PNB has been dancing Balanchine’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” since 1985, both in Seattle and on tour – it’s become a calling card ballet for the company, and so when they got permission to change the original costume and scenic designs in 1997 (the first time the Balanchine Trust allowed something like that) it was a milestone in that universe. For this seminar we heard Rico Chiarelli and Larae Hascall talk about previous designs and the process of creating a new one with Martin Pakledinaz, who died in 2013. We watched excerpts from the 1966 and 1999 films, and also got to hear from Carrie Imler and Otto Neubert about their experiences staging and dancing the work.
The original production from the 1960s had scenery by David Hay, who was responsible for several other NYCB productions of that period. Chiarelli was characteristically straightforward when he described it as “serviceable, but frankly not very good.” It had been designed for the stage at City Center, and apparently did not make the transition to the State Theater very gracefully. The original costumes were by Karinska, and the two elements were attached to all productions of the work until long after Balanchine’s death, when PNB asked the Trust if they could commission new sets and costumes. Apparently Francia Russell had originally only thought to ask Martin Pakledinaz for new costumes – he was the one to propose that he design the whole package and it took some convincing to get the assignment – this was the first time he’d done a set. Chiarelli spoke about Pakledinaz’s relative inexperience at length – the two men had a fractious relationship during the design process since Pakledinaz had “no architectural knowledge at all.” Usually set designers work extensively with 3-D models as they create the structure needed to support the look they want – Pakledinaz was much more accustomed to working with a sketch pad. Chiarelli describes the set as being “built like a costume,” where many of the forest effects come from layering scrims and curtains – he feels that there’s “a lot of resemblance to a tutu.”
Larae Hascall had worked with Pakledinaz on costumes for Kent Stowell’s version of “Cinderella,” and so was already familiar with his process. She said this was a long project, with a long build time. Most of the elements were made in the PNB shop – even the crowns were built in-house rather than purchased. Very little of Karinska’s original designs were retained – they kept the rayon jersey in the skirts for Helena and Hermia, and the shape of the butterfly wings, but that’s about it. Hascall feels that these are some of the most beautiful costumes they’ve made here, and indeed they are some of the most detailed. Chiarelli spoke about what he felt was really effective about these costumes – mostly having to do with the proportion of the detail and the color palate – they were “easy to light.” Carrie Imler, who currently dances Hippolyta and Titania, said that the Titania costume is one of her favorites, and that it really helps her ‘feel like a queen’ when she wears it. The company has two copies of it – Hascall says that one of them is in pretty dire shape and that they really have to nurse it along, since it would cost approximately $10,000 to replace.
Chiarelli said that when they started to work on the new designs there were several elements in the ballet that they hoped to “fix” (one example being the long manege around the periphery of the stage that Puck dances for the “I’ll go round the world” text, lit by a follow spot). After trying several other options they would usually go back to the original scenic solution – the older choice was still the best.
Everyone agreed that the film shoot with the BBC in 1999 was very difficult – the theater (the Sadler’s Wells) was in the process of being gutted and rebuilt, so that it was very dirty everywhere. Russell was frustrated with the camera people -- they’d had no prior experience with filming dance, and had a tendency towards very short takes that spent too much time on faces. She was insistent that they look at whole bodies, and to film whole phrases – Chiarelli called it her skill at “explanation” but it sounds like it was more confrontational than educational. There was also a great deal of trouble with light levels – the work is supposed to be taking place at night, and in the theater it’s lit with that in mind, but the cameras needed much higher light levels, so that it wasn’t “honest to the production” (Chiarelli again). The impression was that Russell wasn’t especially pleased with the final product, but I have a feeling it might have been much jumpier without her insistence.
Imler was in her second year with the company when she first performed in “Midsummer.” In the film she danced as a "big fairy" and a part of the corps for the Divertissement pas de deux, and we saw little snips of her as we watched excerpts from Titania and Oberon’s solos. She talked about the difference between Hippolyta and Titania (she originally hadn’t thought she would get to dance Titania – she thought of herself as “more of a Hippolyta-like dancer”). Aside from general movement qualities, Hippolyta has some special challenges because of the headdress and the bow. The headdress, which resembles a Roman warriors’ helmet, is quite heavy, and can change your center of gravity if it’s too far forward or back on the head. But the bow is a real test during turning – Imler said that many women who dance the part hold it vertically during the fouette turns because the arm position is closer to a standard first position port de bras, but she likes to hold it horizontally, so that it cuts down on the drag as she turns. Currently they have two bows, one about ¾ the size of the other – Imler uses the larger of the two, but she said that the Lilac Fairy wand is actually heavier than the bow, which has been carefully hollowed out.
Otto Neubert seemed bemused when he said he’s been working with kids on Midsummer for 23 years. He said that when he first walks into the rehearsal the kids are pretty surprised to see “a 6’2”, 200 pound bug.” The choreography for the children is really challenging, especially in the overture, where there are only seven kids onstage and they can’t depend on seeing each other to know what to do.
We watched Titania and Oberon’s solos from both the 1966 and 1999 films, and even setting aside the differences in black and white v color, and the different sets/costumes, the two films have big distinctions. The 1966 version was filmed in a much smaller and narrower space – the movement felt like it was curling in on itself frequently, especially with the corps, in order to accommodate the environment. Most of the details in Oberon’s choreography were the same, but Imler saw many differences between the older film with Suzanne Farrell and the newer version with Patricia Barker as Titania. I would need more than one viewing to be specific about it, but I can say that the difference in camera angle really changes how you see certain phrases, especially in terms of their spacing. The newer film had much more width, and phrases that seemed to run up and down stage in the 1966 version traveled side to side in the more recent one.