writers on dancing

Letter from New York

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (film)

On Sunday, October 24th, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a one-time-only screening of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the 1966 film directed by George Balanchine and Dan Eriksen of Balanchine’s full-length stage work from 1962. “I wanted to leave my own ballet, as I have done it myself, for the future,” Balanchine told an interviewer at the time of the film’s release. What he left was, debatably, the most beautiful ballet film in history that takes events of the stage as its entire subject. The version of the ballet it records is not identical with what we see today at the State Theater, however. The choreography is slightly different in some passages, either in tone or effect, from what one sees now. (The film has much less for the children to do, the Second-Act wedding scene is much more serious, and some of the entrances and moments of transition throughout have been reconfigured for the camera.) The design of the film’s voluptuous forest setting, far more detailed and textured than David Hays’s original set, is attributed to Howard Bay, a well-known designer for feature films.

And there are elements that the stage version could never duplicate: a dreamlike sequence when the arrow is launched into the Moly flower, the establishment of the profiles of Titania and Oberon as two pillars framing the events of the human characters, the instantaneous appearances and disappearances of Puck. For the opening credits, as the overture is played, the camera (of cinematographer Arthur J. Orbitz—known for his work with independent dance-filmmaker Shirley Clarke) sensually traces the depths and glintingly lit surfaces of the forest: it is more than a surrogate for the eye: it is a hand. The ballet itself opens, though, with a deeply shadowed pair of eyes, which turn out to belong to the Butterfly of Suki Schorer, as if the entire proceedings were actually her vision. And the photography of Suzanne Farrell’s Titania, with its majestic close-ups reminiscent of silent film, produces imagery of astounding sensuousness and adoration. Meanwhile, iconic performances unscroll. There is Ms. Farrell’s, of course, which includes her beautiful jump; Edward Villella’s matchless Oberon, whose beats and speed are too much for the camera: they transform themselves into whirring magic; the aristocratic and sensually ironic Puck of Arthur Mitchell; Ms. Schorer’s incandescent Butterfly; the tragic, unrequited love of Mimi Paul’s Helena and the stricken lightness of Patricia McBride’s Hermia; the perfect partnering of Conrad Ludlow; the Valkyrean jumps and turns of Gloria Govrin; the instantaneously registering characterization of Francisco Moncion; and, in the Second Act divertissement, the classical purity of Allegra Kent and Jacques d’Amboise, whose adagio, a kind of sacrament, stopped the breath of the standing-room only crowd at the Walter Reade. Most of these performers were in the ballet’s original cast in 1962, New ones included Ms. Farrell (who replaced the original Titania of Melissa Hayden,, herself a pinch-hitter for Diana Adams who inspired the creation of the part, yet never got to dance it) and Ms. Kent (going in for the original Violette Verdy).

Of course, you can see this film on a small monitor at the Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. However, you won’t see this particular version there. The version the Film Society screened has been color-corrected and cleaned up by Patrick Bensard, founder of the Cinemathèque de la Danse, in Paris; and, of course, it is shown as envisioned, on a big screen. For many years, various people have attempted to track down the original print, whose rights the film’s producer, Richard Davis, lost in a poker game. That original seems to have disappeared. Bensard's version is a copy of the film as it was once screened on American television, with the frame cropped for the tube. Furthermore,even in this form, the film cannot be screened commercially or reproduced on VHS or DVD, owing to the morass of legal complications regarding the ownership of the rights. The situation is one more instance of the way that copyright laws can work against the art form, and of the egregious greed on the part of individuals who seek to exploit the art of ballet for the purposes of making the quick buck.

Present at the Walter Reade were Bensard, introduced by Joanna Ney, Instigator Extraordinaire of dance-film preservation and programming, and, following the screening, several of the dancers: Suzanne Farrell, Allegra Kent, and Edward Villella, who walked up the steps to the stage holding hands in a Balanchinean chain. Ms. Farrell remembered the underground studio in the West 50’s, in which the filmmaking took place, and that she had trouble keeping completely still for the profile shot. She never saw daily rushes. Mr. Villella, who did, noted that his dances for Oberon’s ceaselessly demanding Scherzo were photographed in single takes, thanks to considerable pre-production planning of every shot, and that he "often saw Balanchine behind the camera." Ms. Kent said that she had really wanted to dance Puck. Everyone agreed that the tempo of the filmed performance was very fast, even for NYCB of the 1960s.

Two of my favorite moments in the stage version of “Midsummer” were not as effective in the film—the instant when Bottom, released from his enchantment, rediscovers his friends (so much feeling packed into a few seconds), and the moment when, near the conclusion of the ballet, as Mendelssohn’s music ascends a scale like firefighters running up a ladder in an emergency, the court skitters from side to side in urgen bourrées, as the chorreography shuffles their shifting lines like so many cards, finallly slipping the aristocrats and their brilliantly lit, ceremonial world into the wings, just in time to make room for the reemergence of the darkling forest and its creatures. Everything else is absolutely breathtaking.—Mindy Aloff

Photographs from the film courtesy of Cinemathèque de la Danse.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 41
November 1, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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last updated on October 4, 2004