With its mischievous fairies, mixed-up lovers, and lush, magical forest setting, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a director’s playground. Shakespeare’s comedy is so beloved that it’s crossed the boundaries of form, not just undergoing countless theatrical adaptations, but inspiring operas, musical suites, and several ballets.
One of those ballets was choreographed by dancer and Columbia City Ballet artistic director William Starrett, whose company will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Charleston Music Hall during Piccolo Spoleto. The CCB, which performs in both Columbia and Savannah, established a presence in Charleston last fall, staging a full season of shows at the Sottile Theatre.
Charleston’s been without a professional ballet company since the drawn-out demise of the Charleston Ballet Theater, and the CCB stepped in to fill the void. Midsummer will be their fifth production here.
Starrett first choreographed the ballet back in 1987. He’d danced in other productions of it — it’s been choreographed by George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton, among others — in New York and London, so was familiar with the way it’s been done. The original play is complex, with three interconnected stories within a story, so Starrett decided to simplify things. “I concentrated on the fun part — I stayed with the forest scenes,” he says. “This way it’s already complicated enough with the spell that’s put on the two lovers, but even if you’re not clear about the story, it’s made really clear [in the ballet].”
For those who haven’t encountered Midsummer since high school English, here’s a brief synopsis of the part of the plot that Starrett is using: Four unhappy lovers run off into the Athenian woods together one night and become tangled up in a quarrel between the King and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania. There’s also a clumsy troupe of amateur actors who stumble into the forest that same night, one of whom gets turned into a donkey and finds Titania besotted with him. A few magic spells and lots of confusion later, all is made right and the lovers are happily united in marriage.
As you might guess (or may remember) there’s lots of humor along the way, which is one of the reasons that Midsummer is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. That is why Starrett was careful to maintain that element in his choreography. “I don’t want to say slapstick, but because dance is so physical, a lot of the humor is very physical,” he says. “I love that the audience gets to see that ballet isn’t just serious … and then within all that funny stuff there’s lots of hard dancing, really hard technical stuff.”
This show is also unique because of the number of soloists. Rather than just two or four principal dancers, there are the four fairies Cobweb, Moth, Peaseblossom, and Mustardseed; Oberon’s page boy Puck; the four lovers; and finally Titania and Oberon, who will be played by CCB principal dancers Claire Kallimanis and Journy Wilkes-Davis, respectively. And because the ballet will be in the Charleston Music Hall, which has a smaller stage than the CCB is used to, the cast has been whittled down to 18 from its usual 30-40. That means that more of the dancers will be doubling up in roles, making it an intense and energetic performance. “Even though it’s Shakespeare, it’s really high-energy and fast-paced,” Starrett says. “I brought the ballet up for a modern crowd. It’s not like walking around showing off your costume — the old, old-fashioned ballet.”
Midsummer is especially apt for the Spoleto season’s focus on classical music, as its score, by Felix Mendelssohn, is highly regarded by music aficionados. That’s rare for a ballet, Starrett says. “A lot of times ballet music isn’t respected because the rhythm and the counts have to repeat, so it can be mundane. The classical music crowd think it’s too simplistic. But the Mendelssohn score is one of his most respected artistic achievements.”
After their Piccolo Spoleto performance, Starrett and the CCB will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to perform, and they’ve also got a performance in Chicago in the works. But despite their extensive touring, the CCB won’t be leaving Charleston any time soon. “We’re really committed to Charleston,” Starrett says. “Everyone was so gracious and generous. We love the city.” —Elizabeth Pandolfi