John Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is wacky, whimsical and occasionally maddening, yet his depiction of a ballet sci-fi world is so dazzling and absorbing, and his story-telling so rich, that it seems almost churlish to find fault.

Hamburg Ballet in Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream © Holger Badekow
Hamburg Ballet in Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Holger Badekow

Having suffered through his turgid Lady of the Wilted Camellias and the relentlessly bleak Little Mermaid, I decided to give Neumeier’s Nijinsky a wide berth last season – which turned out to be a mistake, said fellow ballet enthusiasts. The learned Neumeier, a Renaissance man in the ballet world, invariably tackles the grandiose, and sometimes mauls the target beyond recognition. His 1977 vision for Dream, however – on display for two nights only at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House last week – remains gloriously tethered to tradition even as he explores the fringes of the Twilight Zone.

In this staging, boundaries often blur between fairy and human worlds. Minimalism reigns in the design: graceful Regency era costumes and loosely hanging silk backdrops for the court scenes; three portable trees against a night sky pinpointed by stars for the forest, with the androgynous fairies in silvery, shimmering unitards and tightfitting caps (an apparent homage to Frederick Ashton’s Monotones of a decade prior). When humans wander into this menacing world, their movement either grinds to a slow motion while the fairies dance at a normal tempo, or the fairies’ movement decelerates while the humans go about their business, oblivious to the presence of these Machiavellian sprites.

Neumeier created three distinct choreographic signatures: a gracious classical style with neoclassical flourishes for the court dancers; a spare, angular technique for the fairies; vaudevillian shtick for the Craftsmen. The daring score tacks on to Mendelssohn an ominous electronic drone by György Ligeti for the fairies, and hurdy-gurdy arrangements of popular themes, some from La Traviata, for the Craftsmen. This pastiche may sound more like a scenario for Cirque du Soleil than the serious Hamburg Ballet, but Neumeier makes us believe.

His decision to have the lead dancers double up in the roles of Theseus/Oberon, Hippolyta/Titania and Philostrate/Puck echoes that in Peter Brook’s watershed 1970 staging of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. (In turn, Brooks cites Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering as a significant influence on his radical minimalist concept for his Dream.)

Hélène Bouchet and Ivan Urban in Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream © Holger Badekow
Hélène Bouchet and Ivan Urban in Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Holger Badekow

Thus, the fairies embody a side of the human characters’ personalities – a dark, mischievous side – and the conflicts between the fairy king and queen hint at unresolved issues between Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, his bride-to-be. Guest artist Alina Cojocaru (who recently decamped from the Royal Ballet to join the English National Ballet, setting the ballet world a-titter) and Hamburg Ballet stalwart Alexandre Riabko are perfectly matched: all creamy elegance in the aristocratic roles, stern and combative as monarchs of the fairy kingdom. Their transformation was so compelling that they looked like different dancers in the different roles. As did Konstantin Tselikov, who segued heroically between the courtly Philostrate, Theseus’ “Master of the Revels,” and the hell-raising Puck.

Neumeier creates an elaborate Prologue in which Hippolyta appears to harbor doubts about tying herself permanently to the playboy Theseus. We are also introduced to Demetrius and Lysander, both ardent suitors to the lovely Hermia, while the bespectacled Helena (portrayed with great comic timing and impressive technical skill by Carolina Agüero) hungrily pursues Demetrius. The characterizations are cleverly delineated in the choreography, but the Prologue drags on too long – so it is a relief when blissful Mendelssohn gives way to Ligeti’s alarming electronic hum, ushering in the malevolent fairies. Their movement is all geometric squiggles, stabbing bourrées, thrusting sideways leaps, lightning fast turns and twisting jumps.

Oberon climbs a tree to get a better view of the lovers’ quartet and map out his intrigue. Those misshapen trees, wheeled around stage by fairies, look like dime-store mylar Christmas trees that have suffered through a tornado, but every slight movement causes the branches to quiver and shimmer in the ghostly lighting, to splendid effect.

Titania performs acrobatic gyrations mounted on Oberon’s shoulder, then falls asleep in a bower formed by the tangled arms and legs of supine fairy men. When she wakes, under the influence of the floral aphrodisiac dispensed by Puck, she falls, literally head over heels, for Bottom, sniffs him all over in delight and rides him like she rode Oberon.

The Craftsmen, representing the ignorant, happy-go-lucky side to our humanity, supply light comic relief as they bumble through the forest in dire need of GPS, their hurdy-gurdy very effectively accompanying their virtuosic slapstick. Later, in the Act II wedding divertissement, Dario Franconi and Thomas Stuhrmann brilliantly enact the sorry tale of Pyramus and Thisbe – Franconi straight out of Monty Python, and Stuhrmann in a costume that, hilariously, evokes Nijinska’s 1923 Les Noces, with his inconveniently long braids, shapeless dress and fire engine red pointe shoes. The audience laughed till they cried.

Act II opens with an unmemorable pair of pas de deux for the happily rearranged lovers’ quartet, set to Mendelssohn’s majestic and wistful Nocturne that in other productions accompanies the principal duet for Oberon and Titania, after their marital spat has been resolved. Neumeier’s choreography does not do justice to the towering score at this moment, but goes on to soar in the wedding scene, a model of grace and purity in the ensemble choreography – the entire company elegant, clean and musical in lovely baroque formations – and in Theseus and Hippolyta’s pas de deux, heartfelt and true.

Hamburg Ballet in Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream © Holger Badekow
Hamburg Ballet in Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Holger Badekow

Riabko initially carries Cojocaru through a series of poignant lifts while she sleeps. Once she wakes, she is full of serene joy and a newfound commitment, her dream presumably having dispelled her pre-wedding jitters. Acting and ballet technique meld naturalistically in her performance; her passion and delicacy, her exquisite carriage of the head and shoulders, remind me of Margot Fonteyn. Her lines are slightly marred by her somewhat ungainly pointe shoes – unusually soft, with an unusually wide box – and she does not roll through her feet with the clarity of most modern ballerinas. Yet there is a wondrous, fragile elegance to her dancing. She could be wearing Nike Airs and still entrance us. She brings out the best in Riabko – his variations exceptionally clean, buoyant, and passionate in this act. A sharp contrast to their ascetic modernism as Titania and Oberon – and Neumeier shrewdly brings the curtain down on a reprise of the fairy king and queen’s acrobatic embrace.