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Theatre Reviews A dream of beauty and grace stays true to Shakespeare

John Alleyne choreography conveys a dreamlike state.

Keith Levit

Title
The Faerie Queen: A Ballet Based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Directed by
John Alleyne
Company
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Venue
Centennial Concert Hall
City
Winnipeg

As part of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's 75th-anniversary season, artistic director André Lewis pulled a virtually forgotten Canadian ballet out of the vault. His gamble has paid off. The Fairie Queen is a work that, in its tranquillity, puts the dancers' grace and beauty foremost.

The full title is The Faerie Queen: A Ballet Based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, and "based on" are the key words. While he was working as artistic director of Ballet British Columbia in 2000, choreographer John Alleyne created this, his first full-length work, with a narrative by the great Canadian playwright John Murrell. Their task was to fashion a story ballet that would be true to Shakespeare yet require no more than Ballet BC's limited number of dancers.

Their radical solution was to leave out the Mechanicals and their play-within-a-play – usually the highlight of any theatre production of Dream. The ballet is performed by 14 dancers, along with six child attendants and two very young foundlings.

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This version differs from most Dream ballets in another way: Rather than being set to the famous Mendelssohn incidental music of 1842, Alleyne's score is taken from Henry Purcell's music for the 1692 masque The Fairy-Queen, a baroque work that anchors the play, musically, closer to Shakespeare's own time. Rather than Mendelssohn's sweeping Romantic statement, Purcell's strict 17th-century musical conventions give the piece a delicate flavour. Ten players from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra under conductor Tadeusz Biernacki prove to be an excellent baroque chamber ensemble. Vancouver composers Owen Underhill and Michael Bushnell have crafted a wonderful musical tapestry that's been layered over an electronic soundscape that includes woodland noises.

Alleyne has made Puck (Sophia Lee) the main character. As "a spirit of mischief," she has great fun splashing the magic flower droplets into more eyes than in Shakespeare's play. Confusion ensues and, at one point, even Demetrius (Liam Caines) and Lysander (Ryan Vetter) fall in love with each other, as do Helena (Alanna McAdie) and Hermia (Elizabeth Lamont).

Alleyne, who was a beautiful dancer, grace personified, has clearly chosen his own cast with an eye to that quality.

There are stately duets for Oberon (Liang Xing) and Titania (Sarah Davey). Hermia and Lysander express the innocence of young love. The six Faeries who attend the Faerie King and Queen seem lighter than air. As for Puck, as Lee's supple body gently bends and stretches, her arms and legs become poetry in motion. There are more awkward moments for Helena and Demetrius, but they, too, get their lyrical pas de deux at the end. Egeus (Dmitri Dovgoselets), father of Hermia, gets to wear the donkey head. He is the one character who gets to jump and leap in showy fashion.

Truth be told, the ballet lacks strong dramatic action. Rather, Alleyne has opted to convey a dreamlike state, enhanced by costume designer Kim Nielsen's palette of white for the humans and grey-blue for the fairies. Darren Waterston's set is minimalistic, with swirling branches of grey trees. The monochromatic colour scheme enhances the hypnotic quality of the choreography.

Jean Philippe Trépanier's original lighting design, reproduced by Gerald King, is the only real source of colour, bathing the stage and back cyclorama with a vibrant rainbow sunset and pale silvery moonlight shot with gold.

So what if Alleyne put beauty and grace over drama. Who is going to complain about a ballet that is an elegant feast for the eye?

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The Faerie Queen continues until May 3.

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