Can there be a more perfect ballet for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center than George Balanchine’s evening adaptation of Shakespeare Dream of a summer night? Since 1966, when the New York City Ballet celebrated the grand opening of SPAC with this 1962 work to music by Felix Mendelssohn, it has become synonymous with the venue. Suzanne Farrell, who danced Titania that night, recalled “real fireflies, dragonflies and moths mixing with the children in the ballet pretending to be them. . . . It’s as if Balanchine had always wanted this ballet for this theatre. Friday’s NYCB performance proved that mid summerThe magic endures.
mid summer is a narrative ballet, to be sure, but Balanchine’s version unfolds with astonishing speed, economy and clarity. By the time the overture ends, when most story ballets are just beginning, we already know that King Oberon and Queen Titania of the fairyland are at war over custody of a stolen human child. ; that Oberon’s lieutenant, Puck, is planning mischief; and that there are problems of love in the human world. Balanchine defines the lovers’ difficulties in thirty seconds flat: Lysander and Demetrius both desire Hermia, Hélène loves Demetrius, who rejects her, and Duke Theseus wants to wash his hands of the whole affair. At one point in this opening sequence, Isabella LaFreniere as Helena descends the stage on a long, tearful diagonal. She stops to pick up a sheet sympathetically held out by Puck and uses it to wipe her eyes, oblivious to her courtesy.
This example of poignant humor characterizes Balanchine’s touch in mid summer, whose jokes are genuinely funny but also offer insight into the sometimes twisted psychology of lovers. After Puck enchants Lysander, danced by Lars Nelson, into chasing Helena, Erica Pereira as Hermia catches him hugging her hapless friend, popping up on tiptoe and stuffed around them. It’s a fun moment combining his shock with his desire to distance himself.
Roman Mejia, an excellent Puck, performs his antics expertly, without aggression. His speed and jumping ability flash as he zooms across the stage in search of the Magical Love Flower or evades an attack from Titania’s Handmaidens.
Unity Phelan, as Titania, dances the ballet’s most sublime comic sequence when, bewitched by Puck, she falls in love with Gilbert Bolden III in the role of Bottom, an enchanted mortal with the head of an ass. Bottom joins in with her, trotting, pausing to scratch, and distracted by his bribe of sweet hay, but he gets the job done, and we recognize in him a playful mirror of our own sometimes silly romantic selves.
But mid summer also involves a healthy dose of serious dancing. Anthony Huxley, as Oberon, has a beautiful scherzo in which he navigates left and right, leaping in entrechats and splits, throwing lightning pirouettes, while seeming to barely touch the ground. Such marvelous virtuosity conveys Oberon’s magical power. Ashley Hod, as the wife of Duke Theseus, the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, shines in a powerful set of thrown through the forest mist, followed by an equally impressive series of whipping pirouettes known as whippings.
Act 2’s wedding celebration – a series of dances instead of Shakespeare’s Pyramus and Thisbe farce – culminates with a legato pas de deux for Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette, which ends with Hyltin in a deep backbend on the right arm of Veyette. He lifts her vertically, then gently releases her in a deep forward fall into his left arm, while turning her with his right hand to face her. It dramatizes the confidence of the three sets of newlyweds, the confidence to dedicate our lives to each other.
To finish, mid summerThe twenty-four children of dance in a storm like the insects and fairies of Oberon. They do as much as anything else in this brilliant ballet to bring together the human and fairy worlds and show the imaginative magic that dance makes possible.
For WAMC, it’s Jay Rogoff in Saratoga Springs.
JAY ROGOFF is a poet and dance writer who lives in Saratoga Springs. His latest collection of poetry is To Love in Truth: New and Selected Poemsand he is working on a book about the ballets of New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine.