Ultimate Guide to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances March 6–15.

By Jennie Scholick, PhD

What is it? A Shakespearean favorite making its triumphant return to San Francisco after a 35-year absence. This 1962 work by George Balanchine to music by Felix Mendelssohn was his first original full-length ballet and quickly hailed as a masterpiece. Balanchine loved the original play—he could recite large parts of it in Russian—so the ballet sticks close to its inspiration, telling the story of four lost lovers in the woods, as well as of a royal fairy court made up of Queen Titania, King Oberon, and mischievous Puck.

In short: Adventures and misadventures. Mischief and magic. Woodland creatures and fairyland foibles.

Who it’s for: Anyone who loves high fantasy, the pure dance of George Balanchine, or is a sucker for weddings.

What will I see? Our story opens in a forest outside of Athens on Midsummer Eve…

ACT I

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Laura Tisserand and Ezra Thomson in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust // © Angela Sterling

The Plot: The ballet quickly introduces us to three main groups of characters. First up, the fairies: Puck is a mischievous sprite, and Oberon and Titania are the King and Queen of the Fairies, trapped in a battle of wills over who gets to care for a charming changeling child.

Next, we meet the inhabitants of Athens: Hermia and Lysander, very much in love; Demetrius, who also loves Hermia; and Helena, in love with Demetrius. We also, briefly, meet Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his fiancée Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, as they consider Hermia and Lysander’s request to be married against her father’s wishes. Upon rejecting the request, the lovers run off into the woods, followed by Demetrius and Helena.

Finally, we encounter Bottom, a weaver, and his friends, also wandering the forest on this midsummer night.

As if this isn’t enough activity already, Oberon, interested both in helping out these young human lovers and in getting back at his queen, has Puck bring him a flower pierced by Cupid’s arrow. Why? When touched by this flower, a person falls in love with the first person they lay eyes on. He instructs Puck to make Demetrius love Helena and to play a trick on Titania.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Laura Tisserand and Ezra Thomson in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust // © Angela Sterling

But of course it isn’t that simple. First, Puck accidentally anoints Lysander, not Demetrius, causing him to fall in love with Helena, and then, attempting to remedy the mistake, anoints Demetrius as well. Now, instead of both men loving Hermia, they both love Helena, confusing and upsetting the entire crew.

Meanwhile, Puck separates Bottom from his group and transforms his head into that of a donkey. (Yes, he’s making an “ass” out of him. Shakespeare’s clever like that.) He puts the donkey-headed man near Titania’s bower, douses her in flower dew, and when she awakens … well, she falls in love with the ass. Oberon shows up just in time to release her from the spell, at which point she’s embarrassed enough to make up with her husband.

As the night drags on, the human lovers eventually wear themselves out with fighting and fall asleep, giving Puck a chance to put all the pairs to rights. Theseus and Hippolyta (accompanied by her hounds) find and wake them, and now that everyone’s paired off correctly, they declare it’s time for a triple wedding.

What should I look for? The whole entire plot (five acts in the original play) is condensed down into this single act, so a lot of what you’re looking for is who’s who! But there are a few key dance moments too, especially for the fairies. Notice that Titania and Oberon never dance together, instead Titania dances with a nameless cavalier in a pas de deux that is full of long, elegant lines, and of course with Bottom, in what must be one of the funniest pas de deux ever choreographed! And Oberon has a solo full of quick jumps and what we call “batterie,” or small beats made with the feet while in the air. This is one of the hardest solos that Balanchine ever choreographed, so don’t miss it! And finally, watch Puck, who moves with quicksilver lightness throughout the whole ballet. Created on Arthur Mitchell, this was one of the defining roles of his career.

ACT II

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lesley Rausch and Benjamin Griffiths with company dancers in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust // © Angela Sterling

The plot: With all the plot in Act I that leaves … a wedding, of course, for Act II! A triple wedding, that is, as Theseus and Hippolyta, Helena and Demetrius, and Hermia and Lysander all tie the knot.

