William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in a magical world populated by mortals and immortals who experience a series of misadventures after a mischievous servant’s love spell goes awry. Oklahoma City Ballet artistic director Robert Mills had long wanted to bring the story to the stage.
His neoclassical version premieres April 21-23 at Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker Ave. Opening the evening is a contemporary, avant-garde piece called If These Walls Could Talk created by Denver choreographer and dancer Sarah Tallman. Mills said seeing these two dramatically different pieces side by side will help audiences understand that ballet is a “living, breathing art form.”
“What I’d like people to come away with is just an understanding that ballet is actually very multifaceted,” Mills said.
One major challenge with choreographing A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that it’s so famous that many people have already seen in it some form. Mills expanded the role of the changeling child that Titania and Oberon, two of the star-crossed lovers in the tale, become fixated on.
“I was always perplexed with the changeling child, and specifically, you’re not left with much explanation as to where the child comes from, how it ended up where it is or why Titania and Oberon are so enamored with the child and why they’re fighting over it,” Mills said.
There are many theories regarding just what a changeling child is, Mills said. One folklore version posits that it’s a child who can pass through realms and through portals of time.
In Mills’ version, the ballet begins in present day, with two quarrelling parents attempting to put their child to bed. The child falls asleep, and her dream leads the audience into the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which her parents become Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies.
Dance Center of Oklahoma City Ballet student Hannah White portrays the child at the beginning of the piece. Several younger children from the school portray fairies, bugs and fireflies.
Mills also gives this first scene a twist by using a selection from Benjamin Britten’s opera of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which gives it a distinctly different feel from the Felix Mendelssohn score used throughout the rest of the production.
“It sounds mystical, it sounds otherworldly, but I like that it’s so drastically different from the Mendelssohn,” Mills said. “That’s what that scene is; it’s drastically different — you’re in a whole other world, essentially. And really, depending on how you view the ballet, you can view it as just a child having a dream or you can view it as the child actually going to another dimension and coming back.”
To create the fantasy world for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the company borrowed the costumes and sets from Ballet West in Salt Lake City, something Mills said is a common practice, given it’s often not practical for a ballet company to invest between half a million and a million dollars for a production it might not do again for several years.
Tallman, who choreographed the evening’s opening piece, was one of Mills’ dancers when he led Ballet Nouveau Colorado, now called Wonderbound.
“I’ve watched her career blossom, and so I wanted to give her an opportunity to come here because I knew she’d create a great work,” Mills said.
Tallman first got the idea for the piece while on vacation, when she began to take an interest in World War II. She was especially focused on the French Resistance and an incident in which the French police took people from Jewish families out of their homes.
She started researching the era, eventually reading a novel based on the time, and was struck by how historical accounts are sometimes something people learn by rote without necessarily thinking about the human element and tragedy involved.
“We sort of forget they had families and animals and these lives were disrupted and what that might be like,” Tallman said
One of the main messages in the piece is the need for connection and the fact that even if we think we can go it alone, in the end, we need to connect with another soul. This is especially true in traumatic situations, Tallman said, when people often cling to others.
“It starts to feel a bit desperate, I suppose, but in that desperation, there’s an abundance of beauty,” Tallman said. “We discover things about ourselves that perhaps we didn’t know before, and we begin to have a new perspective and connection to love.”
Tallman set the piece to piano music by German composer Robert Schumann. When she listened to his work, she felt like it wanted to be heard to help tell the story. She also liked the juxtaposition of Schumann’s music, which consists mainly of solos, with the group of 12 dancers she was choreographing.
“It kind of plays to the thought and desire and need for community, for oneness, particularly, perhaps in traumatic times or desperate times or happy times as well,” Tallman said. “So there’s one voice musically, and we all share in that musical voice.”
Tickets are $15-$65.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
8 p.m. April 21-22 and 2 p.m. April 23
Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.
Print headline: Changing scenes, Oklahoma City Ballet adds new depth to a classic tale.