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First Dream at SPAC

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A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center

Although I have been wont to tell anyone who would listen that I attended the Very First Performance of NYCB at SPAC, this summer my parents reminded me that I actually only attended the third, as the first two were on school nights, and, short as it is, Midsummer Night's Dream would've still gotten me home past my 10-year-old's bedtime. No matter -- I don't remember much of it except Eddie Villella looking as if he were being held above the stage by invisible jets of air, Melissa Hayden's incredibly cute pink seashell-boudoir, and, of course, Arthur Mitchell sweeping up the stage before flying above it in the ballet's final scene.

While much has changed in Saratoga since the 1960's, and even more recently (I note with dismay that the price of the make-your-own sundaes at Stewart's has risen from $1.50 to $2.00 [about the price of a tablespoon from Ben and Jerry's, or the fancy Italian Gelato at the Putnam Market -- where yesterday one could feast one's eyes on a certain newly-minted City Ballet principal replendant in fuschia brocade jeans], although Stewart's retains unique flavors such as the delightfully appropriate "Crumbs Along the Mohawk" -- the crumbs are Graham Crackers), much remains the same, especially at SPAC: the blue and brown plastic seats are as uncomfortable as ever, the volunteer ushers as charming (Hi Mom! Hi Dad! Hi Rona!), the fireflies still vie for airspace with the mosquitoes, and it's still absolutely the most perfect setting in the world for "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

As it was last Tuesday night, when City Ballet opened its 2003 season at Saratoga. It's particularly pleasant at SPAC when it's not freezing cold, which happens more often than I'd like there. One thing I always notice right away at SPAC is how much higher up the conductor stands than at the State Theater -- it really is a treat watching Andrea Quinn cheerleading the orchestra through Mendelssohn's lovely overture. She looks like she loves every note of every phrase, beckoning now to the strings, now to the horns, and it's enough to make me forgive her (almost) for her occasional rushed tempi, where it seems her enthusiasm gets the better of her.

So, anyway, it was with great pleasure I settled back into my seat (regardless of the ikky hard plastic) and watched the curtain rise (did Lincoln Kirstein really donate that horrible metallic monstrosity -- perhaps it was a last joke on Saratoga?). There's nothing better than watching A Midsummer Night's Dream ON a Midsummer Night (well, close enough as makes no difference). Even inside the big, open-air ampitheater one can hear and see the swallows which come out at sunset (to gorge themselves on the ever-present mosquitoes, one hopes), and the flittering bugs of the dancing-kid variety share the stage with the occasional real one which flutter through the limelight, bent on public immolation. But most perfect of all of Mother Nature's little touches is how the drama of the sunset, with the sky fading from light blue to deep purple, silhouetting the gorgeous pines which can be seen in every direction, complements the on-stage action, so that the very verge of darkness comes just as Titania reclines to her rest in that magnificent pink seashell, as the singing chorus and dancing corps of fairies bid her a peaceful sleep, as well as ordering away the occasional spider and snake (an imperative which one hopes is protective for those in the audience as well as onstage). It really doesn't get any better than this -- as the night darkens to black, it doesn't take much imagination to banish the theater's structure from one's view and mind, blending the various girders and stays into the overall landscape, and then one is alone in the woods with Titania, Oberon and Puck, in Balanchine's peerless retelling of Shakespeare's story of love awry and true.

And what would an opening night as SPAC be without the occasional puckish mishap, supplied Tuesday by a fairy whose feet went out from under her on that notoriously slippery stage, and another who got her headpiece stuck in the netting scenery, and who escaped by yanking said piece out of her hair, leaving it dangling from the painted trees for all of Titania's dance with the Jolly Green Giant (I mean her Cavalier).

All the above notwithstanding, this was one of the best performances of Midsummer I've seen. Darci Kistler was such a glamorous, effusive and genuinely funny Titania that she seemed a different dancer entirely from the one I'd grown used to seeing in lackluster performances of, say Chaconne or Symphony in C. I'd say that perhaps she'd taken advantage of the rejuvenating powers of the waters here (waters which are vile enough to kill off anything in your system which might harm you), except that I'd seen her Titania in New York, which was almost as fine. She fairly glowed in the adagio with her Cavalier (an appropriately attentive Charles Askegard) and her good-night dance. Best of all was her love duet with James Fayette's Bottom-turned-donkey, where she struck just the right balance between slapstick and nobility. Balanchine's canniness was to make this dance not simply a comic mismatch between ethereal fairy and base animal, but to go beyond the obvious and show the strength and beauty of Titania's loving nature, even when she's mistakenly loving Bottom. Oh, what bliss when she teases Bottom by hiding the hay behind her back, and then quickly reveals her trick by carefully spreading the stalks before him. Kistler's special radiance brought me close to tears.

