George Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with four suspenseful, spectral chords: a short ascending ladder that signals our arrival to a different world. The curtain rises, and we’re greeted by a single fairy-child, about to pose, one assumes, the centuries-old query: How now, spirit? Whither wander you?
Set to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer overture and incidental music (and a few other of his compositions), Balanchine’s ballet is performed regularly by New York City Ballet. This year’s run opened last Saturday, May 21, to a nearly full house. It was, fittingly, the first sweltering evening of the year. At Lincoln Center, an audience of all ages swayed in the humidity, appearing to be in a dreamlike state itself.
While the production generally follows Shakespeare’s comedy, it recalibrates the weight of the original plot points. The majority of the action occurs in the forested fairy kingdom, brought to life with gorgeous costumes (Karinska), mystical lighting (Mark Stanley), and otherworldly set design (David Hays and Peter Harvey). Act I consists mostly of large ensemble pieces; the show relies less on impressive technique than it does on fantastical world-building. In other words, it’s enough simply to be delighted by the sea of fairies and butterflies who dart around the stage in single-file lines, gesturing toward one another impishly and fluttering their arms like wings.
It is here, in this enchanting forest, that we meet the ballet’s principal players: Oberon, the fairy king, portrayed with strength and passion by Anthony Huxley; his on-again/off-again queen, Titania, acted daintily but purposefully by Unity Phelan; and Puck, Oberon’s lackey and the story’s central mover, played with skill, verve, and sheer power by Harrison Ball. Throughout the show, it is these three dancers who command our attention. They serve less as narrative-driving characters and more as elements around which the rest of the supernatural world takes orbit.
Those familiar with Shakespeare’s original will notice that less attention is given to the play’s real-world characters. For instance, we meet Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius only briefly as they traipse through the woods, just before Puck erroneously administers the magical juice of the “love-in-idleness” flower. Similarly, the scenes featuring Peter Quince’s band of players are clipped; the crew arrives on stage only for Nick Bottom to be immediately turned into an ass (and, in turn, to become the recipient of Titania’s own flowery, drug-induced affection).
The most technically challenging sequences involve Phelan as Titania, who early on performs a pas de deux with her cavalier (Peter Walker). Draped in a silken, baby-pink slip dress and attended to by a loyal female retinue, Phelan expertly completes a series of difficult attitude balances, poised and elegant throughout. That said, she often seems unstable in her extensions; as a pair, she and Walker fail to cultivate much ease with each other.
By contrast, Huxley presents a commanding, stately Oberon, both in his solo sequences and alongside Titania. (This royal pairing prompts the thought that the lack of chemistry between Phelan and Walker may be somewhat intentional.) Huxley is a dancer with power, and he completes his turn sequences with grounded, regal authority.
As in the play, the real heart and charm of the story resides with Puck, who infuses the world with playfulness and light. Much of Ball’s stage time is occupied by sheer acting (larger-than-life facial expressions and ballet mime); on the evening I attended, he moved the audience to laughter. Stanley’s lighting design is particularly striking in the scenes involving Puck, who is cast in a warm spotlight throughout the show. This effect, combined with his rust-colored leotard, makes him appear, fittingly, almost nude.
After a condensed fight scene in which Demetrius and Lysander battle it out for the maidens, Puck rights his errors and makes the matches harmonious: Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, and Oberon and Titania, too. Order is restored, if temporarily, in this chaotic wood.
If the story itself feels a bit disintegrated in this ballet, we’re nonetheless left with a series of beautiful images: the breathtaking Titania dragging donkey-headed Bottom by a leash made of flowers; the two human couples strolling offstage as the men raise their swords in satisfied conquest. The set, the costumes, and the lighting reinforce the mysticism—this world is turquoise and magenta and rose, ripe and obscure at once.
In Act II, we’re transported to civilization, where the duke, Theseus, is to be married to Hippolyta in the royal court. This palatial ballroom is a more classic storybook set, the high ceilings painted like a little girl’s bedroom, with millions of tiny flowers and lavender curtains. In this act, which spans only thirty-two minutes, we are treated to a proper fête: a folk-inflected ensemble followed by another pas de deux. The latter is performed crisply by the two principal divertissement players (Sterling Hyltin and Jovani Furlan), though in comparison to the passion and angst of Titania and Oberon, the technique can suffer from a lack of charge. One begins to wonder if the dignity of court life could ever brook the impulse-driven existence of the lawless, fairy otherworld.
Perhaps sensing this imbalance, at the end Balanchine delivers us back, ever briefly, to the forest. Here we get a final glimpse of the reunited Oberon and Titania, safe in lust in her lair. Dozens of tiny fairies resume their nightly activities, flitting about and looking for mischief. Puck arrives to corral them, and the cast forms one final tableau around its leader.
And then, magic. Those four opening chords strike one last time, and Puck rises off the stage, made weightless by invisible strings. All is still now, save for the fairies’ arms, which undulate softly, like tall grasses being blown in the breeze.