Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Photo above and masthead by Gene Schiavone.

It would be difficult to overestimate the pleasure given by Boston Ballet's current revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream (through this weekend at the Opera House). The dance represents, of course, the intersection of two geniuses - Shakespeare, probably the greatest artist of all time, and Balanchine, the choreographer who most certainly deserves a place in the Bard's pantheon of talent.  Not that Balanchine's ballet encompasses the full breadth of Midsummer - in fact, it doesn't even attempt to treat the whole play;  Mr. B (as he has become known) all but races through the plot, and leaves out whole chunks of Shakespearean theme and structure (don't expect, for instance, to see anything danced regarding the lover, the lunatic, and the poet, much less the "tragedy" of Pyramus and Thisbe).

No, as I said, this is a kind of intersection, not an interpretation; but Balanchine understands much of Midsummer, and brings to his ballet, almost without thinking, something of Shakespeare's own depth and nobility.  We don't like that word anymore, of course - "nobility."  Which is our loss, because it expresses something Shakespeare believed in, and which Balanchine simply takes as a matter of course.  Of course ballet elevates human experience, his every move tells us; of course even a flawed character, or society (or dream) has an inherent nobility to be discovered and appreciated.  Of course, of course.

Thus the centerpiece of Balanchine's Midsummer corresponds to one of his central concerns - the expression of romantic harmony through civilized ceremony. Perhaps because he's so devoted to ceremony, Mr. B disdains pantomime - hence the headlong dash through some sequences (like the arrival of the mechanicals in the forest); if he can't conjure a full dance from a scene, Balanchine just sketches it in, with an implied nod along the lines of "You remember this part, right? Right!".

So if for some reason you're not familiar with the play, it may be a good idea to check it out before going, so you're not wondering things like "What's with the donkey head?" Although frankly, even memories from a high school production might be all you need - or maybe even just the précis I overheard in the lobby from one young patron, which ran, "There are these people in the forest who are like in love with the wrong person, okay? And they meet these fairies, and you know stuff happens, and everybody ends up in love with the right person, and then they all get married."

Good enough for me! Although I have to say much of the most individualized dancing and acting came from those four confused young lovers - on opening night essayed by company stars Kathleen Breen Combes and Yury Yanowsky (now a married couple) as the warring Helena and Demetrius, and Erica Cornejo and Pavel Gurevich as the besotted Hermia and Lysander. These were four utterly specific performances in terms of emotion realized as movement, all set off by brilliant comic timing (but then the Ballet is full of terrific comedians).

Photo by Eric Antoniou
The lead fairies were perhaps slightly less compelling - it was great to see Lorna Feijóo return to the spotlight as Titania (with her peerless technique utterly secure), but she lacked a certain vixenish spark in her opening war with Oberon (the sinuously elegant John Lam, both at top), and she was indifferently partnered in her solo by the young Lorin Mathis. Elsewhere, however, fairyland was indeed aglitter with magic - as Balanchine's fluttering butterflies, the kids wrangled by ballet mistress Melanie Atkins were utterly charming (and in perfect synch, at left), and Jeffrey Cirio, though perhaps lacking a genuinely devilish streak - despite sprouting a tiny pair of horns - was nevertheless dazzlingly fleet of foot as Puck (see masthead), and with his happy élan had the audience in the palm of his hand all night.

There are a lot of great performances to mention here, however - that's the downside of being a reviewer when the Ballet's bench has become as deep as it is now! Robert Kretz, who has toiled largely in the background in previous seasons, struck just the right innocently earthy notes as Bottom (particularly while preferring provender to Titania). And Lia Cirio made a buoyantly darting huntress of Hippolyta, partnered with appropriately understated confidence by Bo Busby. But probably the most sublime dancing of the night came from Larissa Ponomarenko and James Whiteside, as the avatars of Balanchine's lengthy second-act divertissement.

This wouldn't be a Balanchine ballet without an enormous work for the corps at the climax, and Midsummer sports a doozy that's geometrically intricate even by Mr. B's heady standards. Here it was brought off with sparkling precision, however, which only set off Ponomarenko and Whiteside's sweetly simple pas de deux (just as it was meant to be). The keynote of their coupling is sympathetic attention - the moves in of themselves are only impressive as subtle call-and-response - a quality which these two dancers by now seem to have in their bones.

Then came that enchanting moment when the court dissolves back into the forest - an effect even more dazzling than usual on the exquisite new set the Ballet had borrowed from La Scala (which was simpler but more sophisticated than the design of previous productions). And when Balanchine's butterflies came back as fireflies, you heard one of those soft, unconscious sighs of pleasure rise from the audience that are almost more magical than anything occurring on the stage.

Oh and did I mention this production actually represents the intersection of three geniuses, not just two? For let's not forget Felix Mendelssohn, whose suite of incidental music (largely written when he was just seventeen) has long since become a classic in its own right; here it was skillfully extended to include excerpts from his Athalia Overture and String Sinfonia No. 9 (written when he was all of fourteen). Down in the pit, the Ballet's orchestra seemed a little uncertain of Mendelssohn's familiar opening notes, but soon, under the baton of Jonathan McPhee, they had settled into a sweetly vigorous interpretation as memorable as the rest of this ravishing production.

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