As for Peter Boal's Oberon, as always, it's one of the highlights of any ballet season. He's famously airborne in the Scherzo, skimming through those killer beats and turns with not a trace of male bravura, but with the otherworldy, weightless grace of a supernatural, aerial creature. It's not hard to imagine this Oberon dancing on the lightest of boughs, or blown across the breadth of the woods by an errant wind, as Boal manifests like no other in that delicate, backwards-skipping diagonal. This Oberon is clearly a creature of mercurial moods and whims, as this story clearly demonstrates. While Boal may give up an inch or so in sheer elevation to Villella, Boal brings an unrivalled purity and grace to the role. Villela was joyfully sloppy; Boal has the thoughtless perfection of otherwordly royalty.

As breathtaking as Boal's scherzo may be, I'm struck even more by the depth of his acting: his yearning envy as he watches the happy lovers, and his moral outrage at the unhappy ones -- as if it were a personal affront that lovers should be unhappy in his woods. Said lovers were Alexandra Ansanelli and Sebastien Marcovicci (in red -- I can never get those names straight), and Rachel Rutherford and Jared Angle in blue. Ansanelli brought her welcome comic timing and over-the-top drama to her role, luxuriating in both her cloying happiness and melodramatic angst. She played off well against Marcovicci's own Italianate passion, and Angle's more romantic possessiveness. Who could resist Anasanelli's rushing offstage in search of Marcovicci, arm reaching out and with the same sense of purpose and longing with which one might hail a cab on Columbus Avenue in the rain? Not I. As the more-frantic of the two women, Rutherford was a bit more placid than I'd like -- as the years have gone by, she seems to have retreated farther and farther into her beauty, but not every role, even by Balanchine, is a distant woman-on-a-pedestal. Albert Evans has has his timing down perfectly as Puck, although it's hard not to wonder if he's hamming things up a wee bit much to take advantage of one of his increasingly rare moments onstage (as with his ever-broader nose-wipe when doing the Second Movement of Western Symphony). However, compared to Daniel Ulbricht's high-flying and cartoonish Puck, Evans can only be seen as the soul of restraint. High-flying, as ever, was Jennie Somogyi's Hippolyta. She seems to get stronger with every passing day, finishing her rock-solid single and double fouettes with a very smart triple indeed.

It was almost too much of a treat that the performance should conclude with Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in the divine divertissment pas de deux in the ballet's second act. The more I see this duet, the more certain I am that it ranks right up there with the adagio from Diamonds as one of Balanchine's greatest creations. It's Balanchine's summation of the story's conclusion, the harmony of love and reconciliation between all the occasionally warring couples, writ large and in the abstract. It's hard to imagine a couple giving this duet a finer rendition than Whelan and Soto (although I wish I'd seen Kent, back when) -- it's as if Balanchine were reaching out across the years to create the perfect vehicle for Whelan's exquisite legato and her magnificently attenuated limbs. Whelan and Soto present a series of moments which seem to encompass an eternity in an instant: the many intricate promenades for Whelan in those arabesques in which she seems to mirror the turning of the globe; her gorgeous walking-and-bourreing diagonal heading downstage with Soto, finishing with her leap backwards into his arms, as if it were the purity of her attitude rather than Soto's partnering genius which was suspending her for a pregnant moment above the stage; or, of course, the adagio's heart-stopping final movement, where Soto delicately lets her tip, unsupported for a moment, from a releve in attitude leaning on his right arm, over her balance for a second or eternity, then lets her swoop into a magnficent lunge and fall almost to the stage in his left. It's so gratifying to see two artists with the savviness to recognize one of the great moments in ballet, and the strength and artistry to deliver it to perfection.

I took the liberty of watching Thursday night's Dream from the lawn at SPAC, featuring Kowroski's kooky and astonishingly supple Titania, Tom Gold's unfortunately Napoleanic Oberon (looking more of a martinet than a King), and Ulbricht's afore-mentioned aerial and crowd-pleasing Puck. The high point of the evening, however, was Mother Nature embellishing the duet between Titania and Bottom with a refreshingly light rainshower.

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Hi to you too, M! Will I see you and J at the ballet tonight? I'm not working, so I am a civilian and therefore able to indulge in a glass of wine and some dishing! FF will be there tonight, too, as well as tomorrow night (when I am working however).

I LOVED your commentary on Tuesday night's perf and will add my own, as well as some words on the other performances, in the NYCB thread.

Hope to see you tonight......R

And for you and any other BAers who are in Saratoga this weekend...a meeting place for tonight and/or tomorrow: the corner by section 14, 7:30ish?

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