After the wedding entertainment ends, we return to the forest, where we see our reconciled King and Queen of the Fairies. Puck—who brought us into this forest scene—closes out the ballet, as he does the play: “If we shadows have offended/Think but this, and all is mended,/
That you have but slumber’d here/While these visions did appear….So, good night unto you all./Give me your hands, if we be friends,/And Robin shall restore amends.”

What should I look for? This act hinges on the Divertissment pas de deux, in some ways, an odd moment when Balanchine inserts an entirely new couple into the action to dance together at the wedding. This duet seems to show everything that the other couples in the ballet don’t have: decorum, grace, equality, mutuality, respect. Low lifts—never above the shoulder—and careful handholding create a sense of ease and intimacy. A final sweeping backbend suggests a gentle fall into perfect love.  


Purchase Tickets

Header image: Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lesley Rausch and Benjamin Griffiths with company dancers in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust // © Angela Sterling

About Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight

Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. It will be performed as part of Program 05, Ballet Accelerator, running March 24, 25, 27, and 29; and April 2 and 4. . 

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

“Bach is timeless,” says San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, referring to the music for 7 for Eight, an elegant, black-on-black construction. For many, including Tomasson, Johann Sebastian Bach represents the pinnacle of baroque music; consequently, choreographing to his music was a daunting prospect. And George Balanchine had set the bar high in perfectly melding dance and Bach’s music when he made Concerto Barocco in 1941. That precedent could have intimidated Tomasson, but instead he focused on what Balanchine once told him: “You have to love the music—that’s half the battle.”

And Tomasson does indeed love the music for 7 for Eight, even though “it’s so pure that it was a challenge [to work with]; it doesn’t need anything from me,” he says. At first he heard music that’s “very mathematical and beautiful,” he says. “But once I got into the studio, I started finding a lot of emotion in it. You get ideas. Maybe that is a combination of really knowing the music and having the dancers in the studio.”

What Tomasson chose for 7 for Eight were portions of four keyboard concertos composed between 1729 and 1741, when “keyboard” meant the harpsichord, which until then had not been featured in concerto form. He substituted the more dynamically versatile piano for the harpsichord for most of the ballet, keeping the harpsichord for one section to “make the connection back to the baroque. I want audiences to hear how these concertos were played.” Acknowledging that the piece is musically distinctive, Tomasson increased the contrast, distinguishing it choreographically as well by making it a male solo.

Yuan Yuan Tan And Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s 7 For Eight // © Chris Hardy

In designing 7 for Eight, Costume Designer Sandra Woodall and Lighting Designer David Finn chose a spare but sculpted design — “a little freshness, but also that classical look,” says Woodall. The ballet’s emotional core led them to their black-on-black, light-and-shadow design concept. “I think Helgi relies on a sense of the music and what he likes about it,” Finn says. “There’s a lot about partnership, about relationships. It’s elegant and formal, but there’s this underlying turmoil that’s very modern.”


Purchase Tickets

Header image: SF Ballet in Tomasson’s 7 for Eight // © Erik Tomasson

About David Dawson’s Anima Animus

David Dawson’s Anima Animus is part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. It will be performed as part of Program 05, Ballet Accelerator, which runs from March 24 to April 24, 2020.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

David Dawson’s first commission for San Francisco Ballet, Anima Animus, is, as he puts it, “physically emotional virtuosity combined to make something human.” It is indeed physical, emotional, virtuosic, and human—but there’s something transcendent about this combination. It’s most tangible in the section Dawson calls “Angels,” when the dancers seem to move beyond their mortal selves into a state of throat-clenching beauty. “Don’t do what you know,” he tells his dancers in rehearsal, “do something beyond. Unbound.”

Anima Animus offers a rich mix of contrasts, most meaningful among them Carl Jung’s concept of animus (the male aspect of the female psyche) and anima (the female aspect of the male psyche). Another contrast can be found in the music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso. “It felt to me like music that looks to the past and the future at the same time, much how I like to make dance,” Dawson says.

