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Reinterpreting a Dream

The ballet, symphony and opera collaborate on what would have been the opening production of the performing arts center.



Choreographer Bill Soleau

In another life, Bill Soleau programmed nonviolent computer games for kids and medical simulations for neurosurgeons. But that was just to pay for his dance habit. Now Soleau, who lives in New York, is the head of a prestigious dance preservation foundation and a well-known choreographer in his own right. Several of his pieces are already in the Richmond Ballet's repertoire, some in collaboration with the Richmond Symphony.

For this show, Soleau's putting new choreography to 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn's music, which will be performed by the symphony. Here he takes on the role of impresario, coordinating the music and staging with opera singers, the symphony and actors who will be reading bits of narration from the original play.

"What I want to do is integrate all the arts," and let the story come first, like a Broadway show, Soleau says. In order to maintain the flow and highlight all the groups, Soleau's added four cameras that will take live footage throughout the performance. They'll broadcast intermittently onto a large projection screen so that the audience can see the actors reciting or the orchestra bowing away beneath the stage.

Sheakespeare Bridges the Gap

Bringing the orchestra out of the pit is one of the keys to the show. The whole idea for the collaboration came about a few years back when the organization heads were discussing the best opening production for the planned performing arts center. Each arts group would shine in a production that was larger than the sum of its parts. While the performing arts center was stymied by politics, the project moved forward nonetheless.

The opera tends to be in collaborative mode anyway, says Gus Stuhlreyer, general director of the Virginia Opera whose only permanent staffers include administrators and technicians. The opera works with new artists and directors for each show, partnering with other arts organizations, and this presents different challenges.

Stuhlreyer credits Keith Martin, the ballet's managing director, who taught arts administration at Davidson College and produced similar shows in Charlotte, N.C., with bringing a workable model to the table. The hope is that some opera devotees can be seduced into taking a chance on the symphony later in the season, or ballet regulars may get back in the theater for an opera-only show.

"Shakespeare is the perfect tool," to bring all the arts together says Mark Russell Smith, who conducts the Richmond Symphony. "So many artists have been inspired by his work." Even some you might not expect.

Mr. and Mrs. Banks

You probably know James Avery and Daphne Maxwell Reid as Phillip and Vivian Banks from the television show "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," but they're both classically trained actors who will be reading the narration.

Television has been good to Avery. He gave Shredder a voice in the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cartoons and won an Emmy for a television production of his original poetry. But theater is where actors learn their craft, says Avery, a trained Shakespearean actor, who worries that Uncle Phil's shadow might fall over the rest of his work.

Ask Reid if she thinks people still think of her as Aunt Viv, and she says she hopes so. "[Fresh Prince] is on how many times a night?" she asks rhetorically. Reid is married to actor Tim Reid and lives in Petersburg. After being asked if she would read for the show, she drafted Avery, her "spare husband," for the project. This'll be Reid's first time doing Shakespeare, so she's planning to learn from him.

Shakespeare's language is notoriously tricky. "Every dot, every comma, every period means something. If it's poetry, you have to count the meter," Avery says. But "it can be very simple, because as long as you understand what you are saying and the emotions are there, you can get at the music in the line."

Pop-up Sheet Music

Mendelssohn originally composed his "Midsummer" to accompany the stage play. It includes the famous "here comes the bride" wedding march, but it isn't long enough to cover this new interpretation. To compensate, the symphony will be playing three different works by Mendelssohn and weaving them together. There are symbols in sheet music that tell musicians when to repeat a passage or skip to another section, but no system exists to direct musicians between pieces.

That's where Jennifer Goldberg comes in. As the symphony's librarian, she's in charge of preparing written parts for each musician. At this point, the sheet music resembles children's pop-up books, with slices of score taped in and easy to grab pull-tabs for quick transitions. Most music terminology is in Italian, so the color-coded Post-it notes that flag jumps between pieces are marked vi and de — Italian for here and there — in the music books tailor-made for each musician.

Chiffon From China

They're not as old as Mendelssohn's music, but the sets and costumes have been around for a while. New York-based designer Christina Giannini originally built them 10 years ago for the Hong Kong Ballet's production of "Midsummer." Shakespeare set the play in Athens, but when it's reinterpreted for dance, the costumes tend to be very conservative. "Full-length tutus, traditional, I hate it!" Giannini gripes.

Instead, she took her design cues from the Hong Kong Ballet's environment. Chinese lore has its own traditional fairies that live in a more tropical climate, so Giannini went for brightly colored togas instead.

When the company director who commissioned the pieces moved to Nevada Ballet Theatre and remounted the show, Giannini had to add a few inches of fabric to expand the costumes to fit larger Western dancers. The Richmond Ballet will be performing in silk and chiffon hand-painted costumes that have traveled from China to Las Vegas to Richmond. You have to be prepared for "postage stamps and giants," Giannini says, "you just have to adjust." S

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs at the Landmark Theater April 29 at 8 p.m. and April 30 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18-$100 at or 344-0906, ext. 224.

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