Musicality is the touchstone of dancing and choreography in 20th-Century ballet. Whenever movement achieves perfect union with a score, performers and audiences alike feel connected to a life force.
But when this relationship fails--as it continually does in the Long Beach Ballet version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"--it's like being trapped in an endless lie.
Company ballet master Christopher Tabor created this two-act Shakespearean charade five years ago, and it returned to the Terrace Theater on Friday, garnished with guest dancers from the Soviet Union and Germany. As before, Tabor transferred a comedy set in classical Greece to a vaguely "Swan Lake"-style Euro-neverland, choosing for accompaniment a bizarre collection of snippets from compositions by Sergei Prokofiev.
Thus, when we first see Theseus (ruler of Athens) and Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons), they are dancing to what ballet-goers recognize as stately party music from "Romeo and Juliet." However, their pas de deux in the last act is set to an alternatively rollicking and bombastic, Slavic tune from the "Lieutenant Kije" film score.
Even if you can't identify these pieces, it's easy to understand how their clash of styles undermines any attempt at characterization by Alla Khaniashvili-Artyushkina and Vitaly Artyushkin--a husband-and-wife team formerly with the Bolshoi--leaving them grimly punching out steps in a dramatic void.
Tabor hobbles nearly all of his principals in this manner, making them look unmusical or alienated by assigning them tasks at cross purposes with their accompaniments. At the beginning of the second act, he gives the accomplished, womanly Galina Shlyapina (of Moscow Classical Ballet) the usual cliches defining Titania's infatuation--even though the music here teems with ominous implications.
A better choreographer might have made Prokofiev's dark reality his own and taken the story into a more serious dimension. Tabor, however, simply pretends that everything fits, even if Shlyapina ends up looking terminally oblivious.
Of the guests, two contrasting virtuosos find ways around the problem.
As Puck, caractere specialist Thomas Vollmer (Komische Oper Ballett) uses the spirit of mockery to propel him through his scenes with maximum bravado. As Oberon, the miraculous jumper Vladimir Malakhov (Moscow Classical Ballet) literally rises above the ballet: taking to the air whenever possible. In their scenes together, Vollmer flies on wires (like Peter Pan); Malakhov simply flies, period.
Unfortunately, the home team inherits most of the hopeless roles: the color-coded young lovers mixed up by moonlight, the witlessly antic mechanicals rehearsing in the wood.
Helena Ross achieves a few moments of fetching comic distress as Helena (she played Hermia in the 1986 production). Russell Capps reveals partnering prowess and magnetism as Lysander. Their colleagues (including a contingent of kiddies) look well-drilled and spirited. But without a credible vehicle, it's premature for Long Beach Ballet to seek increased local respect, much less national recognition.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" tries to buy its way into the major leagues with imported guest stars, a conductor of international stature (Patrick Flynn) and all the smoke, glitter and twinkling lights that the sets by David Scaglione and Charles Davis can hold.
But it summarizes Shakespeare incoherently, trivializes Prokofiev relentlessly and leaves its dancers, foreign and domestic, estranged from the deepest resources of their art.