There are a few moments in George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that get me every time, like when Bottom, crowned with the head of an ass, looks quizzically to his audience in mid-promenade with the willowy Titania, as if to say, “Huh?” Perhaps Balanchine took his cue from Shakespeare’s penned line for the fairy queen, “Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful,” to which Bottom responds, “Not so neither.” But the look Balanchine gave to Bottom is oddly wise in the midst of the surrounding madness of mix-matched lovers. Our dim-witted donkey offers a rare moment of clarity. I also love the ardent efforts of our amateur actors rehearsing their version of Pyramus and Thisbe to present to Theseus the Duke. One lucky dancer gets to play the Wall! “O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall.” But for me, the sweetest moment in the entire ballet has to be when 24 children, in their roles as bugs, flash 48 tiny floating lights, creating the idyllic passing glow of fireflies. Memories of dreamy evenings from my childhood return: my cupped hands following patiently as the occasionally glowing bugs drifted through the late dusk, tolerant of their hunter, allowing capture and fascination. I can’t find reference to the bugs in Shakespeare, so I’ll assume Balanchine, who spent his summers with fireflies in the New England towns of Westport, Saratoga Springs, and Sag Harbor, added this treat.
Balanchine performed as an eight-year-old bug in a St. Petersburg production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His choreography for children, seen in all five of his full-length ballets—The Nutcracker, Don Quixote, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Harlequinade, and Coppélia—and in the one-acts—Union Jack, Mozartiana, and the “Garland Dance” from The Sleeping Beauty—is always adult-like in sophistication, never playing to cuteness and yet all the more winning as tiny practitioners of technique and musicality execute choreography with sophistication beyond their years. Balanchine gives the full responsibilities of a corps de ballet to the tweens. Our School students, under the benevolent guidance of Otto Neubert, do us proud.
PNB’s production, staged with care and texture by Francia Russell, is unique. Other productions use Balanchine’s choreography and the enchanting score by Felix Mendelssohn, but only PNB’s production boasts the whimsy and spectacle of set and costume designs by Martin Pakledinaz. A fantastic frog and looming spider balance bulbous mushrooms and august roses. The senses are satiated with scale and color.
Balanchine’s production is on the eve of a fiftieth birthday, having premiered on January 17, 1962. Many members of the original cast are still active in ballet. Jacques d’Amboise, a dancer of great charm and a partner of true elegance and generosity, is one of them. In the 1967 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jacques partnered Allegra Kent in the sublime Divertissement pas de deux in the second act. Here Balanchine offers reserve when other might have offered more steps. A diagonal of bourrées with delicate rising arms floats like soft wind. How wise to know that we would want to see it twice! A final endless arc arrests time with beauty. We watch a master extol a lesson in essence over excess. Jacques has just published a book on his incredible story. I’ll have the honor of interviewing him about his career on Tuesday, April 12 at Town Hall. I promise to ask him about the Divertissement pas de deux. I might even ask about the fireflies. Join us if you can. No doubt, you will hear a great deal about the brilliance of George Balanchine.
PNB principal dancers Carla Körbes and Lucien Postlewaite in George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Angela Sterling.