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Review: Ballet Austin’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Humor is one of Ballet Austin’s strong suits, and artistic director Stephen Mills’ original ballet “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” presents no exception.

The ballet recalls two recent Ballet Austin productions based on classic comedic theater works, including last season’s Shakespeare piece “The Taming of the Shrew” and the prior season’s “The Magic Flute,” based on the Mozart opera. “A Midsummer” is just as delightful as those productions.

The company’s dancers showcased their comedic abilities, bringing the frisky plot of the Shakespeare play to the Long Center over the weekend, with live accompaniment by the Austin Symphony Orchestra of the traditional Felix Mendelssohn score.

From the moment the curtain rises to display the forest scenery, illuminated softly by rainbow-colored lighting that filters from above to the forest floor (the brilliant work of lighting designer Tony Tucci), shenanigans ensue. The fawn-like Puck (a fanciful Jordan Moser), his sidekick Cupid (Anne Marie Melendez) and the accompanying curlicue-winged fairies are in the mood to frolic.

It’s no surprise, then, that Puck approaches his marching orders from the exasperated Oberon (Paul Michael Bloodgood) with mischievous zeal. The goal? To help a mortal foursome find its happy ending. When we first encounter the lovers, Hermia (Ashley Lynn Gilfix) and Lysander (Frank Shott) are in love, even though Hermia is engaged to Demetrius (Christopher Swaim), who is ignoring the desperate advances of the utterly lovesick Helena (Jaime Lynn Witts). What Puck doesn’t realize is that things are going to get crazier before they can make sense again.

The highlight of Act I comes after Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and drops a love-inducing flower nectar into the sleeping man’s eyes, causing him to fall head over heels for the first person he sees upon awaking: Helena. When Demetrius’ eyes are also meddled with, Helena suddenly — and alarmingly — finds herself the center of attention; meanwhile, Hermia’s confusion is unmistakable.

In the scene that follows, Mills’ choreography takes the four through a series of flawlessly funny partnerwork as Lysander and Demtrius vie for Helena’s affections, and Hermia tags along as the proverbial third wheel (really, the fourth wheel. Poor, poor Hermia). Hermia is tossed from Lysander to Demtrius to the ground (ouch!) while Helena is smothered in kisses from head to toe.

The section demands impeccable timing, smooth transitions and outrageous facial expressions, and the dancers delivered on all counts. Audience laughter reached a peak when, at the scene’s climax, the group crossed the stage in a most absurd fashion: Demetrius carries Helena on his back, who is in turn clung to by Lysander, who is then grasped around the middle by Hermia as she extends one leg behind her head in a dramatic gesture.

Oberon’s fairy wife Titania (Aara Krumpe) suffers as a result of her husband’s revengeful nature when he causes her to fall in love with a mortal-turned-donkey, Bottom. She delights in scratching his ears, and Bottom can’t believe his good fortune. But his happiness is dashed when Oberon decides it’s time to put things right again.

Act II’s marriage scene is filled with white and gold tutus and a pas de deux between Duke Theseus (Orlando Julius Canova) and his fiancée, Hippolyta (Rebecca Johnson). Johnson’s graceful leg extensions gave a regal quality to her movement that went unmatched by her partner.

Ultimately, Mills’ choreography for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is perfectly playful, capturing the essence of the Shakespeare work and playing to the dancers’ strong suits.