Hamburg Ballet, which visited the War Memorial Opera House for an all-too-brief two night engagement this week, can sometimes seem too good for words.
The troupe, led by Artistic Director and choreographer John Neumeier, received a unanimous standing ovation on Thursday night after a performance of Neumeier's crystalline full-length "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Anyone who saw it is probably still talking about it, thinking about it and trying to re-visualize it.
"Midsummer" is a wondrous marriage of two great storytellers. Even if your Shakespeare is rusty, it doesn't matter. Neumeier does such a phenomenal job with the staging, direction and choreography that the play-which has couple-swapping and a play within a play-communicates fully, without program notes.
The sets and costumes by Jurgen Rose-a huge component to the work's success-keep the production fresh. Even though it looks like it was created yesterday, "Midsummer" debuted nearly 40 years ago.
A bonus for the Thursday night audience was a rare San Francisco visit from guest artist and global ballet superstar Alina Cojocaru-formerly of London's Royal Ballet and now with the English National Ballet- performing as Hippolyta and Titania.
The ballet is packed with affection, humor, love, screwball comedy, romance and drama-just like the play. Opening with Hippolyta's pre-wedding preparations (her white satin wedding train trails 90% of the stage) the production's magic really gets underway once the stage is transformed into fairyland.
Neumeier's "Realm of Fairies" opens with a cluster of glistening bodies moving to music by György Ligeti (Neumeier bookends the ballet with Felix Mendelssohn's traditional score).
Dressed in scaly, silvery unitards and sequined shower caps, the sprites introduce themselves with movements both sharp and sweeping. The choreography virtually eats space. Paired with a glittering night sky and frosty, shimmering trees, the entire package gives the sensation of an infinite, cosmic forest.
Alexandre Riabko-who brought the house down as Nijinsky when Hamburg Ballet visited last year-is a gallant Theseus and striking Oberon. As the fairy king, he periodically paces the stage with carefully metered stalking-his arms down, thrust back and bent at the elbows-his back muscles exuding mythical power and immeasurable strength.
Puck, danced by Konstantin Tselikov, is perfect. Sharp, quick, angled and lithe, Puck's motion and mischief pair perfectly. Whether informing character or communicating plot, every movement has purpose.
Cojocaru is a dancer whose back offers limitless flexibility, and as Titania she is breathtaking. Her body arches with a satisfying spherical completion, her neck and head tracing an infinite circle. It's hard to say who is best at "ballet sex" but Neumeier is certainly at the top. Titania's tryst with Bottom is elegant, bestial and humorous, and is a reminder of just how absurd Shakespeare's original story is.
Similarly, when Puck is ordered to fix all the romantic mix-ups he's created, he drags the lovers' drugged bodies across the stage like jaundiced cadavers, plopping and pushing them into place with a gentle humor.
Accompanied by a roving organ grinder, The Craftsmen-including the infamous Bottom, danced by Dario Franconi-are adorably shambolic in their attempts to rehearse their play and perform it for Hippolyta's wedding.
Thomas Stuhrmann, dancing the bellows-mender Flute, kills it when he dances in drag, en pointe, as Thisbe. Their ingenious costumes feel ragtag, nomadic and even voluptuous-as with a sumptuous, sparkling indigo cape and Snug's floppy lion mane.
Perhaps the most dazzling thing about "Midsummer" is its cohesiveness. Sublimely fusing pantomime, balletic tradition and contemporary movement, Neumeier takes a complex story and stages it effortlessly.
His choreography-particularly in partnering-will leave you breathless. Heads cradle heads, noses touch cheeks, necks curve. No motion, however tiny, is wasted. "Midsummer"-built on romantic conflict and its resolution-closes on one such transcendent note, with Oberon hoisting Titania upside down, her legs towards the sky, her head on his chest, his arms cradling her as if she is sleeping-while he gently spins them around in beatific infinity.