Demetrius, and Hermia and Lysander. As the lovers depart, Titania and Oberon return to revel in the night. As a final gesture of reconciliation, Titania gives Oberon the changeling child. Oberon invites his Lady to once again share his kingdom.

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Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night's Dream


With its central theme of marriages and the inclusion of a royal wedding, it is thought that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream in celebration of a particular wedding. Exactly whose wedding is the matter of scholarly debate, as is the exact date of the play's writing and first performance. It is believed to come from Shakespeare's lyric period of 1594-1596, due to the writing style and also to references in the play to events of that time.

 

Most of Shakespeare's plays are a reworking of an older play or a dramatization of a specific story already in print. A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the few Shakespearean plays (others would be Love's Labour's Lost and The Tempest) that has no single identifiable source and is indeed a skillful interplay of four stories in one. However, some of the characters are traceable to a variety of works that would have been a part of Shakespeare's general reading: for example, Chaucer and Plutarch for Theseus, Huon of Bordeaux for Oberon, and common legends of man being turned into beast, as is Bottom. Specifically there is an example of an Ass's head being placed on Midas in Theasaurus Romanae et Britannicae.

In all probability Shakespeare, informed by having been well read, wrote this as an original play. It was probably written just after Romeo and Juliet as there are many parallels between the two plays.

Many have viewed the play as a mirror of the life in London at the time of writing: a bustling sophisticated metropolis, full of many different characters but tempered by the folk customs of the majority. There are many contrasting elements explored in the play: reality and illusion, waking and dreaming, true and false love, change and transformation.

Only three seasons were recognized in Shakespeare's day, autumn, winter and summer that began in March. Thus the play, taking place on the eve of May Day (May 1), can be explained as being "midsummer." It was a time of year when spirits of the woods were thought to be out. Puck is seen as the gateway between the real world and the fairies.

Music was used extensively in the fairy scenes since their words are in free forms, which are suitable for singing. The play ends with a dance, in the typical Elizabethan finale.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was first published in 1600 in a Quarto edition. The introduction to the Quarto states "It hath been sundry times publikey acted." However, there are scant records of the play being performed much - save for January 1, 1604 for James I - before the closing of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642. When theaters re-opened under Charles II there was a performance of The Merry Conceited Humors of Bottom the Weaver in 1662, attested by Samuel Pepys in his diary. He did not care much for the play but found there to be "some good dancing and some handsome women." It was probably quite a free adaptation of Shakespeare's play.

In 1692 Thomas Betterton produced an operatic version The Fairy Queen with music by Henry Purcell. The 18th Century was not generally kind to Shakespeare. David Garrick, who did much to restore Shakespeare's plays, mounted A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1755 as a musical offering called The Fairies. In 1840 Madame Lucia Vestris restored much of Shakespeare's text and introduced to London Mendelssohn's full score for the play. The overture had been written for an 1827 German production and had been heard in London in 1833. Madame Vestris cast herself as Oberon and another woman as Puck. The Vestris version served as the basis of the play until 1914 when Harley Granville-Barker presented an uncut version at the Savoy Theatre, London. He also used men to play the roles of Puck and Oberon and dispensed with Mendelssohn's music in favor of English folk tunes.

In other incarnations A Midsummer Night's Dream saw the light of day in 1937 when Tyrone Guthrie produced in a balletic version of the play with dancer Robert Helpman as Oberon and Vivien Leigh as Titania. Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman produced Swingin' the Dream in 1939 with a predominantly black cast. The setting was New Orleans in the late 19th century, and Armstrong played Bottom. Despite a talented group it played for only 13 performances. In 1960 Benjamin Britten composed an operatic version first performed at Aldeburgh, June 11. It used about half of Shakespeare's text.

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World events around the time of Shakespeare's writing A Midsummer Night's Dream


1592

 

  • Ruined Roman city of Pompeii discovered
  • Plague kills 15,000 in London

1593

  • Christopher Marlowe killed in tavern brawl
  • London theaters closed on account of the plague

1594

  • Tintoretto died
  • First opera performed, Dafne by Jacopo Peri

1595

  • Dutch begin to colonize the East Indies
  • Mercator's atlas published

1596

  • Tomatoes introduced into England
  • First water closets installed at Queen's Palace, Richmond
  • Sir Francis Drake died
  • Galileo invents the thermometer

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The Music used in A Midsummer Night's Dream



Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, op.21
Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, op. 61
On Wings of Song
Spring Song
String Symphony No.1 in C major (selection)
String Symphony No.2 in D major (selection)
String Symphony No.7 in D minor (selection)
Calm Sea and Propserous Voyage, op. 27
Symphony No. 4 in A major op. 90 "Italian" (1st movement)


 

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Previous versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a Ballet


Shakespeare's play has been transformed into a ballet on a number of occasions. A Midsummer Night's Dream is represented by two very well known ballets, Balanchine's full length A Midsummer Night's Dream for the New York City Ballet, 1961 and The Dream, a one act ballet by Sir Frederick Ashton made for the Royal Ballet in 1964. Petipa's Pas d'action was a miniature version of this story over a hundred years ago (1877). Mendelssohn's music has been choreographed to by Fokine as Les Elfes, and Lichine as Nocturne. The earliest reference to a ballet on this theme seems to be Shakespeare or A Midsummer Night's Dream at La Scala, Milan, January 27, 1855 choreographed by Giovani Corsati to music of Giorza.

 

 


 Title  Choreographer  Music  First Performance
       
A Midsummer Night's Dream Giovani Corsati Giorza La Scala, Milan, 1855
A Midsummer Night's Dream Marius Petipa Mendelssohn St. Petersburg, 1876
A Midsummer Night's Dream Mikhail Fokine Mendelssohn St. Petersburg, 1906
A Midsummer Night's Dream David Lichine   Paris, 1933
A Midsummer Night's Dream Boris Romanoff Mendelssohn Montreal,
Dec. 26, 1944
Songe d'une nuit d'ete Jean-Jacques Etcheverry Mendelssohn Brussels,
Mar. 18, 1955
  
A Midsummer Night's Dream George Balanchine Mendelssohn New York,
Jan. 17, 1962
Balanchine chose A Midsummer Night's Dream as the subject for his first original full-length work. As a child of eight, Balanchine appeared as an elf in a production of Shakespeare's play in St. Petersburg. He divides his ballet into two acts and does away with Shakespeare's idea of a play within a play. In addition to the Overture and Incidental Music written to accompany Shakespeare's play, Balanchine used other works by Mendelssohn including Overtures to Athalie, Son and Stranger, and The Fair Melusine, Symphony No. 9 for Strings and The First Walpurgis Night. The ballet was chosen to open The New York City Ballet's first season at the New York State Theater in April 1964.
The Dream Sir Frederick Ashton Mendelssohn arr.Lanchbery London,
Apr. 2, 1964
Ashton produced his The Dream for Shakespeare's quatercentenary in 1964 as one of three ballets on the program honoring the bard. Ashton & Ninette de Valois had choreographed stagings for the play, but this was the first British ballet on the subject. Ashton disposes with Theseus and Hippolyta and begins the ballet with Oberon and Titania. His Bottom, portrayed by a male demi-character dancer, dances on pointe when transformed into a donkey. 
A Midsummer Night's Dream Heinz Spoerli   Basel Ballet, 1975
A Midsummer Night's Dream John Neuimeier   Hamburg Ballet, 1977
A Midsummer Night's Dream Ann Brodie & Adolfina Suarez-More Mendelssohn, Rossini, & Geminiani Columbia, SC, 1978
A Midsummer Night's Dream Robert De Warren
 
Mendelssohn arr. Salzedo Manchester, UK, 1981
A Midsummer Night's Dream Tom Schilling G. Katzer Berlin, 1981
A Midsummer Night's Dream Gray Veredon Mendelssohn Helsinki, 1985
A Midsummer Night's Dream Daryl Gray Mendelssohn Berkshire Ballet, 1987
Ein Sommernachtstraum Uwe Scholz Mendelssohn Zurich, 1989
A Midsummer Night's Dream Lazzlo Seregi Mendelssohn & János Novák Budapest, 1989
A Midsummer Night's Dream Dennis Nahat Mendelssohn Cleveland Ballet, 1990
A Midsummer Night's Dream Peter Anastos Mendelssohn Garden State Ballet, 1990  
Sommer - Nacht - Traum Peter Wissman Mendelssohn Aachen Ballet, 1992
Sogno di una notte di mezz'estate Amedeo Amodio Mendelssohn Reggio Emeilia, 1993
A Midsummer Night's Dream Robert Cohan Mendelssohn & Barrington Pheloung Glasgow,
Mar. 19, 1993
A Midsummer Night's Dream Christopher Wheeldon Mendelssohn Colorado Ballet, 1997

 

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