The lady at the bus stop announced that she had just been to the ballet, and commented: “I didn’t really understand it but I loved it”. The ballet was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed by Northern Ballet, and yes, it was somewhat confusing, though highly enjoyable and very funny. Only the second act could be recognized as Shakespeare’s play, so there were quite a lot of bewildered audience members trying to work out what was going on in Act I.

Kevin Poeung as Puck © Northern Ballet / Emma Kauldhar
Kevin Poeung as Puck
© Northern Ballet / Emma Kauldhar

But that’s the beauty of David Nixon, director and choreographer of the company. He always adds a twist to his ballets that keeps you alert and has you wondering what’s what in what should be a straightforward story. Nixon’s Dream is a little gem with many facets. Based on the tangled relationships of Shakespeare’s comedy, he provides moments of great comedy (something normally challenging in ballet terms), which keep the audience laughing, along with some beautiful pas de deux – to say nothing of stunning sets and costumes.

In this three-act ballet created in 2003, Nixon has wrapped the Dream inside a story about a post-war touring ballet company. We see the dancers putting finishing touches to their rehearsals of Romeo and Juliet under the watchful eyes of a cocky little ballet master named Robin Puck, who flits around the studio with his walking stick, ready to correct the dancers, and the dapper director of the company, Theseus (Oberon in Act II), who has to tell the prima ballerina Hippolyta (Titania) that she is passed the age for the role of Juliet. In fact, he assures her, it’s time to give up her satin pointe shoes and marry him. Almost convinced by his persuasive wooing, she suddenly decides she’s not ready for either, and leaves angrily – thus paving the way for the Dream quarrel scene. There are other romantic entanglements in the company – two other couples are having love troubles, Lysander and Hermia, Demetrius and Helena – and the overly large, buffoonish carpenter Nick Bottom hangs lovesick around the studio, hoping for a token glance from Hippolyta. The rehearsal proves a disaster, but, undaunted, the company packs its bags and sets off for the tour.

The first act is all black and white with magnificent costumes designed by Nixon himself – from practice-wear to evocative, chic Parisian fashion of flouncy full skirts, large hats, white gloves, with tailored suits for the men. The creative art nouveau set by Duncan Hayler sees the formal studio, with its ballet barre and mirrors, magically transform into the sleek Flying Scotsman, puffing smoke, and gleaming with shiny chrome and red lights.

It’s midsummer, the shortest night of the year, and when the dancers arrive at King’s Cross station, you know that there isn’t going to be much sleeping on the overnight train to Edinburgh. Doors open and shut and figures flit in and out of the cabins like a bedroom farce as the train shunts off and enters a tunnel.

Act II, The Dream, is awash with light and vivid colour. The focal point is a huge eye filled with sparkling stars, which acts as Theseus/Oberon’s eyrie, from which he can masterplan and watch proceedings, and as Hippolyta/Titania’s bower. The overnight sleeper in miniature now hangs upside-down on the left of the stage while two beds are suspended on the right. Theseus, out of his elegant suit, now wears a skirt and a winged helmet, his locks are long and dark, and in this role Tobias Batley impressed with his strong, correct technique, good jumps and stretched leaps. He summons Puck, who now sports white cropped hair, a patterned body suit and jacket, and here Kevin Poeung demonstrated some impressive leaps, twists and jumps as he went about his impish ways. Hippolyta was Martha Leebolt, winner of the Critics’ Circle Best Classical Dancer award in 2010 and deservedly so. Whilst, in this ballet, she doesn’t have the expected tricky classical steps to show her off, she moves with grace and elegance and shows a beautiful openness to her dancing. As Titania, she is dressed in a short white tarlatan, an overlong veil, enormous wings and silvery straight-bobbed wig, and her band of fairies, in multicoloured, jagged-edged, layered dresses, also have dark bobbed hair. The four lovers – and the antics they get up to thanks to Puck’s magic juice – were wonderfully portrayed with Isaac Lee-Baker and Dreda Blow as Lysander and Hermia, with Giuliano Contadini and Michela Paolacci as the feisty couple Demetrius and Helena. These two were indeed comical with Paolacci flinging herself at Contadidi to get his attention, and he batting her off at every attempt, with excellent timings and slick style. Nick Bottom is turned into a donkey, of course, and also got many laughs – though there was some unsavoury braying from him when achieving his desire with Titania.

The last act had the company arriving at Edinburgh, reunited after the dream before taking bows before an imaginary audience at the end of an obviously successful Romeo and Juliet. All three couples show off their engagement rings, and then they have a cast party where, for what seemed an overlong time, everyone boogied.

There were whistles and cheers from the Woking audience in appreciation of the enthusiasm and polished dancing of the visiting Leeds company – despite some being still confused as to what had happened. But it was all a dream – wasn’t it?

****1