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Two superstars lift Hamburg Ballet's 'Dream'

 Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Riabko in John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid."
Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Riabko in John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid."
Photo by Chris Emerick/Hamburg Ballet

Hamburg Ballet's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in San Francisco

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It doesn't exist - yet - but it should: the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dancers. There have been choreographers, including prominent ones, mostly in England and Germany, who made terrible demands on dancers, some real violence against the human body the art should glorify.

Among the most important choreographers today, Hamburg Ballet's John Neumeier may well become subject to SPCD sanctions... as soon as we get organized. Not to the extent of the torture he administered to "The Little Mermaid," his "Midsummer Night's Dream," which opened in the War Memorial Feb. 12 for a two-night run, puts the dancers through impossible gyrations, some virtually nonstop especially during the ballet's 90-minute first act. (Neumeier's "Nijinsky" and several other works treat dancers much better.)

This 1977 work, on tour once again, features a huge cast, Jörgen Rose's minimalist but impressive stage design and costumes, and Hamburg's Michael Schmidtsdorff conducting the S.F. Ballet Orchestra in the Mendelssohn score, with the addition of recorded organ works by György Ligeti, and a charming street organ for the craftsmen's tomfoolery.

Although not uniformly, dancers of the big cast perform admirably, especially under the circumstances (of being buffeted, rolled, tossed, and stomped - then asked to perform in romantic and classical styles), but chances are you walk away with memories of two principal dancers. I did.

Silvia Azzoni, one of the survivors of the "Mermaid" title role, dances Helena, presenting an impossible combination of strength, flexibility, elegance, deliberate awkwardness, and a comic talent rarely seen in ballet. (She is the one in the red vest.)

Time and again, I had to blink, trying comprehend the instant transformations of this small, thin dancer from a Carol Burnett shtick to a magnificent swan, albeit without the lake. (Her "Mermaid" photo is used here because it shows her off better than pictures in "Dream.")

Alexandr Trusch, the company's newest principal dancer, is equally amazing. As Puck, he is called upon to do what a Fairy tells him:

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere.

Besides girding the world, Trusch, a rather small dancer, is also required to carry some large bodies around, and roll them to the right place in pairing off the lovers... after several erroneous attempts. And, through it all, Trusch dances with virtuosity, and weightless elegance.

Principal dancers all perform impressively: Hélène Bouchet (Hippolyta), Anna Laudere (Hermia), Otto Bubenicek (Demetrius), Edvin Revazov (Lysander), Thiago Borin (Oberon), and more.

After the first 20-25 minutes which has little to do with Shakespeare and isn't easy to figure out (supposedly about Hippolyta's dream, seeing herself as Titania and conflating Theseus and Oberon - oy!), Neumeier settles down to something close to the "Dream" we know, and does well with it. Even if frequently at the expense of the dancers, forced to do combat.

And yet, more often than not, as one review stated correctly, Neumeier's "approach is hard on our expectations of the usual poetry resonating through Shakespeare's great allegory on love tested and true."