Is there a better way to end the spring season than with George Balanchine’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? If so, I can’t think of it. Mendelssohn’s music, with its breathless forward drive, pulls one immediately into the story. (In this, it is reminiscent of “The Nutcracker” score.) George Balanchine’s choreography is equally transporting. From the first moment, as a flurry of tiny butterflies and fairies—beautifully-trained kids from the School of American Ballet—skitters across the stage, we are drawn into Shakespeare’s world. The spell lasts until the end of the first act, when all the characters, both human and magical, make peace with each other and harmony is restored. The second act is a celebration. But in the ballet’s final moments, the scene dissolves, and we are once again in the forest, surrounded by tiny creatures skittering on their fast-moving feet, fireflies peeking through the trees. The transition is magical.
It is this fleetness that distinguishes Balanchine’s “Midsummer” from Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream,” also drawn from the same story, also wonderful. The beauty of Ashton’s version lies in the details and in the characters; that of Balanchine’s version lies in this momentum, the way the story moves from this to that corner of the forest, weaving together the stories of Titania and Oberon, king and queen of the fairies; confused mortals; and the Duke of Athens, who presides over human realm. Balanchine channels our focus with the skill of a film director, through dissolves, blackouts, and instant replays. By the time the overture is through, all the dramatis personae, and their foibles, have been clearly laid out. The fairies can see, and torment, the humans, but the humans are blind to them. The action that follows is all predetermined by this key difference.
“Midsummer” has filled the last week and a half of New York City Ballet’s spring season, a season marked by almost constant cast changes, caused by a combination of injuries and Covid infections (the latter documented on the dancers’ social media feeds). It can’t have been easy. The company is also going through a major generational shift. Senior dancers are retiring, or have been injured for most of the season. Young dancers—principals and soloists—are stepping into leading roles at relentless pace. Débuts, some of them unexpected, happen almost every day. We see the dancers grow before our eyes. For the most part, it has been exciting, but some ballets, including “Divertimento No. 15,” “Firebird,” and “Divertimento from Baiser de la Fée” have suffered. They looked uncooked, the dancers at sea. With so much change, the role of coaches and staff behind the scenes becomes even more important. Every ballet in the company’s repertory matters; the approach, the style, the sensibility that underpins these works is what gives the company its strength and uniqueness. It is worth fighting for.
The May 26th “Midsummer” included two débuts, for Emilie Gerrity as Titania and Roman Mejia as Oberon. Isabella LaFreniere had débuted as Helena just two days earlier. In the second act divertissement, the luminous pas de deux (one of Balanchine’s most pellucid, and most beautiful) was danced by Megan Fairchild, in her first performance on this stage since an injury last season. She was partnered by Tyler Angle, who was replacing Adrian Danchig Waring. Mejia’s debut was a last-minute substitution. But, as he declared on Instagram, he has been preparing his whole life for this role, created for his mentor and model, Edward Villella. In the opening sequence, Mejia looked a little rushed, but he soon regained his composure and characteristic chutzpah. In the famous scherzo, filled with beaten steps and jumps that change direction and shape in the air, he seemed at times to barely touch the ground. The brises skimmed the floor, the frog-jumps lingered in the air, his turns ended with a flourish, a flick of the hand and a slight tip of the head. The one thing he could still work on is his turnout, particularly in transitional steps. The crowd, unsurprisingly, went wild.
Gerrity, too, has the makings of a most convincing fairy queen. Beautiful of face, long of limb, and endowed with a natural glamor, she moves through the choreography with a sinuous ease, luxuriating in the openness of the movement, projecting to all corners of the stage. Her long and unforced arabesque is a wonder, and she hangs in balances with an air of nonchalance. What she still lacks is confidence. She is not imperious enough at the start, in her disagreement with Oberon, and she is a bit unimposing in her extended pas de deux with an unnamed cavalier, the excellent Chun Wai Chan. However, in the Lullaby, which she dances with her attendants before falling asleep in her bower, she seemed to glisten. The awakening had a langor and look of wonder reminiscent of Suzanne Farrell’s in the same role.
The supporting roles were well cast. Troy Schumacher was a mischievous, intelligent Puck, making the most of his staccato runs across the stage. Isabella LaFreniere as Helena, who is abandoned by her lover Demetrius, evoked her desperation through outstretched limbs in which her body looked electrified. Ashley Laracey danced Hermia’s soliloquy with a breathless quality that viscerally transmitted the character’s confusion. Aaron Sanz leaned into his character’s dopey nature. Ashley Hod, despite a spill in one of her two sequences of fouetté turns, sailed convincingly over the fog as the Amazon Hippolyta. Best of all was Preston Chamblee, one of the local villagers whom Puck turns into an ass, and whom Oberon, with the help of a magic potion, pairs up with his wife Titania. (Apparently, this is how fairies exact revenge.) In his tender pas de deux with Titania, in which he wears a donkey head, Chamblee looked both enthralled and bemused, torn between bashful admiration and the desire to nibble on grass. The pleasure he derived from his repast was incredibly endearing.
The festivities in Act II are organized around formal dances set to Mendelssohn’s very Mozartean Symphpny No. 9 for strings. Like the music, the dances are sophisticated, full of playful counterpoint and fugal structures. They have almost nothing to do with the story, except that they move the action into a sort of platonic realm of happiness, built on manners and form. In the middle there is a pas de deux that seems to embody the purest aspects of love: equilibrium, respect, freedom paired with partnership. Balanchine leaves maximum space between the partners, and the man seems to step in only to provide a framework for the woman’s simple, limpid steps. She unfolds one leg to the side, then fouettés into arabesque, then swings her leg backwards, so she can start on the other side; he holds her hand as she promenades backward. All is delicacy, spaciousness, and trust.
Here, Megan Fairchild, in her first performance back from an ankle injury, and Tyler Angle, one of the few remaining senior male principals in the company, were beautifully matched. Fairchild, as is her way, was so well placed on her leg that she hardly needed partnering, but Angle was there, gallantly assisting, conversing, and magnifying her movements through space. The two looked completely at ease with each other, and completely in the moment. For a moment, time stood still.