Shakespeare Redux

There is room for a more beautiful “Dream” in Elo’s use of movement through dance

On The Town | Alec Kinnear | April 2010

As his going away present to us, outgoing Staatsoper Ballet Director Gyula Harangozós, has brought Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo to Vienna. Resident choreographer at Boston Ballet since 2005, Jorma Elo has garnered many accolades for his work there and with the NYC Ballet. Unlike some of Harangozós peculiar choices of choreographers during the last few years, Elo is a man of the hour. Whether it was love or money that brought him to Vienna, it’s quite a coup for Harangozós and sets a high standard for incoming director Manuel Legris.

Elo has chosen as his subject William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has been very popular with choreographers since George Balanchine’s classic in 1962. Elo will face sharp comparison to Balanchine, John Neumeier and Christopher Wheeldon, so it’s a rather bold decision, particularly vis-a-vis Neumeier’s acclaimed version (inspired by Balanchine’s 1962 ballet) only recently left the Staatsoper repertoire. Yet despite acclaim at home in Hamburg, Opera de Paris and the Bolshoi in Moscow, Neumeier’s version curiously left little impression on public or critics in Vienna. There is room for a more beautiful "Dream."

From what I saw at a full stage rehearsal on March 22, Elo’s version of Shakespeare’s long and complicated version will be very, very good. The ins and outs of Titania, Oberon, Hermia, Lysander, Bottom and Puck - to name just a few of the twenty odd characters - lead a confusing jig of three concentric plots involving marriage and love, including a stageplay within a play supervised by the local duke, Theseus.

Elo has done little to simplify. At times, the dancers seemed to be dancing willy nilly, from what I’d seen, without a clue about why they were dancing. I mentioned this to a soloist who in all seriousness suggested that it would help if the other dancers would read the libretto. Considering how complicated the plot is, perhaps someone should explain the story very carefully to all the dancers. Even after having seen Midsummer Night’s Dream as a stageplay, as a film and as a ballet, I have trouble keeping the twists straight.

But Elo’s "Dream" is not about the plot, however much of it there is. It’s about movement. The movement is very Balanchine with many lovely pas de deux and large ensemble pieces. Elo smartly avoids getting lost in pantomime. Nearly all of the scenes are resolved through dance and not gesture.

There is no shortage of great individual dance moments. The marriages are resolved very early in the second act and the rest of the second act, almost an hour is given to dances of celebration. The seemingly endless parade of variations reminded me - in a positive way - of Balanchine’s Jewels.

The lead pair in Elo’s version are Titania and Oberon, closely followed by Hermia and Lysander. Helena and Demetrius get a bit of second shrift.

In the two casts, the most important roles are danced by Harangozós’s Russian troops. First cast features Olga Esina and her husband Vladimir Shishov as Titania and Oberon, with Karina Sarkissova as Hermia. Irina Tsymbal and Kirill Kourlaev take the reins as Titania and Oberon, while Maria Yakovleva dances the role of Hermia in the second cast. There is sharp rivalry between the dancers in the two casts, with the second cast hungry to prove that they should have led the premiere.

In Olga Esina, Vienna has one of the finest dancers the Marinsky can produce. She is tall, elegant, beautiful with slender powerful legs and arms so long they seem to have no end. Unfortunately Esina was brought to Vienna too early in her career before her talent had a chance to set. The Western way of working with lead dancers is very different from the Russian system. In the West, dancers are expected to learn from different choreographers as they go. In Russia, an étoile is assigned a personal coach from great ex-lead dancers with whom he or she works daily until death or retirement separates them. The coach on his or her side is obliged to attend all of the performances of his or her protegé and take detailed notes for the next day. This personal attention is the way the Russian have been able to pass on their great dance tradition from one generation to another.

Here the dancers have to rely on videotape and the coach of the day. Frankly, while it saves a whole lot of money in coaching costs, in most cases it just doesn’t produce the same results. Kourlaev is the one exception, working himself almost as hard as a coach would. Without pretty boy looks or astounding natural gifts, he learned early that to be a soloist he would have to create himself. Attaining the title last year, he clearly continues to work hard on himself.

Esina is dancing with her husband Shishov. Despite his height, build and easy good looks, Shishov is not half the dancer Kourlaev is; he seems bored on stage and exudes little presence. On a good day, Esina makes up for Shishov’s indifference but if this were really a first cast, Kourlaev should be dancing with Esina. Kourlaev’s own commitment to his work, characterization and dancing would push Esina a long way to doing better.

While Tsymbael always surprises me with her great work (recently in Carmen as Micaëla), she doesn’t have the same physical gifts as Esina. Still Tsymbael’s always emotional interpretation will be a good match to Kourlaev’s brooding dramatics.

Between the Hermias, Sarkissova is a fine ballerina, if somewhat mannered. Yakovleva will no doubt make a more charming Hermia, preference will probably be a matter of taste. While Sarkissova depends too much on good technique, Yakovleva sometime exudes her radiant charm as a single note held too long.

Elo is known for his personal care of costumes and lighting so the staging is likely to be first class. The previews of Sandra Woodhall’s costumes are absolutely luxurious.

The two casts are different enough in kind to make attending each of them like two versions of Midsummer Night’s Dream. For anyone who cares for ballet, the choreography and music are well worth seeing twice.


Alec Kinnear is a dance writer and photographer by night and creative director of Foliovision by day. His dance work can be seen at

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