Susanne Grinder as Hippolyta/Titania.
In order to prepare for John Neumeier’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’d ordered La Scala’s rendition of Balanchine’s work of the same name, though it didn’t arrive in time for me to watch it before heading off to Copenhagen. Another preparative measure I took was to borrow the play from my local library and read it from start to finish. Although I of course know the story as well as any iconic tale in the collective mind, I’ve never actually read A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare. I found the writing charming and, in some passages, surprisingly tender, despite its humoristic approach. Unlike some who will perhaps wonder about how one retells a piece of Shakespeare’s (the master of words) writing without using words, I’d seen enough photos from the 2010 performance and watched the promo videos on the Royal Danish Ballet’s website to feel completely confident that Neumeier had indeed managed to translate both the humour and the more gentle emotions of love into choreography.
I watched the performance twice, on the evening of the premiere, and again at the noon performance that was playing the next day. Both times, Susanne Grinder danced the double role of Hippolyta/Titania with Gregory Dean as Theseus/Oberon and Tim Matiakis as Puck. On the 7th and the 8th the other roles was filled as follows:
Helena: Jodie Thomas/Diana Cuni
Hermia: Amy Watson/Femke Slot
Demetrius: Ulrik Birkkjær/Nicolai Hansen
Lysander: Alexander Stæger/Marcin Kupinski
Bottom: Jean-Lucien Massot/Fernando Mora
Flute: Thomas Lund/Morten Eggert
However, my first note on the show will have absolutely nothing to do with the dancers and everything to do with Neumeier. I have only seen one other ballet by him, La Dame aux Camélias, so I shan’t speak as an expert, but just as in Dame aux Camélias, one of the consistent choreographic elements was the complicated lifts. The scenes between Titania and Oberon – and generally all the scenes featuring the fairy world – consist of nothing else but amazingly intricate lifts. Not to mention the recurring focus on intimate poses and close body contact, something that was also present in Dame aux Camélia, though not to the same degree. In Midsummer Night’s Dream it really is the very heart of the performance, naturally.
Luckily I was able to watch this ballet twice (I shall be watching it again on the 16th of February with polina_slosvau), and despite the fact that the three leads were the same, the performances were dramatically different. On the premiere night, the humour of the story was at an absolute peak and several times the Old Stage resounded with laughter. Yes, I would go so far as to say that the audience buckled over from mirth a couple of times during the two and a half hour performance. Sitting on the first row, I had a perfect view of the facial expressions of all the dancers which probably helped adding to the air of hilarity for me personally. Especially in regards to Matiakis’ Puck and Jodie Thomas’ Helena, both of whom I will speak of in more detail later.
The second day performance was superb in its portrayal of love and lust. It may be due to the fact that I was, this time, seated on the balcony, giving me a good upper view of the stage, but the scenes with Titania and Oberon were even more well-executed and breathtaking than on the premiere night. The lifts looked smooth and effortless, the slide of body against body in the dim lights on the stage made my heart skip a beat multiple times. At the same time, Femke Slot’s gentle and stunning performance of Hermia and Susanne Grinder’s once more strongly regal Hippolyta added so much tender emotion to the scenes they were part that at the end when Hermia finally got her Lysander and Hippolyta was joined with Theseus, I was close to tears. It was so moving.
Both nights the Danish Radio Orchestra performed Mendelssohn’s music with lightness and playfulness where it was due, and proper weight and stress where such was needed. The first night, Ligeti’s music during the fairy scenes had me a bit edgy, since I’ve never listened to any of his compositions before, and it is – to say the least – an acquired taste. However, at the noon performance the next day, I was actually quite smitten with his Volumina and felt that it portrayed the strong animosity that had come between the fairy queen and her spouse perfectly. The music that accompanied the Mechanics was adorable and really made for half the humour which they were the executioners of.
Susanne Grinder’s Hippolyta/Titania:
I can’t say this without sounding biased, but Susanne was absolutely spectacular. I haven’t seen her dance before – didn’t have the chance, unfortunately, during M/K Ballerina which I watched on her night off or when she was promoted solo dancer during Swan Lake – but her soft, feminine appearance, striking features and especially the way she has been described as a person and a dancer by balletmaster Nicolai Hübbe, not to mention the sweetness she showed in the backstage video from Swan Lake, had me yearning and waiting until I could finally see her perform. I was ready for disappointment, I really was. I kept telling myself: You’ve placed her on a pedestal, there’s no way for her to live up to what you’ve imagined her to be. But you know what? She did. All by herself.
On the premiere night, I was on row one, so close that I could see her at all times when she was on stage, and believe me, I made the best of it. Whenever Hippolyta or Titania was featured, my eyes were glued to Susanne, hardly noticing anyone else. And it wasn’t even forced, my attention was simply glued to her because she glowed. In the introduction scene where Hippolyta has her wedding garment prepared and dances a solo in response to the flower left for her by Theseus, I was entranced. She was beautiful. Simply beautiful. Although her Hippolyta was regal as a queen of the Amazons should be – there was also something wistful about her. She might be an Amazon, but she was also a woman in love, waiting for the moment where she could finally be with the person she had chosen. This very human, very mortal aspect of Hippolyta’s character was consistently accented and served to enhance the supernatural nature of her Titania.
Because her Titania was Hippolyta’s exact opposite. Where Hippolyta in Susanne’s interpretation was soft-spoken even in her authority, Titania was all sharp edges, fierceness and sensuality. Although Oberon whirled her around in the most amazing spins and lifts, she remained disobedient and proud. Edgy in the most literal meaning of the word due to the choreography. Later, in her lust for Bottom-as-an-ass, she was the epitome of femme fatale, sensual in her movements, alluring and insistent in her… I doubt it can be called courtship. Advances, rather. The smile Susanne adopted as Titania was much as her usual smile, thin-lipped and relatively small, but there was something about the way she quirked the corner of her mouth which added a whole layer of ecstasy to it. A woman laughing out her orgasm. It was quite impressive.
Therefore I can conclude that I do understand why 99 percent of the photos of Titania in the program feature Susanne’s version, because she is unmistakable. However, I will also conclude that it saddens me how 99 % of the images of Hippolyta feature Gudrun Bojesen (the other ballerina who is to dance the part in February) and only one sorry photo of Susanne, because my favourite part of the ballet was probably Susanne’s Hippolyta. There were a lot of characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and everything considered. Hippolyta has only little more to do in the ballet than in the original play. Even so, her contrast to Titania’s animalistic ruthlessness and how she yearned for her wedding so much that it would wipe away her smile out of worry that something were to go wrong (as it did to her two friends, albeit their trouble were reserved for the night only), touched me deeply. Her love may be the only one unchallenged in the story, but it is none the greater therefore. Susanne’s dancing as Hippolyta added to this feeling of the pumping heart beat that is the sound of love, at all stages. Her footwork in general was amazing to watch, her movements light, the lines of her body sweeping through motion if not actually flapping like wings. And if her footwork in general is good, I will say that her en pointe work in particular is utter perfection. Her arabesque and tiptoe balance still isn’t flawless, but it is perfected to such a degree that when she moves en pointe or into an en pointe position, there is an astounding swiftness and weightlessness in her dancing. It truly took my breath away.
Yes, what I carry with me from this performance is a mental image of the opening sequence, Susanne’s Hippolyta standing in front of the painter, her veil falling around her shoulders as she reaches out and up to take off her hair dress, an apprehensive expression taking over her features. That is, until she is quickly joined by Helena and Hermia who put the veil back in place on her head, in a manner that says more than words ever could that it is where it belongs, of course; something that causes Hippolyta to smile. An almost relieved smile. A smile that is kindly reminded of its happiness. That smile is what I associate with this performance and Susanne Grinder’s part in particular.
Gregory Dean’s Theseus/Oberon:
Whereas my focus with Susanne Grinder was on the human role of Hippolyta, Gregory Dean’s true genius in this performance was as Oberon, the king of the fairies. In the first scene, where he appeared as Theseus, I wasn’t swayed, thinking that his face seemed to keep the same expression without changing at all, and concluding that he was simply a pretty boy with great technique (because he is a talented dancer, no doubt about it). However, when he came back on stage as Oberon, my jaw dropped. On the premiere night, his Oberon was strong, masculine, forceful and Zeus-like. Truly divine in all manners of speaking. His lifts are absolutely awe-inspiring and the harsh look in his eyes was quite hypnotizing. The next day, sitting farther away, it occurred to me just how much understated humour Gregory Dean has poured into his dancing with Matiakis’ Puck and their interaction was the funniest part of the noon performance, if you ask me.
Sebastian Kloborg as Theseus and Susanne Grinder as Hippolyta. Screencaps from the online promo video available on the Danish Royal Theatre's website.
This is to say that I actually became very fond of Dean’s Oberon. He reminded me a lot of Zeus, something that fitted well with Susanne’s Hera-like Titania. Dean’s face is strong with prominent features and a well-defined jaw and nose, something that does give his Oberon a feeling of immortality and mysticism. All of this – his good looks and his talented dancing – came together to ensure that I found his Oberon a full-scale match to Susanne’s Titania and the two dancers match very well. I hope to see them dancing together in the future as well. Especially after having seen the clips in the promo video for A Midsummer Night’s Dream where it seems to be Sebastian Kloborg who partners her. Not to say that Kloborg isn’t a worthy dancer, but he doesn’t quite suit Susanne as well as Dean does.
Dean does leave room for improvement, however. Now I’ve waxed poetry about his Oberon, but what of his Theseus? It may be that I was simply so blinded by Susanne’s amazing Hippolyta, but Dean’s Theseus came off as just a bit tame. Flat. Theseus really isn’t that interesting a character in the play either, but in the ballet he seemed to have no personality whatsoever. I think Dean had a lot of fun playing Oberon and it shows, but his portrayal of Theseus paled a bit in comparison and it is a shame, because there was one glimpse in the first pas de deux between Hippolyta and Theseus in act 2 of something more in his character. Something seriously invested and devoted in regards to his interaction with Hippolyta, and I would really have loved to see more of that from him. Not to mention that on the premiere night, when the time came for him and Susanne to kiss at the end of the wedding ceremony, Dean unconsciously wetted his lips before leaning down, as if to make sure Susanne wouldn’t have to be met by a chapped, dry kiss. It was a small gesture, but it was incredibly sweet and it really made me want that bit more in the rest of his presence as Theseus as well.
Conclusively, I will say that Dean was a force to reckon with all the way through this ballet and I do hope that he is soon promoted to soloist. He fully deserves the acknowledgement and recognition.
Tim Matiakis’ Puck:
My vocabulary isn’t sufficient to fully do Matiakis’ Puck justice. Sitting on the first row was such a treat, because his expressions were hilarious and his interaction with all the characters added life and the perfect mix of stupidity and teasing carelessness to the whole performance. His Puck was young and slipshod, acting like a small child trying to combine the two very different activities of 1) having fun and 2) not angering his daddy aka Oberon, not always realising that doing the first would automatically clash with the second. Therefore I will also say right away that Dean’s Oberon and Matiakis’ Puck was the perfect duo, silly a lot of the time (most often accidentally which only made it all the funnier) and just a tad bit scary at others.
Fortunately, the hilarity didn’t make for the entire image, since Matiakis’ dancing was also very strong. With the amount of difficult pirouettes and leaps in his choreography, he came through both performances safely and with an impressive show of balance and strength. Nevertheless, it was not so much his choreographed dancing as his unrehearsed improvisation on stage which was truly phenomenal. As such, the two different performances also showed a whole variety of impromptu use of props and the other dancers, and it really looked as if they all had the time of their life. Most notable, I think I found his, and at times Oberon’s as well, use of Helena’s lost glasses. The first night I was actually laughing out loud during the couple of scenes where Helena is blinded and Puck… well, acts as if he were. And trust me, I wasn’t the only one.
Like the other two main parts, Matiakis’ was a double role, though he only appears in two short glimpses as his human alter ego, Philostrate. Even so, his short solo at the end of the wedding scene, where the love flower appears once again and he throws it up into the darkness to initiate the final scene between Oberon and Titania, had me questioning whether the entire performance – minus the first scene – wasn’t simply a dream of Hippolyta’s that she would wake from as soon as the curtain fell. It would fit well with Susanne’s portrayal of Hippolyta as someone who cares for her friends and would wish for them to have what their hearts desired just as she has been granted that which her heart longs for. The expression on Matiakis’ face – although his Philostrate had been a party pooper up to this final point – was mysterious and almost amused. Thus the ending scene also fitted Shakespeare’s original work with its contemplations on dream and reality. The mingling of the two and the vast differences.
Femke Slot as Hermia, Nicolai Hansen as Demetrius, Diana Cuni as Helena and Marcin Kupinski as Lysander.
On the premiere night, Jodie Thomas played the wonderful character of Helena. Because I have only heard good things of the other supporting female of the night, Amy Watson, and because I had switched Hermia’s and Helena’s names in my head, I spent the entire performance convinced that it must be this Odette of Odettes (which is what I have heard of Watson) who played such a strong, expressive and hilarious Helena. Truthfully, Helena was the only ballerina on stage that night who could lure my attention away from Susanne for just two seconds. Often holding my otherwise undivided attention for minutes on end, simply because she was so fully fleshed out and full of quirks, will and dedication in her unrequited love for Demetrius.
Jodie Thomas as Helena and Susanne Grinder as Hippolyta. Probably one of my favourite moments and expressions from Susanne. ♥
So imagine my surprise when I found out that it was Jodie Thomas who had put so much soul and heart into the character. Before this night, all I had heard of Thomas was the newspaper Information’s harsh critique of her “bland Sylphide”. In the role of Helena, though, there was absolutely nothing bland about her. Her dancing was good, with every move oozing from a sort of inner gracelessness that fitted the character perfectly, and the amount of characterisation she managed to put on display made me an instant fan. I simply can’t wait to see more of her, dancing other parts in the future.
At the noon performance, Diana Cuni was the dancer behind Helena and I can only say that two ballerinas couldn’t possibly be more different. This is not to say that in comparison to Thomas, Cuni was less impressive, because that wouldn’t be fair, since I would be more than willing to accept a more subdued version of Helena, but the fact was that to me Cuni was simply unimpressive all-over. Although most of the gestures and expressions were exact replicas of Thomas’, she seemed too focused on her choreography to pour any real emotion into it and on top of that, her dancing seemed generally clunky. My hopes for her Helena finally fell flat at her and Demetrius’ dance during the wedding scene, and I found myself actually uncomfortable, watching her fight her way through the choreography, at several points looking as if she had drawn a blank and was simply relying on Nicolai Hansen’s Demetrius to catch her when she danced something instead of the steps she had forgotten.
I am counting on her perhaps having had a bad day that coloured the entire performance for and from her, and I shall be looking forward to (hopefully) seeing her again on the 16th of February, bringing more personality into Helena and more expertise into her dancing.
Much as with Helena, Demetrius is a comical character and with a good performance, his character can really stand out and flourish on stage. Luckily, both the gentlemen who danced the part in the two performances had a great grasp of his figure, although – if forced to choose – I will say Ulrik Birkkjær did the better job with him on the opening night. If only because he had an extremely strong portrayal of Helena to bounce off on and it brought an extra edge to the character.
Ulrik Birkkjær also had the perfect looks for him. Tall and with long limbs that, if used correctly, gave him the appearance and movements of a tin soldier. Birkkjær’s Demetrius was soldier through and through, actually, one of those men who can only think in boxes and rank, and stumbles when it comes to matters of love and desire. He showed this awkwardness of his character in little gestures, for example smelling his armpits when he meets Hermia unexpectedly in the forest. I sat with my nose all wrinkled, yet unable to help myself from laughing. At the same time, Birkkjær’s Demetrius had a good face with a large range of facial expressions that fitted Jodie Thomas’ delightful Helena to an A.
Of the two, Birkkjær was also the stronger dancer, though Nicolai Hansen wasn’t far behind. The greatest difference between the two was probably the interpretation of the character. Hansen’s Demetrius was also awkward, but rather in the sense that his Demetrius seemed to be a romantic caught in the role of a soldier and thus tripping over the many squares and procedures in his attempts to also show his soft and loving side. I really liked this aspect of Hansen’s Demetrius, because it made more sense in concerns to his interest in Hermia than Birkkjær’s more militaristic approach, where one couldn’t help wondering if he only wanted Hermia because Hermia was simply the girl to have when being a man of his position and status.
I think I would have liked Hansen’s Demetrius more if he had had a more charismatic Helena to pursue him, and if paired with Thomas’ Helena, I believe I would find it difficult to choose between the two of them, Birkkjær and Hansen, because both have their strong points that make them a unique character and enjoyable to watch in action.
Amy Watson as Hermia and Alexander Stæger as Lysander.
As before mentioned, I spent the opening night convinced that Amy Watson played Helena, simply because the ballerina I had heard nothing but good about couldn’t possibly be the dancer behind the bland, boring Hermia who fluttered around the stage that first night. And yet, she was. I was very disappointed, to say the least, because her Hermia disappeared in the crowd and didn’t really stand out in any way – not even with the strong plotline of her elopement with Lysander and the beautiful choreography that is given her character throughout the ballet. No doubt, Watson is a talented dancer, but even so I wasn’t swayed by her dancing as Hermia, just as her characterisation of the character seemed grey and dull. She simply seemed like a somewhat timid girl who never really proved herself – not even when faced with Lysander practically hanging off Helena’s legs. Her crying should and could have been an emotional stunner, but instead I only felt a bit irritated at her for not doing anything. I didn’t feel like it was a matter of a lack of spine as much as simply a lack of personality altogether.
Femke Slot as Hermia and Marcin Kupinski as Lysander.
At the noon performance, soloist Femke Slot danced the part of Hermia and because of my experience at the opening night, I didn’t really follow Hermia on stage until her and Lysander’s duet parts during the forest scenes. However, when I suddenly found myself watching their first pas de deux, Femke’s Hermia took me by storm. She, too, was a bit timid and in many ways “the good girl”, but Femke’s portrayal of her also showed that she was so far gone in her love for Lysander that her shyness and upbringing would simply have to yield to her emotions. Not only was Femke’s dancing smooth, soft-lined and wonderfully invested, but her portrayal of Hermia instantly made her my favourite character of the night. Her smile was tender, even as her movements showed that she was nervous for what might happen to them in the wake of their disobedience. At the end of the performance, I truly regretted having had my eyes glued so firmly to Susanne during the first scene, because I would have loved to see the built-up of the elopement plans between Lysander and Hermia in Femke’s version. Fortunately for me, Femke is scheduled to appear as Hermia again on the 16th of February, so I still have a chance to make up for my initial disinterest.
Both the danseurs who danced the part of Lysander were talented and charming. In many ways so alike that it’s hard for me to say which I preferred and both to some degree so characteristically goody-two-shoes that neither of them really held my interest outside their interaction with Hermia and Helena.
Alexander Stæger who played opposite Amy Watson’s Hermia may win the medal, though, because it is his performance which I recall best, since he was a very warm-blooded and dedicated Lysander – young and in love and affectionate to the point of constant groping which I found quite cute. His dancing was fully up to par with Amy Watson’s and on top of that, with more empathy and more noticeable acting.
I especially found him enjoyable in his interaction with Thomas’ Helena after having been dripped with the cursed love flower. In comparison to the tenderness and loving emotion he had shown towards Hermia, his approach to Helena was all lust and sexiness, attempts at snogging and getting into her knickers. This sudden shift from a love that was pure to a lust that was completely carnal was very amusing to watch and also showed how well he was familiar with the part.
Marcin Kupinski played Lysander at the noon performance, opposite Femke’s delightful Hermia, and the two of them made for a very attractive couple, both in terms of interaction and in terms of appearance. Their dancing was well adjusted to one another, and as if to fit Femke’s soft Hermia, Kupinski’s Lysander was a bit more subdued than Stæger’s. He wasn’t as physical in his show of affection, but seemed more like an idealist or an artist who had found his perfect example of love – and as such the atmosphere between he and Femke’s Hermia was almost spiritual in its loyalty and devotion.
On the other hand, I didn’t find his and Helena’s scenes as funny as on the opening night and it was a bit of a shame, because Hansen’s Demetrius and Kupinski’s Lysander could easily have been a great pair of rival lovers. Their dancing held the same light but masculine quality and their interpretation of their characters held every opportunity for a good fight over whose dream-like love was more worthy of Lady Helena.
Let’s see if something of the sort won’t manifest itself on the 16th next month.
Last but not least, the large group of danseurs forming the Mechanicals will have to be mentioned. Besides the two ‘big’ roles of Bottom and Flute, the group was mainly danced by the same dancers at both performances. Even so, the outcome was extremely different, with the scales tipping in favour of the opening night.
Because on the opening night, the Mechanicals was the most hilarious, tight-knitted group I’ve ever seen dance together on a stage, live or on video. Led by Jean-Lucien Massot and world-renowned solo dancer Thomas Lund, the group seemed to move as one even as each individual was given their personal characteristics and personality.
Thomas Lund as Flute playing Thisbe. XD
Thomas Lund especially was as amazing as I had imagined he would be. His Flute was indeed not all that keen on having to play Thisbe, but instead of adopting the rather angry attitude of Morten Eggert the following day, he instead just seemed to be intentionally bad at being a woman, to get his point across. And what a woman he was! For the first time ever, I experienced the rather impressive feed that is a male dancer en pointe. Although his motions of course had to look ridiculous and unpractised, his balance and lines were extraordinary.
Morten Eggert really didn’t stand much of a chance at living up to Lund’s example, but he gave it a good go. He, too, was a good dancer, but the interpretation he had taken with Flute was of a man being girly-offended at being forced to play Thisbe and thus all his movements were angry and irritated – as if his Flute couldn’t even be bothered to try. It wasn’t as interesting to watch and paired with how the group didn’t work as well under the leadership of Fernando Mora and Eggert as under Massot and Lund, I will have to say that the opening night was a true peak when it comes to my love of male dancers.
Jean-Lucien Massot as the donkey-headed Bottom and Susanne Grinder as Titania.
Despite how Fernando Mora and Jean-Lucien Massot resembled one another a lot in looks, their Bottoms were rather distinct and overall, I liked Massot’s the best. His interaction with Titania and the rest of the group of Mechanicals gave him an air of utter stupidity that fit how he was transformed into an ass very well. Besides that, his lifts were almost as striking as Dean’s and the scene where Titania attempts to seduce him, leading him to swirl her around his body multiple times was absolutely glorious to watch. Their bodies aligned perfectly and Susanne’s Titania had an expression of femme fatale sexiness that stood in contrast to Massot’s happy-go-lucky obliviousness.
As a dancer, Fernando Mora was Massot’s match in every way. His lifts were strong and looked wholly effortless. In contrast, his version of Bottom was somewhat average and although he had a certain appeal in scenes where he only had himself to count on for comedy (such as the scene where he wakes up as human again, studying his body to make sure all ass-ly attributes are gone), he faded into the background along with the rest of the Mechanicals as soon as he was in group choreography.
Out of the rest of the Mechanicals, I will only mention character dancer Mogens Boesen who portrayed a bumblebee-ish, sweet, dim and somewhat harmless Starveling who was remarkably queer in his longing to play Thisbe and his commitment to being a shining moon. I found his performance in the play within the play definitely heart-warming and the way he waved his handkerchief in goodbye as Thesueus and Hippolyta walked off stage after the wedding made me smile like silly in both performances. It was a rather perfect way to end the ballet, and therefore I will also let this be the final comment of the character review.
Here at the end of my 11-pages-long rambling on this ballet, I will say that I now know what people mean when they mention the first show they saw live in the Takarazuka Revue fandom. As such, I believe A Midsummer Night’s Dream and especially Susanne Grinder’s Hippolyta (and Titania) will always have a special place in my heart, no matter how many other roles I see her in or how many other ballets I will be able to watch in the future.