Jay Rogoff: A Perfect Midsummer Night with the New York City Ballet
Can there be a more perfect ballet for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center than George Balanchine’s full-evening adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Since 1966, when the New York City Ballet celebrated SPAC’s grand opening with this 1962 work to Felix Mendelssohn’s music, it has become synonymous with the place. Suzanne Farrell, who danced Titania that night, recalled “real fireflies, dragonflies, and moths mixing themselves up with the children in the ballet who were impersonating them. . . . It was as if Balanchine had always intended this ballet for this theater.” Friday’s NYCB performance proved that Midsummer’s magic endures.
Midsummer is a narrative ballet, of course, but Balanchine’s version unfolds with astonishing speed, economy, and clarity. By the time the overture ends, when most story ballets are just getting started, we already know that King Oberon and Queen Titania of fairyland are at war over custody of a stolen human child; that Oberon’s lieutenant, Puck, plans to make mischief; and that there’s love trouble in the human world. Balanchine defines the lovers’ difficulties in thirty seconds flat: Lysander and Demetrius both desire Hermia, Helena loves Demetrius, who spurns her, and Duke Theseus wants to wash his hands of the whole affair. At one point in this opening sequence, Isabella LaFreniere, as Helena, walks downstage on a long, weepy diagonal. She stops to pluck a leaf held out sympathetically by Puck and uses it to wipe her eyes, unconscious of his courtesy.
That instance of poignant humor typifies Balanchine’s touch in Midsummer, whose jokes are truly funny but also offer insight into the sometimes twisted psychology of people in love. After Puck has enchanted Lysander, danced by Lars Nelson, into pursuing Helena, Erica Pereira, as Hermia, catches him hugging her woebegone friend, springs up on pointe, and bourrées around them. It’s a funny moment combining her shock with her wish to distance herself.
Roman Mejia, an excellent Puck, performs his antics expertly, without mugging. His speed and leaping ability flash when he zooms around the stage seeking the magical love-flower, or escapes from an attack by Titania’s handmaidens.
Unity Phelan, as Titania, dances the most sublime comic sequence in the ballet when, bewitched by Puck, she conceives a passion for Gilbert Bolden III as Bottom, a mortal enchanted with an ass’s head. Bottom partners her, trotting, stopping to scratch, and distracted by her bribe of sweet hay, but he gets the job done, and we recognize in him a funhouse mirror of our own sometimes asinine romantic selves.
But Midsummer also involves a good deal of great, serious dancing. Anthony Huxley, as Oberon, has a magnificent scherzo in which he sails left and right, leaping in entrechats and splits, launching lightning pirouettes, all while appearing barely to touch the ground. Such marvelous virtuosity conveys Oberon’s magical potency. Ashley Hod, as Duke Theseus’s bride, the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, shines in a powerful set of jetés through the forest fog, followed by an equally impressive series of whipping pirouettes known as fouettés.
The Act 2 wedding celebration—a series of dances instead of Shakespeare’s farcical Pyramus and Thisbe play—climaxes with a legato pas de deux for Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette, which ends with Hyltin in a deep backbend on Veyette’s right arm. He raises her to the vertical, then smoothly releases her in a deep fall forward into his left arm, while turning her with his right hand to face him. It dramatizes the trust of the three sets of newlyweds, the trust of committing our life to another.
Finally, Midsummer’s twenty-four children dance up a storm as Oberon’s bugs and fairies. They do as much as anything else in this brilliant ballet to stitch together the human and fairy worlds and show the imaginative magic dance makes possible.
For WAMC, this is Jay Rogoff in Saratoga Springs.
JAY ROGOFF is a poet and dance writer who lives in Saratoga Springs. His latest poetry collection is Loving in Truth: New and Selected Poems, and he is working on a book about watching the ballets of New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine.