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Post-performance Q&A A Midsummer Night's Dream

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Thursday, 10 June

Kent Stowell opened the Q&A, and he was later joined by Patricia Barker and Brittany Reid, who had just performed Titania and Hippolyta.

Stowell opened with a description of how and why PNB produced their first A Midsummer Night's Dream. He said that the Company had just put on its first production of his Nutcracker and were looking for another full-length ballet. He called Michael Smuin, then directing San Francisco Ballet, and told Smuin that he had 150K, and that if Smuin could raise 150K, they could afford to produce Dream together. (Back in the day "when 300K was real money.") Smuin went to his Board, and reported back that they approved the proposal, and then Stowell went to the PNB Board and told them that Smuin had 150K for a co-production and asked them to raise PNB's share! Luckily, they agreed.

The first production was like the original NYCB production. Stowell described how the sets and costumes went back and forth between SFB and PNB, and how they were lent out; eventually they became shabby. When Russell and Stowell wanted to produce the ballet again, they asked the Trust for permission to redesign the costumes and sets to the scale of the Opera House stage. Stowell explained how the original sets were built for City Center, a much smaller space, and described how there was two feet for cross-overs between the backdrop and the back wall of City Center. Russell and Stowell were given permission, and Martin Pakeldinaz designed much more opulent sets and costumes. (My favorites of these are the dresses worn by Titania's retinue: the bottom of the silky dress flow beautifully, and are shaped and colored like rose petals.) Because of the limitations, he felt that the traditional sets didn't provide continuity between the two acts, while he feels the new sets do.

Stowell performed with NYCB when the Company performed at the Seattle Opera House during the 1962 World's Fair. The Company then went to Europe and Russia, to which Balanchine had not returned since he left. Which just happened to be during the Cuban missile crisis. He mentioned that Balanchine did not want to bring A Midsummer Night's Dream to London, fearing the British critics, because he thought that the critics didn't believe that Shakespeare could be produced by anyone who wasn't British. Stowell said that Balanchine thought that Shakespeare was Russian. According to the NYCB website timeline, the Company did not travel to London between the premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Ashton's The Dream (1964).

Someone in the audience asked the dancers how they avoided being upstaged by "animals and children." I think it was in this context that Stowell said that after Ashton's Cinderella, in which Ashton and Helpmann played the stepsisters, productions of the ballet followed suit and made the stepsisters more outlandish. As a result, he said that people left the theater remembering "the clowns," not the main story, so that when he choreographed the ballet, he wanted to avoid it. He then brought up the The Dream, in which he felt that the donkey's prominence dominated the action, and that the strength of Balanchine's version was the balance that brought the focus back to the principal characters.

When PNB brought the ballet to London, they knew that the BBC was going to telecast it, and Stowell said that if the performance was going to be preserved, he didn't want to hire local children, but to showcase the children from the PNB school. The Board balked at the expense of sending 34 kids to London, but Stowell started the "Send Our Bugs to London" campaign, and they were able to bring the kids with them. Stowell said that the children were the most professional of the dancers, that "they danced every rehearsal to perfection," and that "the TV crew marveled at their discipline and hard work." He also said that two little boys in the group knew where the cameras were going to be, and in the scene where they all fall asleep downstage right, they scooted into position to be filmed.

Barker told a story of performing the ballet in which before the scene in which she is awakened by Oberon with Bottom at her feet, Puck was backstage talking and he didn't place the shell onstage. She had to improvise, and she lay on the floor. The dancer playing Oberon came out laughing, and she had to ask him to hold out his hand, so that she could get up!

Brittany Reid made her debut as Hippolyta and said that she was nervous, but it didn't show at all. In a question about pointe shoes, Barker said that her shoes last 10 minutes to an hour, and that she used four pairs for Swan Lake, with an extra left shoe ready, in case she needed it for the fouettes in the third act. Reid said that she could reuse her shoes sometimes; she said that when the pair that she used for her fouettes during the scene in the forest worked well, she used them again and again. (She did two abridged school performances during the day before the full evening performance.)

Someone asked what were their most embarrassing moments onstage. Stowell answered and said that he was on tour in Istanbul, where he played a scared student who was being seduced by the woman of the house -- I think he said the ballet's name was Con Amore -- when after his first entrance, he sat down backstage and fell asleep, only to be awoken by someone yelling at him that he missed his second entrance. Another person asked how much talking the dancers do onstage. Barker was very funny, describing a conversation that went, "Sorry, sorry, sorry, oops, sorry." Stowell talked about a dancer being injured just before the company was to perform a pas de deux, and someone sent him onstage to perform in a ballet he didn't know, with Violette Verdy talking him through it the entire time. When asked what they do if they forget the steps, Barker said that it inevitably happened in a ballet that they know very well, and they make something up until they get back on track.

Someone asked Stowell what he wanted for PNB over the next ten years. Earlier there had been a discussion about performing outdoors, which the Company did at the Hollywood Bowl on tour, and which in previous years they have at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery. (Unfortunately, summer conditions in Seattle caused rain-outs, and in one performance I saw, it was so cold that the dancers had to wear legwarmers for the last ballet, which I remember as Fanfare.) He said that his dream would be to have an outdoor theater for the summer, in which the Company could perform Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream among other ballets, to build the audiences for the regular season rep.

He also talked about choosing the new Artistic Director. He said that this was the first major decision that the Board had to make in 27 years. What was most interesting was when he described PNB as a "big institution with a culture" that was "set in its ways." He said that if a new AD tried to change the direction of the Company, it would be hard on the Company, but it would also be hard on the person. He hoped the new AD would enhance and extend and help the company go to another level, rather than trying to "change the flavor." I think he was right in saying that the audience would rebel if PNB became as jazz company for example. (We actually have one of those in town.)

That covers my notes from last night's Q&A.

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Just a thank-you for your vivid descriptions, HF. Because of them, I am beginning to develop a sense of familiarty with PNB, a company I've never seen live. Yet.

I have seen the Lullaby section of Midsummer on Classic Arts, and I, too, like the fairies' costumes. On tv -- probably more than in live performance -- the different colors are just slightly distracting. I might have preferred different tones of the same hue.

Great story about the camera-savvy bugs!

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