New York City Ballet culminated its spring season at the David H. Koch Theater with George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—a masterpiece of witty comedy and brilliant dancing.
“Dream” was created in 1962, nearly 30 years after Balanchine arrived in America and embarked on his quest to create a new style of classical ballet in this country. It was his first original full-length narrative work, and it incorporated all attributes which were considered anti-Balanchinian: a clearly defined plot based on Shakespeare’s iconic play, vividly drawn personages, elaborate stage décor, and opulent costumes (designed by Karinska). Set to Mendelssohn’s picturesque music, the ballet proved one of the twentieth century’s most dazzling and humorous story ballets and a staple of the NYCB repertory.
There is so much happening during this “Dream.” The first act rushes by with spectacular madness as the scenes depicting the romantic misalliances and reconciliations of fairies (Oberon and Titania) and mortals (Helena, Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander) alternate between calm and chaos. Here Balanchine, with clarity and wry humor, sets in motion Shakespeare’s comic plot, creating in movements an apt allegory of the fickle nature of love.
Over the course of the first act, the King of Fairies, Oberon, stirs the whole action and propels the story forward as he guides the scatterbrained Puck (the vibrant Antonio Carmena) on all his impish deeds to accomplish two missions: to reconcile amorous discords of the four arguing mortals and to teach Titania a lesson—and get hold of her page.
It was hard to resist (or disobey) Anthony Huxley’s imposing Oberon. Dressed in immaculate white-and-gold royal attire, this ruler of the magical forest looked and acted 100 percent regal. When he gestured to Miriam Miller’s Titania, demanding her boy-page for his entourage, you immediately knew that he wouldn’t take no for an answer. In this scene, Huxley and Miller’s comic rapport was as genuine as it was amusing. Balanchine makes Oberon repeat his demands twice, so the whole episode acquires a sort of cinematic quality and delivers a double comic punch.
Huxley’s acting was admirable throughout; his pantomime intelligent and well-articulated. But it was his remarkable dancing, especially his technically-arduous solo, that stood out the most.
Oberon’s solo was created for and originated by Edward Villella, one of the most technically assured dancers of Balanchine’s time. The choreography, full of intricate beating jumps and soaring leaps, is meteoric in speed, vigor and momentum. During this performance Huxley, new to this role, had the audience cheering as he flew like a whirlwind through some of the most taxing steps ever created by Balanchine for a male dancer. His technique and his aplomb were astounding. The magnitude and dramatic force of his dancing overshadowed everything what had happened onstage before. (It was only fitting to find out the next day that, after this performance, Huxley was promoted to the principal rank of the company.)
Miriam Miller, also in her debut performance, was a lovely and bubbly Titania. Miller is a beautiful young ballerina, still an apprentice with the company but clearly showing remarkable promise. She has a strikingly gorgeous physique: tall and supple, with a swan-like neck, stunningly graceful arms and slim legs. Her mime is clear and natural. Her classical line is seemingly endless and pure. When she unfolds her limbs, standing on point in a high arabesque, she evokes a magnificent exotic flower.
Deliriously happy and lovelorn, her Titania was a comic delight in her affectionate rendezvous with a commoner-tuned-into-a-donkey, Bottom. Their unlikely amorous liaison was a result of the cruel joke—courtesy of the unstoppable Puck. When her spell was removed, she was justly shocked and horrified at the sight of her long-eared suitor.
There were a few shaky moments at the beginning of Miller’s pas de deux with Ask la Cour as Titania’s secret cavalier, but she came into her own as the duet progressed. She was very effective; wonderfully spontaneous and sensuous in her lyrical solo, augmenting her sustained legato phrases with a breathtaking sweep of her long legs and arms.
Cameron Dieck was a particularly sweet Bottom, constantly reaching for grass and showing, with nice comic flair, his utter disinterest in the adorable Titania. His absentminded gaze during their deliciously amusing duet drew laughter from the audience. But he was a swift one, too. When a flower wreath not properly secured fell from his ear, Dieck immediately kicked it off the stage to the wings as if it were a hockey puck. (Did he wish it was Puck—the silly sprite?)
All four quarreling lovers played their roles with excellent theatrical panache. A special note goes to Amar Ramasar for his astute portrayal of Demetrius (who is in love with Hermia and detests Helena, who, in turn, is in love with him.) Demetrius is a thankless role. The guy is a witless, cruel brute; yet Ramasar played this character with such a hilarious attitude that all his nasty mistreatment of Helena no longer looked dispiriting or vicious. It was a sight of pure comic joy when this Demetrius chased his rival, Lysander (Jared Angle), with a sword through the woods. The expression on Ramasar’s face and his body language were priceless.
Sterling Hyltin created a thoughtful picture of Hermia, her initial happiness turning into a deep sorrow when her beloved Lysander, under the influence of a magic spell, proclaimed his love to Helena. This heroine gets a poignant solo which comes across as a cry of a broken heart. Watching her dance, you knew how it felt to be betrayed by someone you love.
Faye Arthurs’s Helena effectively toggled from miserably forlorn to angrily upset to happily content when, at the end, all the lovers squared their differences.
When the first act ends, so does Shakespeare; and it’s in the second act Balanchine’s poetry takes real flight. Choreographed in the manner of the nineteenth century divertissements, the wedding celebration of act II is a distillation in pure dance of the ballet’s main theme: “All you need is love.”
Ashley Bouder and Adrian Danchig-Waring, as the leading couple, created a vision of pure passion. They luxuriated in each other’s arms, savoring the enchantments of music and choreography. Bouder, naturally an allegro dancer, was able to find the right equilibrium between the hushed and the lively, while the gallant and gracious Danchig-Waring provided her with assured support and undivided attention.
This production would never be the same without a bevy of children performing as the tiny fairies and butterflies. The utterly charming and wholeheartedly dedicated little dancers from the School of American Ballet imbued this “Dream” with a genuine sense of wonder and magic all of their own.