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Artists of the National Ballet of Canada perform in The Dream.Aleksandar Antonijevic

No one epitomizes the English style of ballet quite like Frederick Ashton. His 1964 The Dream is a short order made from his best ingredients: whimsy, light humour, pastoral charm. It’s an interesting adaptation to see the National Ballet present on the heels of Anna Karenina in the way that it frames the subject of adaptation itself. Ashton made no attempt at capturing the full arc of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; instead, he offers an extraction of character and mood.

The 50-minute ballet’s oneiric power belies fine craftsmanship and detail. Ashton leaves all the action in the forest; he does away with the framing device of Athens and centres on the conflict between Titania and Oberon, queen and king of the fairies. The misdirected passion brought about by Oberon’s love potion becomes the gist of the whole story, and inflections of madness and moonlight colour the choreography.

Setting the work to music by Felix Mendelssohn (arranged by John Lanchbery), Ashton makes great use of the corps. The ensemble of fairies – dressed in long, emerald-toned tutus – personify the ethereal atmosphere. The dancers are given speedy sequences of petit allegro, in which little jumps and connective footwork are executed with the poise and precision that exemplifies English ballet. There’s gentility in every phrase, but the cumulative effect of these fairies evokes a more shadowy part of the English psyche – a fascination with the natural world and its irrepressible forces.

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Harrison James, left, and Jillian Vanstone perform in The Dream.Aleksandar Antonijevic

Principal dancer Jillian Vanstone is the stronger of the forest monarchs. She’s an ideal Titania, full of exuberant femininity. Her pas de deux with the donkey-headed Bottom (Joe Chapman) is both funny and provocative – she commits to the farce with playfulness and sensuality. Harrison James is less animated as Oberon; his king seems a bit unsure of the sway of his command. As Hermia, Chelsy Meiss sweeps across the stage with luscious epaulement – an exaggeration through the shoulders – that dramatically evokes privilege and power.

Ashton’s genius might be most present in the character of Puck, whom Skylar Campbell does wonders with. Recently promoted to principal dancer, Campbell has the sort of presence that’s hard to pin down. You could call him a magnetic performer, but that doesn’t do justice to the way he makes every technical detail speak – how every tiny inflection through the shoulders, head and chest can feel like a bit of storytelling in its own right. He’s one of the company’s most exciting rising stars.

The Dream is paired with a remounting of Guillaume Cote’s 2015 Being and Nothingness, based on the philosophical tome by Jean-Paul Sartre. The 40-minute work is more curious on second viewing. Set to piano studies by Philip Glass, the ballet contains seven scenarios of uncertain relation to each other that are driven by a sense of anxious busyness that lacks resolution. On occasion, the dancers were able to breathe and respond to one another: Kathryn Hosier brought soulfulness to The Bedroom scene; Siphesihle November was full of dynamic vitality in The Sink; Brendan Saye was powerfully present in The Living Room. But on balance, the choreography seemed to lack focus.

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