More "Midsummer" debuts

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream"
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
May 2 and May 6, 2006

by Michael Popkin
copyright ©2006, Michael Popkin

The run of George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that opened the Spring at New York City Ballet concluded this week with a flurry of debuts by young dancers. The most newsworthy were the young Andrew Veyette going into the role of Oberon on Tuesday night opposite Sofiane Sylve as Titania, and the even younger Sara Mearns' dancing Titania on Saturday afternoon opposite Joaquin de Luz. Tuesday night’s performance also included eight other debuts: Melissa Barak and Sterling Hyltin as Helena and Hermia; Seth Orza and Amar Ramassar as Lysander and Demetrius; Gwyneth Muller as Hippolyta; Max van der Sterre (still an apprentice) as Theseus; Tiler Peck as the Lead Butterfly; and Robert La Fosse (a retired principal dancer appearing as a guest artist) as Bottom. Besides de Luz as Oberon, the cast behind Mearns on Saturday afternoon was largely that which had danced in the Darci Kistler performances the previous week: Teresa Reichlen as Hippolyta; Rebecca Krohn and Rachel Rutherford as Helena and Hermia, Jason Fowler and Stephen Hanna as Demetrius and Lysander.

The reason for these wholesale changes in cast is not hard to find. A year or two ago a typical cast for this ballet might have included Alexandra Ansanelli and Carla Korbes as Helena and Hermia; Peter Boal as Oberon; James Fayette as Bottom; Amanda Edge as the Lead Butterfly; and Jock Soto dancing the Divertissement.  All of these dancers have either left the company or retired. In addition, Ashely Bouder, the company's most exciting girl at the moment, is out. In casting the ballet this way, the company thus made a virtue of necessity. Act I of "Midsummer" proved forgiving of this treatment because it accomodates a variety of body types and interpretations. Act II was, however generally flat, as the dancers who were able "to act" their way through the first act were sometimes pushed beyond their technical limits, or the limits of their types, by the more rigorous classical demands of the pas de deuxs in the wedding march. In addition, neither the divertissement as a whole nor its central pas deux was always well cast or well performed.

Several of the debuts were quite promising. Veyette’s debut as Oberon on Tuesday night demonstrated why ballet aficionados here are high on this young man. About twenty-three years old, he is handsome, one of the tallest men in company, and conveys a good sense of weight on the floor.  He turns extraordinarily well and has a big jump as well. While Oberon is not normally a role you associate with a very tall dancer and was a stretch for him (the famous scherzo was made on the compact Edward Villella) Veyette squeaked through it, helped by the mercifully slow tempi set by the guest conductor, Leslie Dunner (about whom more in a moment). What made his performance credible above all, and made up for the difficult moments in the scherzo, was how very well he had prepared the role and acted it. Throughout, he had gravity, emotional weight. He mimed clearly and used his facial expressions to convey Oberon’s motives and reactions to what was taking place on the stage in a serious and coherent manner, perhaps even more seriously and sincerely than we are used to seeing this character portrayed.  His was not a stylized portrayal but rather a naturalistic one and his Oberon was also more boyish than usual.  Because of his sincerity and spontaneity, this worked.

Sylve, his partner, danced Titania following the more familiar stylized approach. The role is a natural one for Sylve, a dark woman who is powerful physically and at the same time extraordinarily responsive to music. Sylve’s interpretation aside, though, the naturalistic approach Veyette took to his character was part of a pattern in the company’s two weeks of performances, something that was particularly visible in how the younger dancers’ treated their new roles.  In keeping with this, the four lovers on Tuesday night — Barak and Hyltin, Orza and Ramassar — were particularly strong in their acting. Melissa Barak, tall and dark, was well cast as Helena. Of everyone who has danced the role this Spring, she was the one who best conveyed her character’s conflicting emotions when Lysander, under the influence of Puck’s blossom, aggressively pursued her with his attentions. In this passage one can sometimes be confused as to why, if Helena is so displeased with her new suitor, she nonetheless dances with him for such an extended period of time.  Barak, though, managed to convey that her character was resisting, was then worn down and was finally forced to continue in a spirit of resignation — the only girl I’ve seen make sense of this choreography. 

Sterling Hyltin is smaller and blond and danced her solo with a similar dramatic credibility — in her case a vulnerable and palpable sense of fear at being lost and alone in the forest at night.  Seth Orza, her Lysander, was at first believably tender with her and then, having been drugged by Puck, aggressive and appropriately macho with Helena.   

The highlight of Saturday afternoon’s performance was Sara Mearns’ debut as Titania.  Mearns’ story is now a familiar one to ballet fans here in New York.  Advanced  from the corps de ballet at nineteen years old in January to dance Odette/Odile in Peter Martins’ “Swan Lake,” she has not looked back.  By the end of the Winter she had danced principal roles not only in a couple of Peter Martins’ works, but was also cast in the Fourth Movement of two important Balanchine Ballets: “Western Symphony” and   “Brahms Schoenberg Quartet.”  She was promoted to soloist in March and besides performing Titania on Saturday will go into the Second Movement of “Symphony in C” next week. 

In this observer’s eyes, at least, the opportunities presented to her are well deserved.  She has both the essential physical tools one looks for in a principal dancer and the even more elusive movement quality, a beautiful and refined response to music that shows itself in the natural and legible phrasing of what she dances.  She presents as essentially modest, young and open hearted. Yet, for all that, she draws your eye on the stage and holds it, and she can step up into and hold a pose — say for example a high attitude, with her flexible back cambered just so and her working arm stretched behind her — like no other girl performing in this city right now. It is just a natural quality and you don’t know how long it will last, whether it will be a true career or just a precocious moment. But you are happy to see her getting what she does. So far, she is not a dancer who has let us down. With each role she goes into she seems to grow. There has been no moment of disillusion yet, no sense that perhaps you had overestimated what came before.

Her Titania was slightly cautious at first but then gained confidence. The first pas de deux — the one with her Cavalier — ended in a striking manner with an unexpectedly delicate and light series of pas de bourrees into the wings, her pointes working the floor ever so lightly.  The subsequent “Lullaby” passage in the bower when she is being put to sleep by her attendants was by far the best this choreography was danced by anyone these past two weeks, Kowroski and Sylve not excepted. Her tone here was lyrical and dreamy. The childishness of a lullaby came naturally to her. The subsequent awakening for her pas de deux with Bottom was particularly well acted and had an unexpected moment, as she awoke at the proper time in the score but arose from her couch perhaps a moment earlier than the musical cue required and covered this by drifting downstage right for a few moments, only then to notice Bottom and melt in a girlish rapture that conveyed a totally sincere and open hearted quality. The spontaneity of this moment, its unscripted quality, was something touching and rarely seen.

As indicated before, a word is of praise is also due about Leslie B. Dunner, the Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet, who was the guest conductor for both of these  performances. Dunner also conducted a rousing Bizet “Symphony in C” on Thursday night.  Good ballet conductors are hard to find and Dunner is one of them. How you play an orchestral score at a concert and how you play it for dancers on the ballet stage are very different things. Dunner seems to know this, but it is surprising sometimes how little some of the other conductors you see at the ballet do. He not only made the Mendelssohn score sound sublime, but also remained in touch with the stage and provided the dancers with good tempi to dance it (his slowing down the scherzo for Veyette, something he didn’t do for de Luz on Saturday, is a good example) and even varied his tempi at times within the same musical section of the score so as make the dancers look good or to meet the overall dramatic needs of the performance.

He also paced the ballet as a whole very well, for example putting the orchestra back into gear at the end of the scherzo while the applause was still rolling, thus maintaining the dramatic flow and not allowing the performance to degenerate into a series of set piece dances, something antithetical to the nature of Balanchine’s choreography for “Midsummer” Act I.

The other person who ought to get a medal at the end of these nine performances is the Children’s Ballet Mistress at City Ballet, Garielle Whittle. That “Midsummer” succeeded as well as it did these past two weeks was largely due to how well rehearsed the large corps de ballet of children was and how pleasingly they performed. But that is nothing new. From Nutcracker season, through Peter Martins’ “Swan Lake” in January, to this and half a dozen other ballets in the repertory, how well the children dance is one of the mainstays of this company. To Whittle must go a large part of the credit.

Photo of Sara Mearns and Charles Askegard in "Midsummer Night's Dream" by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 4, No. 18
May 8, 2006

copyright ©2006 Michael Popkin



©2006 DanceView