In making this ballet, Dawson found himself responding to the polarized present-day world. He understands the world’s opposites—light and dark, humanity and architecture, individual and group—“but between those opposites, there’s so much room where people can have choice without judgment,” he says. The spaces between extremes are a kind of fluidity, which Dawson wanted to explore within dance. “My language is the classical art form; I’m trying to do something with that,” he says. Historically, some ballet steps are for women or men only; Dawson shifts this by giving “the opposing energy as a starting point”—in other words, giving animus choreography to a dancer who seems more anima, and vice versa.

In the “Angels” part of the second movement, “we go to archetype,” Dawson says. “In Jung’s philosophy, the female is the nurturer, the mother, the angel, the pure. And the man is the warrior, the strong, the hero. I’m trying to show it all.” Even in these archetypes, the theme of contrasts shows. When the female dancers women float high above the stage, “that’s when they show their form as angels,” Dawson says. “That’s when they touch the sky and they show who they really are.”

San Francisco Ballet in Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
Wona Park in Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
Wona Park in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Dawson's Anima Animus //© Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Dawson’s Anima Animus //© Erik Tomasson
Carlo Di Lanno in Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
Carlo Di Lanno in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson

Previous
Next

Dawson sends his dancers skyward, but he wants them grounded too. This reads as a paradox—the dancers fly through intricate moves that do indeed make them seem as untethered as angels, and yet they have weight, form, and substance that goes far beyond the light, lifted aesthetic of classical ballet. In rehearsals, Dawson constantly asks the dancers to let their classicism go, asking for movement that is “deeper, squashed, crunched. I want it odd.”

But don’t think for a minute that Anima Animus is odd or ugly. Dawson compares traditional ballet to Rembrandt or Leonardo da Vinci, “and of course I’m not that. I don’t want to be that; I want to be [graffiti artist] Banksy. I want to take history and show somebody my view on it.” To get there, he starts with an internal process—which leads us back to this idea of physically emotional virtuosity. In choreographing, “I feel my way through the movement,” he says. “Because for me, physicality is driven by emotion. If someone’s angry or sad, it becomes physical—it’s expressed through the body.”

In Bosso’s music, Dawson hears both hope and doom. “You are here to tell us something,” he tells the dancers. “You’re saying to the public, ‘Be careful. It’s not going to end well if you keep going this way.’” Though his message acknowledges doom, it keeps reverting to hope. He’s interested “in the power of the human being,” he says, a mindset that is, in effect, his spirituality. “I believe in the universe,” he says. “We’re energy and carbon and atomic; creation is happening all the time. That’s why I love what we do, because we’re embodying what life is all about.”


Purchase Tickets

Header image: Wona Park and Joseph Walsh in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson

About Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata

Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata is part of the 2020 Repertory Season. It will be performed as part of Program 06, Present Perspectives, which runs March 26–April 5.

By Caitlin Sims

Elegant precision becomes passionate abandon over the course of one tempestuous evening in Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata. Set to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #23 (also known as the Appassionata), the ballet follows the music’s structure, with two dramatic movements for three couples and an intimate duet. The ballet starts with formality and decorum; as the hour gets late the costumes become less structured, pointe shoes are swapped for ballet slippers, and the women’s hair comes down. “It does get a little more wild as it goes on,” says Janie Taylor who, with Sebastien Marcovici, staged the work for San Francisco Ballet.

San Francisco Ballet in Millepied's Appassionata //© Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Millepied’s Appassionata //© Erik Tomasson
Jaime Garcia Castilla in Millepied's Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Jaime Garcia Castilla in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied's Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Millepied's Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Sasha De Sola and Jaime Garcia Castilla in Millepied's Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Sasha De Sola and Jaime Garcia Castilla in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied's Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson

Previous
Next

This aesthetic journey of disciplined perfection to creative spontaneity happens also to echo the progression of Millepied’s career. After more than a decade as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, Millepied shifted into choreography, working for ballet companies worldwide as well as on the film Black Swan. When he choreographed Appassionata in 2016, he was the director of Paris Opera Ballet—one of the most prestigious jobs in the field. The day before the ballet’s premiere, Millepied announced his resignation, frustrated by the slow pace of change at the venerable institution. With his wife, actor Natalie Portman, Millepied returned to Los Angeles, where he currently directs L.A. Dance Project, a contemporary dance company he founded in 2012, and collaborates on film and digital projects.

