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Leigh Witchel

In another part of the forest - Thoughts on A Midsummer Night's Dream

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A sudden opportunity to see A Midsummer Night's Dream a second time had me thinking as I watched it about two recent discussions on the ballet, the relationship of Oberon and Titania and also a comparison of the ballet with Ashton's The Dream.

Ashton chose to create a ballet with a unified setting, a magical glade where all the action takes place. Humans, Oberon, Titania and their retinues, come to that place and are transformed. Even though it doesn't exist on the stage, one can almost sense the magic of a Fairy Circle; an enchanted boundary the humans cross. Enter into our domain and be changed.

There are different loci in Balanchine's world. The “green world” of Oberon, allegro and darting with bugs and butterflies, is where the lovers wander, but Titania does not seem to live there, she lives in another, calmer part of the forest. Titania's world of vines and blossoms contains her retinue of women with skirts like honeysuckles, the changeling boy and a cavalier who partners her; Oberon never dances with her. The movement is primarily adagio; it is a world of women rather than flies. One never gets such a human feeling from Ashton's fairies, what is fascinating about his fairy kingdom is that no one in it, not the fairies, Oberon or Titania, feels human. They skitter and jerk as they move and are blown about; they do not move like us, they are not like us.

In both ballets the magical forest, the place of transformation, is something humans stumble into, but it seems to me Ashton's interest in transformation lies in Bottom, Balanchine's in the lovers. Bottom is given more to do in The Dream, and time alone on stage. Ashton provides an even more radical and complicated transformation by putting Bottom on pointe; Balanchine opts for something speedier and smoother by just using the donkey head. Balanchine, as he tends to, puts the focus on the woman and her reactions, but there is one moment when Titania swoons in Bottom's arms and he slowly raises his donkey head to look at us mute, as if as stunned as we at how he got there and the absurdity of the situation.

In both choreographers’ works, the lovers are portrayed in shorthand. Hermia loves Lysander and Lysander loves Hermia, but Demetrius also loves Hermia and she doesn't love him and Helena loves Demetrius and Demetrius does not love Helena. It takes both choreographers less time to show this than it does to read the sentence. Balanchine fleshes out their meaning a bit more, if not their individual characterizations, by including more of the human world apart from the rustics, particularly Theseus and Hippolyta. Balanchine’s royal human couple is drawn with broader strokes than Shakespeare’s. He smoothes over the fact that Hippolyta is Theseus’ captive in war (Act I, Sc. I) Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword, And won thy love, doing thee injuries and presents us with an idealized ruling couple, a benevolent leader who proposes to his consort on a whim after marrying the quarreling lovers. And, unlike Ashton, he leaves them in because in his universe they become the counterweight to Titania and Oberon.

But I will wed thee in another key, With pomp, with triumph and with reveling. The second part of Theseus’ speech is Balanchine’s second act. I love the fact that it takes place in a tent-like pavilion of pink and green; flowers and leaves, the outdoors brought inside to civilization. The dancers in the second act are divided in two worlds as well, the court itself and the dancers who form the divertissement. And in the divertissement’s central pas de deux Balanchine abstracts and resolves the mismatchings and conflicts of the earlier coupling in choreography described by Violette Verdy, who originated the role as "full of things that were intended for a tall partner delicately to collect a smaller girl." Capturing becomes taming and protecting, and the war of the lovers and quarrels of consorts becomes a hovering partnership.

Are Balanchine's Oberon and Titania quarrelling lovers or quarrelling rulers? I don't think of them as not in love, but among other things, the sense of place in the Balanchine says to me that while their relationship can be affectionate, it is also stately. They never dance together, (Titania has an unnamed partner specifically for that purpose) and have very separate courts and worlds. I think the “royal” aspect of it is exemplified in the final ceremonial procession at the end of the ballet. Oberon and Titania arrive from the wings with their retinue (he with the changeling) who attire them in their capes. They meet at the center and take hands to walk forward to us. But then they split and go off to either side, yet waving affectionately. It’s not loveless and as Nanatchka noted they do once leave together, but they seem to have separate domains.

Balanchine made Midsummer’s approximately two years before Ashton’s Dream, and although I can think of no borrowings from the Balanchine in the Ashton, I think there might be one sly reference in the Balanchine to Ashton, though a different work. When Titania reenters with Bottom, she is lead by a team of Oberon’s butterflies harnessed with ribbons. Could this be a reference to the ribbon chariots of La Fille Mal Gardée, first performed in New York in September, 1960?

