Jozef Varga and Maia Makhateli © Angela Sterling
Jozef Varga and Maia Makhateli
© Angela Sterling
Puck is up to no good in Dutch National Ballet's The Dream, and what a good thing it is! Without this mischievous elf the fairytale world would feel a lot emptier. This "merry wanderer of the night" and jester to Oberon, the King of Elves, messes up relationships and twists who loves whom. I'd take him along as my wingman on any night out on the town for sheer entertainment, but, more importantly, a huge weight is put on the dancer who dances this central role to carry Shakespeare's famous story along. Dutch National Ballet's director Ted Brandsen's choice for Puck, Remi Wörtmeyer, is the right one. Wörtmeyer, principal dancer since one year ago, flies and bobs across the stage like a happy rubber bouncing ball. At times stunning, he is always fast and playful. He's a good counterpart to the more solemn and serious Oberon, played by Jozef Varga, another demanding role in this lyrical, romantic and somewhat old-fashioned ballet by Frederick Ashton from 1964. It makes it ideal as a spectacle for kids (I overheard an adult saying "You might as well have taken me to the Hobbit!") while the adults are treated to Varga and Wörtmeyer's strong acrobatics in the first part.

The piece looks light and easy, but is deceptively difficult to dance with its constant round forms. Queen of the light touch, Maia Makhateli as Titania and a solidly partnering Varga pull this off as King and Queen of the elves in their long pas de deux as they are finally reunited. But not until we've enjoyed Titania's assinine intermezzo: Koen Havenith, a former Dutch gymnast turned ballet dancer, plays Bottom, the donkey she falls in love with, with gusto and great timing, dancing to Mendelsson's music that immitates the eyy-oor of the ass. Even his Wedding March is thrown in at the end for good measure. Holland Symfonia's Matthew Rowe skillfully guides his orchestra and a live children's choir, including its young solists (the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderkoor), through the piece in an upbeat tempo.

Anna Tsygankova as the Firebird © Angela Sterling
Anna Tsygankova as the Firebird
© Angela Sterling

The success of the choreography depends greatly on its humour working. The two couples who are the butt of Puck's manipulations deserve mentioning: the hurt honour of merry gentlemen Demetrius (a moustached, tall, and convincingly arrogant Roman Artyushkin) and Lysander (the always strong James Stout) is a joy to watch. Their failed pursuit of Helena, danced lightly by a there-is-method-to-the-madness, blond-wigged Victoria Ananyan, and their pathetic over-the-top fighting attempts is all you can ask for in this English comedy. Rejected and confused, Hermia, played by an equally light Megan Zimny Kaftira – who recently showed off her acting skills in Giselle (as Giselle) and as the evil stepsister in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella – completes this great (physical) acting quartet. 

The second act of the evening is Alexei's Ratmansky's Firebird on this opening night in the Amsterdam Muziektheater, the home of the newly re-named Dutch National Opera and Ballet. Set in a stark background with huge industrial grey and red smoking trees, the contrast with the first piece's enchanted forest couldn't be greater. In this modern, slightly absurd piece, the choreographer of American Ballet Theatre tells the classical Russian tale of Prince Ivan (well-danced by Artur Shesterikov) who finds his love again with the help of the Firebird, danced by a virtuosa Anna Tsygankova. Escaping what seems like an asylum, he embarks on an adventure to find his true love among a group of green-wigged, dazed and confused swamp creatures led by his love-in-disguise. This young girl is danced by Jurgita Dronina; a sleepy naive doll one moment, flying lyrically the next. The wizard Kaschei, a regal and evil Vito Mazzeo, ensnares his victims as he blows orange smoke over them. (I checked with the dancers and it's no cleverly hidden spraycan – it's coco powder cleverly lit to look orange, ingenious!)

Artur Shesterikov and Anna Tsygankova © Angela Sterling
Artur Shesterikov and Anna Tsygankova
© Angela Sterling

When Ivan has found his love among the girls and finally confronts Kaschei, he calls upon the Firebird for help. She shows him the egg containing Kaschei's soul and power. After it is broken, the wizard defeated, set to the swelling awesome music of Stravinsky (L'Oiseau de Feu, 1910), we return to the asylum. The balance is restored and, in an oasis of dancing, white costumes and light, everyone is discharged with a clean bill of health and lost loves are found.

Firebird is a visual spectacle with awesome red and green costumes and sufficient abstractness to project your own dreams into. Dutch National Ballet's powerhouse Anna Tsygankova gives an absolutely wonderful performance, at once strong and vulnerable. In her red costume she swoops and jitters across the stage. She easily fills the stage on her own, with wonderful technique, speed and power. Tsygankova must be one of the top ten ballerinas dancing in the world today. The two friends I brought along and introduced to Dutch National were left speechless. Not only handy for a verbose person like me, but a confirmation that this is fantastic night out for all ages, leaving you uplifted and happy.

*****