George Balanchine delighted in the enchantment of Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. At the age of 8 he played an elf in a St. Petersburg production and reportedly could recite entire passages from the play in Russian. But his version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, choreographed for New York City Ballet in 1962 and returning to the Company's repertory this month, culls its inspiration more directly from Felix Mendelssohn's music than from the literary source.
The familiar characters from the touchingly comedic work are all intact, and are as love-obsessed, prank-prone, and nocturnally restless as ever. The intersection of the two pairs of mortal lovers and the immortal fairy kingdom, engaging in their own worlds of bickering and reconciliation, makes for a classic story of romance's tricky illusions. The characters tell the story through Balanchine's inventive choreography, driven by Mendelssohn's wondrous melodies and orchestration.
NYCB Principal Dancer Joaquin De Luz has been dancing the role of Oberon, King of the Fairies, since he joined the company in 2004. The high-speed Scherzo section, featuring playfully potent wind and string sections, defines Oberon's character by serving as a showcase for Oberon's quicksilver authority. "I love playing a super hero with the gold wig," says De Luz. "Oberon is a powerful king and he has to be in control. With all those accents and details in the music, the footwork is quick and sharp. You have to be regal in the upper body, but from the waist down execute all those beats, jumps, and quick direction changes." With dozens of little girls, all students from the School of American Ballet, playing the butterflies and bugs of Oberon's kingdom, he also has to negotiate his leaps through a maze of summer insects.
Oberon's accomplice is, of course, the impish Puck, who carries out Oberon's orders to squeeze the love potion of a flower onto the eyelids of the human lovers and an unsuspecting Titania, Queen of the Fairies. (Puck, of course, screws things up along the way). "I think Puck tries to do right but his mischievous manner gets in the way," says Daniel Ulbricht, who dances the role with a bounding energy. "He is like a puppy: they go through a teething process and they get excited when they get attention, but when they make a mistake their tail goes between their legs." Choreographically, Ulbricht aims for the spark of the character. "There's electricity in his step; he is flying and hovering."
Mendelssohn makes it clear when Puck arrives. "During the Overture, there is a horn that is my cue to run," says Ulbricht. "When you get the flower, the music is so flitting and light that you literally skip above the stage. Balanchine knew exactly what to do with the music. When I hear it, I know I can't be heavy. Puck is not a solid, grounded person: he's a sprite."
Titania's imperious lyricism emerges in her first act pas de deux with her Cavalier. "I've always considered Titania to be a strong-willed, independent character," says Maria Kowroski, whose fluid line and musicality adorn the role.
"The music tells you you're in her domain." Of course, Oberon rattles her independent streak when he tricks her into falling in love with the tradesman Bottom, who has been transformed into a donkey. While many choreographers, including Frederick Ashton, used the famous Nocturne as a final love pas de deux for the fairy king and queen, Balanchine took a different tact. Combining comedy and poignancy, Titania lures Bottom into her bower, to the lovely strains of the adagio.
This year marks the bicentennial of Mendelssohn's birth, and the composer is receiving due recognition for a career that was often overshadowed or obstructed by musical history. He wrote his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, a highly sophisticated work that reveals a fully developed voice of rich Romanticism and classical form, when he was only 17. The Overture is set in a sonata form with harmonic transitions and evocative instrumentation, such as the braying sounds of Bottom as the donkey. Only a few years before his death, Mendelssohn wrote incidental music for the play, which incorporated the Overture. The Balanchine ballet also uses additional Mendelssohn compositions, including the overtures to Athalie, The Fair Melusine, and Son and Stranger, as well as The First Walpurgis Night and portions of his Symphony No. 9.
Balanchine tells the entire story in the first act, leaving the second act to settle in for a divertissement. After the mortal lovers seal their love to the famous Wedding March, Balanchine placed an exquisite pas de deux that embodies pure love to Mendelssohn's pianissimo composition. The ballet ends with the same famous four chords that begin the piece (allegedly inspired by an evening breeze rustling leaves in the composer's garden), allowing Puck to conclude the story in peace.
It's not hard to explain the appeal of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "It's a friendly ballet with music the audience recognizes and with a story that's told for them," says Ulbricht. Kowroski points out that it's usually performed during a particularly pleasant season: the end of spring and the beginning of summer. "It takes your mind off the world," she says.
A Midsummer Night's Dream will be performed June 5-10. For tickets and information, visit New York City Ballet.
Joseph Carman is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet.