The New York City Ballet on Thursday, April 27.
If I were to pick a composer to write music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I don’t think I would choose Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn, an early Romantic, had a sense of formality, a classical mindset, that doesn’t really jibe with the fantastical nature of the Shakespeare comedy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is ultimately about sex and the psyche, and Mendelssohn’s music is too prim, conjuring demure Victorian faeries instead of the ribald, sensual sprites of Shakespeare’s imagination.
Then again, people commonly interpret A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a benign farce instead of an earthy yet contemplative sex comedy, and Mendelssohn’s music invokes the former perfectly. George Balanchine followed his lead in choreographing the work that has become part of the New York City Ballet’s repertory since its premiere in 1962. It is blithe and breezy, thematically insubstantial but undeniably enchanting, featuring dancers of all ages and skill levels — from company principals to young children from the School of American Ballet.
The lead fairies get top billing in the program, and they deserve it. The roles of Puck and Oberon are incredibly acrobatic, requiring enormous leaps. Sean Suozzi, as Puck, seems to achieve the most height (or at least create that impression), while Antonio Carmena, as Oberon, delivers breathtaking entrechats, his feet beating in a blur. Maria Kowroski plays Titania with carefree elegance. The fluidity of movement during her pas de deux with her cavalier (Jason Fowler) is nothing less than gorgeous; even the way she moves her arms is silken.
Not all fairies are so ethereal, however. To my amusement, Balanchine’s choreography calls for the fairies and butterflies played by the children to flap their arms constantly. This might have seemed like a retread of the corps in Swan Lake, but swans, it seems, have a much gentler, more graceful way of flapping; butterflies and fairies are more like hummingbirds, fluttering their wings with rhythmical insistence. The effect is adorable but might have been less so were the dancers not so very young.
Balanchine supplemented Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the play with other works by the composer to fill the ballet out into two acts, compressing the plot into the first act and leaving only the triple wedding and a final appearance by the fairies for the second. The result is a lop-sided ballet: pantomime and character dances in the first half and dance-for-the-sake-of-dance in the second. One can easily imagine parents choosing to take their children home at intermission: The storytelling and most of the colorful choreography are over by that point.
Balanchine’s compressed Dream also short-changes the mechanicals. Puck transforms Bottom into a donkey and back again (the Bottom-as-donkey choreography is charming), but the entire play-within-a-play story has been excised. I don’t necessarily disagree with that decision — the mechanicals’ presentation likely would have been difficult to render into dance — but denying Bottom his post-Titania reflection is unfortunate, reflective of the endearing but shallow interpretation of the play.
The compression also rushes the love-potion hijinks. A dance between three of the young lovers after Lysander’s affections had been magically transferred from Hermia to Helena is tantalizingly brief. Lysander leads a reluctant Helena in her steps with one arm while Hermia tries to force his other arm into doing the same for her: cute, clever and very well executed. I couldn’t believe that Balanchine had passed up the opportunity for a full pas de quatre of the lovers, particularly at the point in which Hermia is chasing Lysander, who is chasing Helena, who is chasing Demetrius, who is chasing Hermia.
Nonetheless, my enjoyment of what is in Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream easily outweighs my disappointment about what isn’t. And Mendelssohn’s music, though staid in spots, has moments of greatness. The skittish strings of many fairy appearances are whisperingly seductive, and the braying melodic leap of Bottom’s theme is a classic example of text painting. I suppose Balanchine and the New York City Ballet can hardly be blamed for delivering A Midsummer Night’s Dream as merely a glorious confection: The untempered frivolity of such an interpretation lends itself well to dance, and with dancers such as Suozzi, Carmena and Kowroski, even frivolity lends itself to transcendence.