If changing a work by one artistic genius takes chutzpah, reinterpreting one from three geniuses might be a leap from a metaphorical cliff.
But that is what Miami City Ballet is doing for the final show of its 30th season, opening Friday. It will present a new production of George Balanchine’s rendition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set to music by Felix Mendelssohn.
The choreography, music and story are the same. But MCB’s production gives this beloved balletic interpretation of the tale of fairy mischief and bewitched lovers a radically different and distinctively Miami character by placing it not in an Elizabethan forest but in a mysterious undersea world and the Coral Castle in South Miami Dade.
MCB artistic director Lourdes Lopez engaged two Miami-bred creative luminaries, visual artist Michele Oka Doner and director and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, to reimagine Balanchine’s popular 1962 ballet for the New York City Ballet.
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“I wondered if it was possible to find that choreography in another place and time,” Lopez said last month at Open Barre, an MCB discussion series. Lopez, who danced many roles in Dream during her 24 years at NYCB, called it “one of those works where the physical production hasn’t aged as well as the choreography.”
Theater and film directors have often updated Shakespeare. Some examples are Baz Luhrman’s 1996 film of Romeo and Juliet, with punk beachside gangs, and Julie Taymor’s recent fantasy staging of Dream. The dance world has occasionally seen reworkings of classics like Swan Lake, which Matthew Bourne reimagined in an all-male version in 1995.
But the esteem for Balanchine’s vision, extending to the smallest choreographic and musical details, and the strong oversight of the George Balanchine Trust, which must give its permission to perform his works and oversees their staging, makes Lopez’s venture with Dream highly unusual. (The Trust has signed off on the production.)
Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Balanchine’s rare story ballets. (Another was Prodigal Son, the Biblical tale that made a star of MCB founding artistic director Edward Villella. He was also famously Balanchine’s original Oberon in Dream and wanted to stage it in Miami but was stymied by costs.) The choreographer, who died in 1983, came to love the play by performing in it as a young dance student in Russia and could still recite Shakespeare’s lines in English and Russian when he made the ballet. He spent 22 years compiling music by Mendelssohn, including the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture.
Though Balanchine was known for avoiding complex plots (one of his famous aphorisms was “there are no mothers-in-law in ballet”) he swoops adroitly through Shakespeare’s tangled tale of love and magic in the first act. Oberon and Titania, a fairy king and queen, quarrel and Oberon has his servant Puck enchant Titania into falling in love with vulgar workman Nick Bottom, whom he crowns with a donkey’s head. Two pairs of lovers are also set at odds, and then set right. In the second half he turns Shakespeare’s relatively brief resolution into a grand dance celebration, with a beautifully lyrical pas de deux.
John Clifford, a Balanchine choreographic protégé who danced with NYCB from 1966 to 1974, frequently as Oberon and Puck, says Dream shows the complexities of Balanchine’s genius. The choreographer told Clifford, for instance, that Titania and Oberon are not a couple, but rival forces of nature, and envisioned Oberon as a fierce-tempered demi-God based on a Teutonic legend. But those ideas are in the choreography.
“He didn’t talk much about it — he said, ‘Dear, it’s a ballet,’ ” Clifford says. “He had his own private subtext of a story, he just didn’t want it to be too literal. He didn’t want the dancers to know because he didn’t want them to interpret … it’s all there in the steps and pantomime. He didn’t do the play. He did his own interpretation of the play.”
The $2.1 million production is the most expensive, and one of the most elaborate, in MCB’s history. It will use all the troupe’s 51 dancers, as well as 10 advanced teenage students and 25 children, ages 9 to 13, from the company’s school, while six singers will join the orchestra. Costumes and sets were made at four studios in New York and Chicago. Balanchine Trust repetiteur Sandy Jennings spent seven weeks at MCB teaching and rehearsing the ballet, and former NYCB dancers Ib Andersen, Suki Schorer and current artistic director Peter Martins coached individual parts.
Doner came up with the undersea idea after she and McCraney saw the NYCB production with Lopez in early 2014. The two Miami artists saw the ocean replacing the woods as a fantastical, but potentially dangerous, place.
“Michele said … our forest is the sea,” McCraney says. “If we think of going into an unknown place where magical things happen, it’s the sea for us. In a lot of Shakespeare plays they go into the forest and weird things happen. We go into the sea and all bets are off.”
Doner, 70, who grew up in Miami Beach, has often worked and spent time here. Her sculptures and other work, such as her A Walk on the Beach mural embedded in the floor of Miami International Airport, are often inspired by or incorporate natural forms, which she was excited to bring to a new medium.
“I knew instinctively I wanted to set the ballet in Miami,” Doner says. “The real Miami which nurtured me gave me a distinct language which was invisible to most people. … I’m drawing people’s eye to the true natural beauty of this city, which trumps anything else — the light, the sunset, the limestone that holds everything together, the gifts the water brings up on the beach.”
Doner’s costumes are inspired by seaweed, shells, coral and mangroves. The sets incorporate projected photos of marine creatures. The hounds that accompany Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, are now seahorses — which Doner says was Lopez’s idea. And Bottom becomes a manatee instead of a donkey.
That last change meant altering the movement slightly, to reflect a creature that swims, instead of walking on hooves — a potentially radical idea that Doner says Lopez hesitated over.
But Doner says it was a risk worth taking. “Without that letting go, that deconstruction, we did not stand a chance of allowing this wonderful magical piece … to speak to a new generation in a fresh way,” she says.
Lopez’s belief in how Balanchine was inspired by Shakespeare led her to bring McCraney on board.
“I had the feeling that Balanchine choreographed not just to the music but to the text,” she said at Open Barre. “I wanted Tarell to work with the dancers so they understood it.”
McCraney, who has been a playwright in residence at England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and directed experimental stagings of Shakespeare’s plays there and in Miami, read the play, discussed its themes and did acting exercises with the dancers. And he was thrilled to discover how deeply Shakespeare’s ideas resonated in the ballet, from the poetic rhythms of the text to the ecstasy, pain and absurdity of love.
“Things began to change in front of my eyes,” McCraney says. “They took the information and it began to inform what they did.”
Clifford said there were concerns with using this kind of theatrical analysis.
“I’m worried [the dancers] might bring things [Balanchine] didn’t want,” he says. “Because if he wanted them to be there, they’d be there.”
Whatever dancers and audiences will discover in this new vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be revealed this weekend, when they venture not into the woods but under the sea.
If you go
What: Miami City Ballet in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
Tickets: $20 to $204 at miamicityballet.org or 305-929-7010.
Program repeats April 1-3 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and April 9-10 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale