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A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Gdansk

Posted on June 24, 2013

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Baltic Dance Theatre, Baltic Opera House, Gdańsk – May 28, 2013

A breath of fresh air wafted though this innovative narration of Shakespeare’s timeless comedy, carrying with it an affirmation that complex stories can be told with simple clarity through the medium of dance and gesture alone without the need to lean upon the crutches of modern technology. The choreographer, Izadora Weiss, is an avowed disciple of Jiří Kylián and yet, unlike her mentor, Weiss has a penchant for tackling well-known stories (both The Rite of Spring and Romeo and Juliet are already in her back catalogue). Kylián invests every movement in his non-narrative dance with a particular meaning and Weiss applies this skill of utilising subtle gesture and articulate motifs to tell a story effectively, without graphics, multi-media tools, mesh screens or any other digital device. The clear intent of her distinctive movement is to be further admired for bucking this burgeoning trend for complex multiple collaborations in modern choreography.

The Baltic Dance Theatre (BDT) was created in 2010, under the artistic leadership of Weiss, when a stagnating classical ballet company was replaced in residence at the Opera House in Gdańsk. The new company’s repertoire continues to grow, now including two works by Kylián (No More Play and Six Dances), with another new season of his choreography to come by the end of the year. The news that Kylián is to withdraw his works from Nederlands Dans Theater – for three years – from September 2014 (he says this is to help renew the company’s repertoire) comes at a time when another repository of his work is being compiled further along the northern European coastline.        

When I last saw this company in 2011 it was entirely populated by Polish dancers but BDT now has around 30 per cent of its growing ensemble coming from overseas (Spain, Italy and the US). The first recruit from the UK – Harry Price from English National Ballet School – arrives in August.

The growing reputation of BDT within Poland is evidenced by the quality of collaborators that Weiss is now able to attract. Her Dream has been dressed by the country’s leading fashion designer, Gosia Baczyńska, and Weiss has eschewed the celebrated score by Felix Mendelssohn in favour of a “pick and mix” compilation of the prodigious output by Bosnian composer Goran Bregović. It combines haunting folksy refrains for the fairie world, Arabic laments for the court of King Theseus, electric gypsyland for Bottom and the rude mechanicals, not to mention a rousing, foot-tapping ensemble finale, which has everyone going home happy. Haunting flamenco-style guitar solos and lyrical orchestral pieces accompanied the many romantic dances between the matched and mismatched lovers. The whole Balkan-inspired soundtrack integrates in a surprisingly seamless way given that it is a patchwork collage of Bregović’s diverse compositions rather than a bespoke commission.  

Weiss leaves no stone unturned in Shakespeare’s text by accommodating the widest sweep of the plot in her 70-minute single-act work, bringing in the front-end story of Theseus and Hippolyta and also the comic epilogue of the artisans’ Pyramus and Thisbe at the triple wedding that concludes the play.    The Indian boy (Graziano Bongiovanni) quarrelled over by Oberon (Ireneusz Stencel) and Titania (Beata Giza) is no infant but a full-grown, muscular adolescent, which provides a better reason for Oberon’s jealous rage when Titania claims the young hunk for herself. Bongiovanni gets some interesting and exotic solo dance motifs.

Baczyńska’s costumes define an idiosyncratic style ranging from the snazzy red-suited character of Theseus (played by Hodei Iriarte Kaperotxipi, a dead ringer for Mad Men’s Don Draper) to the everyday clothing of the craftsmen and amateur theatricals, although Bottom’s get-up as the Ass was more a bondage-themed Batman than the ridiculous caricature of a donkey. The leather straps and gimp mask certainly added an extra frisson to Bottom’s (Radosław Palutkiewicz) drug-infused love making with Giza’s gorgeous, leggy Titania. Amelia Forrest, a charismatic new recruit to BDT, arriving via Los Angeles and Barcelona, provided a captivating Hippolyta, drawing the best of Baczyńska’s ravishing gowns, one of which is sensuously removed by her Amazonian maidservants.       

Eroticism, romance and comedy were all well to the fore under Weiss’ fast-paced direction and the scenes with the four mismatched lovers were subtly nuanced to convey the humour and pathos of their unrequited romances in casual glances and tag duets. Of course, Lysander (Michał Łabuś) and Demetrius (Filip Michalak) both love Hermia (Franciszka Kierc) but once Puck applies the love juice to their eyes while asleep in the woods, they both awake to fancy the formerly unloved Helena (Tura Gómez Coll). Sayuka Haruna played the mischievous Puck as an elfin-faced firebird, an image emphatically accentuated by her ruby-red, feathered mini-dress.

Weiss’ own set design was another highly effective ingredient, with simple panels rolled into place by the performers that masked changes of scene and personnel. There are no side seats at the Baltic Opera House and the front-on view made the mathematical angles of this device possible without any of the audience seeing the switches. Another smart move was for Weiss to play out background parts of the narrative way upstage, overlapped by more immediate action being danced downstage. The lighting designs of Piotr Miskiewicz enabled these simultaneous tableaux to be performed with an undiminished clarity.

This production is certainly more evidence of a company that is emerging in a well-controlled rush. The ensemble has a very mixed background of skills – from ballet, through rhythmic gymnastics to street dance – which are all employed (in my limited experience, anyway) to create an innovative and eclectic contemporary movement style that underpins strong narrative work. Shortly after the premiere, a group of directors from Shakespearean Festivals across Europe came to see this interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I hope they were suitably impressed by the innovative approach shown by Weiss and her team that was rigidly underpinned by a strong sense of respect for Shakespeare’s text.    

 

Graham Watts’ travel and accommodation expenses were met by the Baltic Opera House.

 

Above Beata Giza as Titania and Radosław Palutkiewicz as Bottomin A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photograph by Sebastian Cwikla.

Graham Watts writes for magazines, websites, theatres and festivals across Europe, and in Japan, Australia and the USA. He is chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards; a mentor of aspiring dance writers through the Resolution Review programme; and has lectured at The Place and the Royal Academy of Dance. His book, ‘Agony & Ecstasy’, written with Daria Klimentová, was published in 2013. Graham is a Commonwealth fencing medallist; was captain of the GB sabre team at the Barcelona Olympics; and fencing team leader at the Olympic Games of Athens and Beijing. He was appointed OBE, in 2008.

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