“If we shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear,” Puck reassures his audience in the epilogue of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s adaptation of the play, Puck’s reassurances are delivered with an echoey call as he hovers above the stage on a glittering spiderweb. While opening night (April 11, 2014) yielded enough true-to-life visions to ground the production in reality, many moments—like this final image—were magical enough to be a dream.
The first mercurial notes of Mendelssohn’s score (played admirably by the PNB Orchestra) immediately immerse the audience in the fairy realm. Largely composed as incidental music for the play, the score expressly relays the narrative and readily lends itself to movement, and Balanchine’s choreography perfectly encapsulates the mischief, drama, and humor Shakespeare penned. Though certainly not the first choreographer to be inspired by Shakespeare’s works (more on that here), this production, carefully staged by PNB’s former Artistic Director Francia Russell, directly quotes the text through movement and manages to clearly convey the convoluted narrative without being weighed down by typical story-ballet conventions. Not only technically and choreographically complex, Midsummer also requires the dancers to hone their acting chops.
Benjamin Griffiths made a Napoleonic Oberon, with his long, sparkling cape sometimes looking like it might get the best of him. But this was entirely made up for by his jaw-dropping allegro—think fastidiously clean batterie and shockingly buoyant leaps. His imperiousness was a perfect match for Lesley Rausch’s haughty elegance as Titania. Always a radiant performer, her commanding aura in the first few scenes made her fawning duet over Bottom, the bewitched donkey-headed mortal (Ezra Thomson), all the more amusing. Kiyon Gaines almost looked like he was having too much fun as Puck, capering about with effortless ballon, and flashing the audience a mega-watt grin to let us in on his pranks. Oberon’s Butterfly attendants (led with pert generosity by Liora Neuville) showed more sparkle than their counterparts in Titania’s Retinue, whose expressions were only slightly less lackluster than Titania’s stone-faced Cavalier (Joshua Grant).
The four star-crossed mortals (Lindsi Dec, Sarah Ricard Orza, Jerome Tisserand, and William Lin-Yee) also enacted their personal dramas with convincing flair. Balanchine’s witty choreography uses efficient mime to further the action, expressing volumes with simple gestures. In a comedic moment, Hermia (Ricard Orza) pokes her head at her beloved Lysander (Tisserand) who’s fervently embracing the very confused Helena (Dec). The ensuing trio is general hilarity, ending with a perfectly timed exasperated gesture first by Dec to Tisserand, then Tisserand to Ricard Orza, and finally Ricard Orza to Lin-Yee. It’s a chain reaction of dissatisfaction, though it’s hard to tell if that’s Balanchine’s brilliance or Shakespeare’s.
The audience must slightly suspend disbelief as Act I finishes in a whirlwind of fog and action: Puck untangles the lovers’ misplaced affections; Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, makes a sudden appearance with her crossbow and accompanying hounds; Theseus, Duke of Athens, reappears to propose to Hippolyta; and suddenly a triple wedding is in the works. Brittany Reid made an accurate if overly concentrated Hippolyta, which felt slightly mismatched to Charles McCall’s easy gallantry as Theseus. Leaving the drama and discord in Act I, the wedding scene of the second act is pure dance, all polished symmetry and balanced partnerships. In the Divertissement, the ensemble of four couples was particularly smooth. This feels like the core of PNB’s corps; they danced together with great precision, though Leta Biasucci, Margaret Mullin (now a Soloist), and Kyle Davis were the standouts. In the Divertissement pas de deux, Kaori Nakamura and Seth Orza seemed slightly stilted, though this could have been due to tension from an impending costume malfunction, as Nakamura’s bodice seemed to be coming unfastened. A wistful serenity hangs over the duet—it’s a balm of sorts after the discordant relationships in the first act—but the two never seemed at ease enough to fully embody this sense.
It’s not only the narrative premise and masterful choreography that makes this production of Midsummer so delightful. Randall G. Chiarelli’s sensitive lighting, Martin Pakledinaz’s whimsical sets and lushly hued costumes, Mendelssohn’s magically evocative score, plus the many antennaed children tiptoeing about as fireflies, all coalesce to make PNB’s production a memorable experience. Opening night marked the company’s 101st performance of the ballet, hopefully they’ll keep this gem around for 100 more.