We can dream, can't we?

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
April 25, 2006

by Nancy Dalva
copyright ©2006, Nancy Dalva

In the summer of 1958, at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, George Balanchine choreographed dances passages for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “A Winter’s Tale.” As a child, Balanchine had not only seen “Midsummer” but appeared in it, as an elf in a production at the Mikhailovsky Theater, in St. Petersburg, when he was eight. Many of its lines stayed with him, and as an adult he could recite (in Russian) many of the speeches, seeming particularly to like “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and nodding violet grows.” In Connecticut, he set dance passages for the “Midsummer” fairies. For “Winter’s Tale,” he choreographed the fourth act pastoral scene, which is a filled with disguises, just as “Midsummer” is filled with confusions. Jack Landau directed the "Midsummer," and the "Winter's Tale," joined for the latter by John Houseman. David Hays, who would later design the Balanchine full-length ballet in 1962, did the sets for both. The music for both was by Marc Blitzstein.

So, we may assume that Balanchine had it in mind to make this ballet even as, two years earlier, he made another work that is in some ways its twin: “Liebeslieder Walzer.” Mendelssohn, Brahms. Two acts, with the second a vision of the sublime derived from the human activity of the first. Scenery and lighting (now amended) by David Hays, and Karinska, both times, supplying the most evocative costumes. Two ballets, yet so similarly perfumed, and so beautiful. And both transcendently enchanting — if even, on certain nights , only fitfully so. Yet to be fitfully enchanted by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is no small thing. To be swept away would be better, and it is within the realm of possibility that Balanchine’s alchemical transformation of the language of the play into the poetics of ballet be fully realized. It has been done before. It could be so, it should be so, but I am not ungrateful for the wonders I did see on opening night of the New York City Ballet’s Spring Season.

These included, in order, Jennie Somogi's debut as Hermia, a real acting role for her. In her long dress, her beautiful port de bras and the plasticity of her upper body were paramount — and seemed, somehow, increased. But we already know about her technical prowess. This was a chance to enjoy her as a girl, and she was delicious, with her little cat-scratching hissy fit moment perfectly remindful, as it should be, that she is no mere lovely, but a pocket version of Kate, of "The Taming of the Shrew." Her opposite, also in debut, was Rebecca Krohn as Helena, less secure, albeit exquisitely pretty, if frail. But, as in so many castings of “Midsummer,” there was a lost element: that of contrasting height. This was a significant motif in the original. (You may recall that Patty McBride was Hermia to Jillana’s Helena.) In so many recent casts, and in this particular cast, all four young people — the Helenas and Hermias, the Demetriuses and Lysanders, are interchangeable, with the latter played as sword-carrying doofuses. This seems to me to be wrong. They should be differentiated. This is easily accomplished with casting for height and such, but that isn’t all that matters. Somehow, the dancers have to have notions of who these characters are, and convey them. They need, in other words, to know the play, and show it to us.

Also wonderful to see on opening night of the ballet was the scene between Titania and Bottom, which Darci Kistler has for years played most enchantingly, and differently every time out. Sometimes, she romps with Bottom as if he were a great dog. This night, she showed how her dance with him involved her leading him (which motif is echoed in the Act II pas de deux). As ever, the moment when she feeds him ferns was of the utmost: perfect, and touching. I wait for it every time, and every time, there it is. This is an acting scene more than a dancing one, of course, and pure happiness. In her bower earlier, in that scene out of Botticelli’s “Primavera,” this Titania seemed uneasy, particularly in her shell and feather bed, as if it were made more of nails than of magic, and that is sad to see.

But pure pleasure followed later, in Act II, where after some fumbling around by Theseus, we saw a perfect divertissement; this is the duet that embodies perfect love in classical harmony. (The originals were Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, who was also Titania’s Cavalier, a role now split in two.) The dancers were Wendy Whelan and Nicolaj Hübbe. I first saw them paired in Twyla Tharp’s “Beethoven’s Seventh,” where they went together like thunder and lightening — inevitably, and thrillingly. Here, they were the essence of classical romance. Finally, Whelan dancing with the great Dane she deserves, and who has been — in one personage or another — the reward of so many NYCB ballerinas over time. Hübbe showed us Whelan’s beauty, and she relinquished herself to him with the most refined abandon I’ve ever seen. Each seemed concerned completely with the other. Isn’t that romantic?

But of course, because this ballet is indeed a romance. It is quite perfect, and quite perfectly calibrated, but was here subject to significant distortions. (The lost high contrasts are unfortunate, but not insurmountable.) These are all the result of misguided attempts to deliver the material. To play it as comedy. Daniel Ulbricht’s Puck is a case in point. Sure, he gets laughs, scurrying his legs in the air, punching everything to the back of the house, and doing Puck as a jester. (Consider in contrast the more subtle Albert Evans characterization. He's a Puck who colludes with you and clues you in, bringing you into the scene, instead of sending it zinging past you.) Ulbricht has the moves, all right, but he could get better laughs by doing less, and being more.

Just as, in similar overkill, in the second act the corps seems to think “smiling” is a step. Is there someone in the wings miming “SMILE, GIRLS?” Because most do, then one or two don’t, and then suddenly they remember, and on snap the grins. This makes them look like a toothpaste ad. They are not Ipana girls. They are ballerinas. If they smile, it should be — or we should think it is, which in the theater is the same thing — because they are happy, or because they represent happiness. Happiness is central to this ballet, and this ballet tells us it is attainable. The notion of representation is not alien to Balanchine’s art. His heart was able to report what his dream was.

Photo: Darci Kistler as Titania, by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 4, No. 17
May 1, 2006

copyright ©2006 Nancy Dalva



©2006 DanceView