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Balanchine Wins the Fairy Game

Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Pennsylvania Ballet, choreography by
George Balanchine © George Balanchine Trust (photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

In the past year's glut of A Midsummer Night's Dream, it turns out, the best was saved for last, with Pennsylvania Ballet's revival of George Balanchine's choreography on the Shakespeare play, seen on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. (The company is also celebrating its 50th anniversary in Washington, along with the Boston Ballet.) It was the first new full-length ballet that Balanchine created here in the United States, premiered in 1964 by the New York City Ballet, and it bears the hallmarks of incipient greatness, in the uncanny way that Balanchine could tell a story through dancing, and not merely through pantomime. Balanchine reportedly loved the play, having played a fairy in a production back in St. Petersburg, and the pure delight he creates in the fairy scenes, danced here by a firmly schooled pack of child dancers, knocked me over. Benjamin Britten, in his operatic adaptation, gets some of the same qualities through his use of the children's chorus, but Balanchine goes for none of the undercurrent of disturbing menace that Britten wanted, leaving only innocent fun.

available at Amazon
Mendelssohn, Ein Sommernachtstraum, La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, P. Herreweghe
(Harmonia Mundi, 2012)
All of the lead roles in this production were strong, starting with the graceful Titania of Lillian di Piazza, a rising soloist with the company. Balanchine gave her a delightful partnering with Bottom as an ass, danced oafishly by Daniel Cooper, where the mismatch between the two is hilarious, he awkward and she blissfully ignorant. The Oberon of Jermel Johnson was imperious and appropriately vain, served by the flying, goat-like Puck of Alexander Peters. The production helpfully color-codes the four lovers, a simple but ingenious visual aid that even Puck eventually learns to use. The lovers have their comical moments but they are also a tender bunch, with the lovely principal dancer Amy Aldridge standing out among them. The choreography uses danced cues to show their happiness and unhappiness: rigid bodies while carried, reluctant lifts, or melting into one another. Two fine principals, Lauren Fadeley and Zachary Hench, were reserved for the elegant pairing of lovers in the divertissement of the second act, where Balanchine spends too much time on dances of courtiers and wedding festivities.

To do that, Balanchine puts most of Mendelssohn's incidental music in the first act, including a partial staging of the gossamer-light overture. Like all great choreographers, Balanchine understood music profoundly, and he had note-perfect instincts in translating Mendelssohn's gestures into music, beginning with the enigmatic four chords that open the overture and that Mendelssohn incorporated in his later incidental music. The wonder created by those chords is rooted in the relationship between the middle two chords, a retrogression from V to iv, both a nod to the duality of E major and E minor that runs throughout the overture, but also an unexpected harmonic movement that is in some sense "wrong" by the rules of tonality. In Balanchine's choreography, those chords become a sort of call, as the child-fairies, at some points joined by Puck, raise their hands to their mouths and call out in music. By the second or third time it happened, the combination of sound and gesture made my spine tingle, and I doubt I will ever hear the Mendelssohn piece again without thinking of that image.

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Sarah Kaufman, At the Kennedy Center Opera House, music steals the show from the Pennsylvania Ballet (Washington Post, June 9)
Having just played the overture and incidental music last April, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra sounded in good form, given a clean beat and nice cuing guidance by Pennsylvania Ballet music director Beatrice Jona Affron. The horn solo of the Nocturne was lost in a liminal haze, quite beautifully, and a women's chorus from the Choral Arts Society of Washington, along with Erin Crowley and Carolyn Wise as soloists, were positioned in the pit, a significant improvement over the last performance, where the singers were amplified from another location. (One of the soloists entered early at one point in the final vocal number, but Affron put things aright after a few measures of chaos.) Balanchine kept the wedding music and the final number for the second act, and to make an evening-length ballet, he added several other movements by Mendelssohn, including overtures (from Athalie, Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde, Das Märchen von der schönen Melusine, and Die erste Walpurgisnacht) and the ninth string symphony (C minor). Because Mendelssohn composed it all, it feels cut from the same cloth, and the music adds its own delight, for these are scores that are rarely, if ever, performed any more.

In the end, though, it came back to those fairies, from small to smaller, in their varied and colorful costumes, often recalling the shapes and patterns of insects (scenery and costumes designed by Martin Pakledinaz), as they moved in swarms through the darkened forest in Act I, where most of the story is told. Here a scrim of sparsely inked leaves, recalling Japanese painted screens, revealed the scene, giving the sense of passing into a storybook world, which is the way it is supposed to be.

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