Appassionata is less a reflection of that turbulent time than a response to one of Beethoven’s most beloved piano sonatas, says Taylor, who danced with Millepied at New York City Ballet and now works for L.A. Dance Project: “Benjamin is definitely a music-driven choreographer,” she notes. Beethoven’s Appassionata, complex and mysterious, notoriously difficult to play, has been massively popular since it was published in 1807. He wrote the music during his “middle” period when, aware of his impending deafness, he had a surge of creativity, bursting away from conventional classicism (sound familiar?) into new realms of imagination so profound they helped to usher in the Romantic Era of music. Appassionata tested the limit of the five-octave pianoforte of Beethoven’s time with storms of notes that crash up and down the keyboard like a hurricane. Millepied’s choreography, fast and expansive with ever-shifting groups of dancers, matches Beethoven’s fervor. Dancers soar and fall with the same urgency as the cascading notes, and feet quiver to trills in the music. “It really needs to move, move, move,” says Millepied during a rehearsal at SF Ballet. “Make it wilder.”

There are also moments of stillness in the ballet. A recurring musical motif is both familiar and ominous—the Da-Da-Da-DUM later made famous in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As a dancer pauses, this “knocking” motif brings another onstage, then repeats, hanging in the air between them like a question.

In addition to teaching the ballet’s steps, Taylor and Marcovici are also charged with illuminating Millepied’s choreographic style. “Benjamin’s movement quality can be fluid and free, but it also requires a certain clarity,” says Taylor. “That can be difficult because clarity to a ballet dancer can mean something that’s really exact. So it’s helping them find the balance between showing a step clearly, but also letting it move and bend and not feel constricted.”

In rehearsal Millepied urges the dancers to be more spontaneous—and to focus on phrasing the movement to illuminate the subtleties of the music. “It needs to make more of a statement,” he says. “Just do one thing at a time. You’re in your pirouette and you’re running late—so what? I’d rather you be late. Then you have to accelerate, and then you’re alive.”

And, of course, it’s about relationships. “Benjamin likes there to be a human aspect in his pieces,” explains Taylor. “He wants dancers to interact with each other onstage in a very human way.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the second movement. Millepied watches closely as Principal Dancers Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer work through the ballet’s tender and playful central duet. It’s beautifully balanced between serenity and ecstasy, intimacy and playfulness. As they finish, he smiles. 

Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson

“Honestly, it didn’t look like anyone else who has done it,” he says. “And at certain moments I almost didn’t recognize my pas de deux! But I loved it. I don’t want to change anything. It’s beautiful.”

It’s this same expressiveness he asks all of the dancers to cultivate. “It’s important that you feel free,” he explains. “You’re dancing somebody’s choreography, so that’s structure that’s not yours. But within it, you have to be yourself. It should be different with every single dancer. “We want to see you,” he says emphatically. “It’s all about expression. Don’t forget that. That’s why we dance.”

Benjamin Millepied

Benjamin Millepied // © Drew Altizer Photography

Benjamin Millepied is a choreographer, filmmaker, and artistic director distinguished by his career as a dancer at New York City Ballet and his growing body of creative work. Born in Bordeaux, France, Millepied trained with his mother, Catherine Flori; at the Conservatoire National de Lyon; and at the School of American Ballet before becoming a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. His choreography is performed by New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Berlin Staatsoper, Mariinsky Ballet, among many others, and was featured in Darren Aronofsky’s award-winning film Black Swan, in which he also starred. Millepied founded L.A. Dance Project in 2012. In 2013, he was appointed director of Paris Opera Ballet, where he was the subject of the documentary film Reset. He returned to Los Angeles in 2016 to focus on L.A. Dance Project and his own choreography and filmmaking. He is currently working on two feature films, one of which is a musical adaptation of Carmento be released in 2019. Among many awards and honors, Millepied was made a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture.


Purchase Tickets

Header Image: SF Ballet in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson