It wasn't midsummer, but it did seem like a dream when the Missouri Ballet Theatre presented the classical ballet version of Shakespeare's play at the Edison Theatre at Washington University on Friday night. The production featured a beautiful set, clever choreography and heavenly dancing.
The ballet attempts to tell one of Shakespeare's more complicated stories. It involves faeries, a love potion, unrequited love and star-crossed lovers. Of course, everything is rectified in the end, and the characters live happily ever after.
In the ballet, the plot is difficult to follow. Don't try too hard. Just enjoy some of the truly excellent aspects of this production.
Most notably is Grace Austin's performance as Titania, so stunning it's difficult to attach superlatives to her performance. She is pure joy and delight to watch. When the curtain rises on her, the audience becomes transfixed and remains in that state whenever she appears. Her skill and beauty are delightful. She can also act, as she demonstrates when Puck's love potion causes her to fall in love with Bottom, a tinker who has been turned into a donkey. She is beauty in motion and gives, quite simply, a bravura performance.
Lauren Beasley as Puck deserves accolades as well. Her performance is charming, delightful and unmistakeably puckish. The clever choreography fits the character perfectly, and Beasley handles it with style and aplomb. She has a good deal of experience in musical theater, and it shows in her flawless and spirited performance.
Guest artist Jon Upleger—courtesy of the Nashville Ballet—gives a skilled performance as Oberon and shines in his pas de deux with Austin at the conclusion of the story. He exhibits the necessary strength and invisibility when performing lifts yet steps up during his moments to hold his own with Austin's talent.
Equally good are the performers who portray the four lovers. Katie Howland and Caitlin Helton both give remarkable performances as Helena and Hermia respectively, exhibiting both skill and humor with their balletic finesse. Likewise, guest artist Chris Stuart—also courtesy of the Nashville Ballet—and Dexter Bishop as Demetrius are excellent in their roles. Bishop—the ballet group's sole male—again demonstrates the athletic yet fluid style that suits him and the role perfectly.
The corps de Ballet also turns out some excellent work. Lydia Phillips, Jenny Rice, Katie Gibbens, Ashley Hamann, Jessica Ruhlin, Lauren Watts and Brianna Baechle once again prove themselves very capable. The choreography again shined as the company of dancers honored it with only a few minor flaws.
The tinker scenes—a play within the play—were performed by students from Washington University's theater department students and could have benefited from a slightly quickened pace. Peoria Ballet provided the wonderful backdrop and additional costumes. Justin Irons lit the set perfectly, and the wardrobe by Shelley Helton and Mary Jane Day was without flaw.
So who is to be credited with the choreography? The artist is not listed in the program or on the company's website. For various reasons, we can eliminate the original George Balanchine choreography, so one must assume it was Adam Sage or ballet master and resident choreographer Robert Philander Valentine. Or perhaps both. Whoever is responsible, it's wonderful, and they deserve credit.
About those flaws.
With every ballet company in St. Louis, the issue of dancers performing in sync arises. Someone is frequently off by a moment or falls out of a pirouette early or leaps higher than everyone else. While nothing is easy in ballet, dancing in perfect unison is its very essence, and people are paying their hard-earned money to see it. When it happens, it takes away from an otherwise outstanding and notable production.
Please fix it.
All in all, the Missouri Ballet Theatre has presented a remarkable evening of ballet, full of charm and stunning performances. It remains a company to watch and a rich addition to the St. Louis ballet scene. On this evening, as on others past, Grace Austin's performance was a tour de force, delightful and inspiring in every way, and with a grace that makes a balletomane sigh with pleasure.