There were some repeat performances in the two casts of the Balanchine that I saw this season; I saw both of Peter Boal’s Oberons and Charles Askegard was cavalier to both Darci Kistler and Maria Kowroski. His open personality onstage and his clean technique in the short amount of solo dancing and turning he gets make him something more than just support. As the fairy couple, Kistler and Boal have a more romantic relationship than Kowroski and Boal, which is more formal. Kowroski is one of those rare beautiful women who is gifted at being silly. While Kistler is funny because she plays the scene with Bottom as a straight love scene, Kowroski goes gaga over Bottom. They make us think in different ways. It’s always surprised me that a role I think of as so “tall” (and tall and short in this ballet matter so much) was originally performed by Melissa Hayden. But Balanchine’s will leaves full rights to the ballet to Diana Adams, as he left Meditation to Suzanne Farrell. I think his casting intentions might be deduced from this gesture.

Jenifer Ringer's sweetest moment as Helena is when she encounters the sleeping Lysander and greets him as he wakes as if she'd have no idea what he was doing laying on the ground in these woods so wild. The moment means less to Ansanelli and her performance is wilder. Ansanelli isn’t totally there yet, occasionally a few things she does look lightweight, but her emotional commitment is always interesting. Where Ringer uses her body to weep; Ansanelli uses it to scream.

Albert Evans has done Puck often and well, and is natural to the role even in his height. He is taller than Boal as Arthur Mitchell was to Edward Villella, and it’s part of the order of that world. Though shorter, Adam Hendrickson gave a very promising interpretation. He’s a good actor in a way typical of New York City ballet dancers, they often look out of place “acting” in Petipa, but seem to almost instinctively understand the less demonstrative style of acting in Balanchine’s ballets. One of his nicest characteristics is that Hendrickson is always vivid on stage, but he never overplays anything.

Jennie Somogyi’s performance as Hippolyta was exemplary and commanding. There is something royal in her bearing, in the way she focuses attention on the stage. You couldn’t think of not looking at her as she sails out or whirls through double fouettés. In her debut in the part, Aesha Ash gave a clean glamorous performance, she may have done no double fouettés, but they were turned out, centripetal and stable. Wendy Whelan seems almost more appropriate for the fairy realm than the human world because of her ability to transform herself. One day she is a lioness, the next a hyacinth. She doesn’t succeed at breaking type every time, but when she does, she triumphs. And her second act divertissement performance was a triumph of delicacy, with the most sensitive of perfumes.

I have long loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream for intersection of the human world and the magical world of the forest. Like a one-way mirror, only one world can see both, but the entanglements and disruptions of both worlds impact on each other. For their unknotting, Balanchine follows Oberon’s words in Shakespeare (Act III, Sc. ii) Hurry Puck! Overcast the night with fog that these two youths may not see each other. Lead them apart with voice tricks until they are far spent and their energies drained and also Theseus’ (Act IV, Sc. 1) My love shall hear the music of my hounds. In this confluence of the human and fairy world, Hippolyta and her hounds (Balanchine characterizes them as hers, not Theseus’) hunt in the swirling fog generated by Oberon and Puck, the lovers hunt each other with swords and hairpulling, and fall asleep for the final time within the forest to wake up transformed.

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Thank you Leigh, I really enjoyed reading your essay - what a beautiful trip you just gave me.

I regret not seeing Balanchine's Midsummer Night's Dream this year:(, however your discussion has revived it in my memory and, for that, I am truly thankful. I did see ABT perform Ashton's The Dream this season, and can draw upon my own recent memories - and your descriptions - to see the two choreographer's different approaches much better now, in my mind's eye, thanks to you. :mad: I only wish I could have seen the two versions back to back.

I have always been a fan of Shakespeare's and this play is one of my favorites. It's interesting that so many have used it as a jumping off point - including Woody Allen...

All the world's a stage... and it's a good thing, isn't it?

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Leigh, I am pretty sure Titania was made on/for Diana Adams and Hayden was more or less a last minute substitute for her when she became indisposed.

It's interesting that in the play Hippolyta was actually at some point Oberon's lover (one of many), as Theseus was Titania's, so the distiction between fairy and human is not so harshly drawn as in "The Dream".

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