Friday, February 9, 2007

Such stuff as Dreams are made on

Titania (Lorna Feijóo) meets her Dream date (Gabor Kapin).

Boston is currently in the midst of a veritable May dance of Midsummer Night’s Dreams. Just a week after Boston Theatreworks opened its spirited production of the Bard’s immortal comedy, Boston Ballet has mounted a sumptuous version of Balanchine’s ballet – which offers a melancholy testament to the romance the play’s theatre tradition seems to have lost.

Dating from 1962, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, surprisingly, Balanchine’s first full-length story ballet – and he picked quite a source for his initiation into the form. It’s not for nothing that ballets tend to be short on plot, as the demands of dance only fitfully align with those of drama; Shakespeare, however, packs a kaleidoscope of interlocking episodes into his famous tale of misguided lovers and quarreling fairies lost in the wood. Unfazed, Balanchine telescoped a truncated version of the script into just his first act, leaving the second entirely free for the kind of gorgeous divertissement we’d expect from The Sleeping Beauty. It’s a defensible strategy, even if at times, as the lovers dodge the fairies in the forest, we feel we’re speed-reading Shakespeare. What’s remarkable is how often Balanchine manages to, yes, align dance with drama – the bouts of jealousy and fits of infatuation between his couples are generally conveyed through movement, not mime, and were well served by the fluid work of Yury Yanowsky, Kathleen Breen Combes, Tai Jimenez, and Pavel Gurevich (Jimenez and Gurevich, above). When forced to, of course, Balanchine’s not afraid to stray from Shakespeare – he invents for Titania (Lorna Feijóo) a nameless Cavalier (Lorin Mathis, who after an early fumble displayed splendid poise) purely for the purpose of gracing her with a lovely pas de deux (which Feijóo delineated exquisitely). Still, all were almost upstaged by Joel Prouty, who was practically born to play Puck; and while he didn’t break any new ground in the role, Prouty inhabited it completely - every movement was alive with lithe detail, and his signature jumps were electric.

Another question, of course, hangs over the metaphorical pas de deux between Midsummer’s two geniuses – what can Mr. B. possibly show us that Mr. Bard hasn't already? In an unusual fit of modesty, Balanchine once admitted, “It’s really impossible to dance Shakespeare. He is a poet.” But perhaps he was wrong about that; I’d argue that the charming dance Mr. B. devised for Titania and Bottom, the working man transformed into an ass, somehow takes us deeper into the material than the Bard managed to do himself. In Shakespeare, these two tend to talk past each other (the innocent Bottom is far more enchanted with Titania’s attendants) – but in Balanchine’s extended duet, feminine sophistication swoons before masculine simplicity, and we sense, as if through a glass lightly, the poignant undertow of Balanchine’s (and our) yearning, eternal bewitchment with the ballerina.

It’s a triumphant moment, but only an aperitif before the wedding feast of the second act, where Balanchine just lets rip with pure dance. His “ballet within a ballet” may parallel the “play within a play” that crowns Shakespeare’s comedy, but it’s hardly the burlesque that wraps up Midsummer. Instead, the dance to Mendelssohn’s "Wedding March" (his overture and incidental music for Midsummer form the core of the score) may not be Mr. B.’s edgiest work, but its startling jumps and joyful geometries certainly place it among his most rewarding classical efforts, and the subsequent pas de deux (to the composer’s Sinfonia No. 9) is among his most extended evocations of rapture. The company was in fine form throughout (with Lia Cirio making a particularly bodacious Hippolyta), and in the pas de deux Larissa Ponomarenko worked her usual gossamer magic in the arms of Roman Rykine (though both, perhaps, seemed a bit remote).

There were a few missteps. In the role of Oberon, Reyneris Reyes projected precisely the right level of petulant grandeur – but his leaps, despite their soft landings, only had enough loft to just hold onto the double cabrioles Balanchine had layered into them. And the corps in the opening act sometimes lacked the definition the dance’s design requires – someone even fell at one point (an under-rehearsed, though not untalented, corps is becoming a repeated complaint at the Ballet, particularly after the recent dazzling visit from the Kirov). The child dancers, however, who flitted through as butterflies and fairies, were charmingly serious about their responsibilities (which are more demanding than the corresponding bits in, say, the Nutcracker). Alas, I was less smitten with the rather obvious set (borrowed from Pacific Northwest Ballet, the drops drooped with damask roses and glittery cobwebs), but the costumes, though traditional to the core, were superbly rendered – and needless to say, Jonathan McPhee conducted the Mendelssohn with lively affection and not a trace of modernist condescension.

This seemed somehow right for the dance’s nostalgic tone – Balanchine performed in Midsummer as a child, and perhaps those memories inspired him to write the play a valentine rather than push its envelope. His finale was especially magical: the children darted like fireflies beneath the falling mantle of twilight as the lovers made their way to bed (and another dream) in just the kind of sentimental image that today’s stage directors have been trained to avoid – and I realized how much I miss the romance that the Theatre of Revolt has drained from Shakespeare’s comedy. Thank God we have Balanchine, and Boston Ballet, to keep its memory alive.

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