New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
June 3, 5, 2014
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
-- by Jerry Hochman
If there’s a more beloved ballet than George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I don’t know it. For all of the classic and exquisite ballets in New York City Ballet’s repertory, and even though it’s not on the same level of accomplishment as others, no other NYCB ballet covers all bases as successfully as this one. It’s got the lighthearted and eternally popular Shakespeare play as it’s libretto, Felix Mendelsohn’s glorious music (augmented by Balanchine with additional Mendelsohn compositions), and it has the ‘ahhhh’ factor. It tickles and at the same time warms the heart of anyone who has one. And as long as NYCB doesn’t try to challenge nature and schedule it in the winter, which it did a few years ago, it’s a springtime summer treat that New York audiences flock to in droves.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” may not be on the same ‘masterpiece’ level as certain other Balanchine works, but it’s so delightfully and consistently entertaining that it’s ranking on the masterpiece scale doesn’t matter in the least. You get some stellar performances, two ballets for the price of one (the familiar story, which his largely confined to Act I, and a ballet within the ballet that forms the heart of Act II and could just as easily have been a standalone plotless ballet), and in both acts you get students from the School of American Ballet as butterflies and fairies who buzzed around the stage like bees. These young dancers’ performances in Act II was a season highlight; they displayed ability, and dancing intelligence, far beyond their years.
The two performances I saw featured a ‘veteran’ cast on the opening night of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” week-long run, the final week of NYCB’s Spring 2014 season, and a cast filled with role debuts last night. All dancers performed well – one expects nothing less – but several performances stood out.
On Tuesday, Joaquin De Luz and Maria Kowroski were Oberon and Titania, and Ask la Cour was Titania’s Cavalier (the person with whom Titania actually dances); these roles were assumed respectively by Antonio Carmena, Teresa Reichlen, and Russell Janzen last night. Mr. De Luz has always been impressive when he dances on his own, and his performance Tuesday was one of his best. Mr. Carmena did a fine job as well, executing Oberon’s quicksilver steps in Act I at the same breakneck speed and clarity. But Mr. De Luz was a commanding Oberon, both when he was dancing solo, and in his interactions with Titania and Puck. He was a magnificent fairy king. Mr. Carmena wasn’t nearly as strong a presence.
The tables turned with respect to Titania and her Cavalier. Ms. Kowroski always executes superbly – there’s never a misstep or placement. But compared to Ms. Reichlen, her performance was not as interesting, and much more austere. Ms. Reichlen provided a fine technical performance, although it was not as ‘perfect’ as Ms. Kowroski’s. But Ms. Reichlen’s portrayal added a quality of personality that Ms. Kowroski’s lacked. She was appropriately stern in her dealings with Oberon, but Ms. Reichlen enjoyed being a fairy queen, and it showed. She was regal, but not imperious. And as I’ve previously observed, she and Mr. Janzen have a wonderful stage relationship. He’s another of NYCB’s fine partners, and Ms. Reichlen obviously trusts him, and is comfortable to finally find someone to partner her who’s taller than she is. Seeing Ms. Reichlen smile, appropriately, and look comfortable and radiantly happy, made her Titania the more successful portrayal.
Comparing the performances of Daniel Ulbricht on Tuesday with that of Troy Schumacher on Thursday is not really fair – Mr. Ulbricht has been dancing this role brilliantly for years, and last night was Mr. Schumacher’s role debut. Both danced their roles this week with appropriate exuberance and comic flair. But to my eye, Mr. Ulbricht’s performance lacked its usual ‘zing’ – he didn’t move quite as fast as I’ve seen previously. Perhaps he’s becoming more human. But his characterization had the comic flair it always does: he’s a puppy dog of a Puck. Mr. Schumacher debut was a memorable one – he doesn’t quite have the comically engaging personality that Mr. Ulbricht does, but that will improve over time. His execution, however, was exhilarating, with his legs moving like the locomotive wheel of a train traveling at top speed. The only significant flaw in his performance was not his fault – in the last image Puck is lifted off the stage, but the apparatus didn’t work, and Mr. Schumacher remained stage-bound. It’s a glorious image, and it was an unfortunate development, but he handled the glitch well.
For the roles of Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius were played, respectively, by Rebecca Krohn, Sterling Hyltin, Robert Fairchild, and Amar Ramasar on Tuesday; and last night by Faye Arthur, Ashley Laracey, Jared Angle, and Mr. la Cour. (For those who may not remember: Helena loves Demetrius; Demetrius loves Hermia; and Hermia and Lysander love each other – until Puck screws up and makes Lysander love Helena.) The more experience cast on Tuesday delivered the more fully-realized performance – and one hasn’t lived until one has seen Mr. Fairchild wearing a blond ‘page boy’ wig. (Remember the movie “Prince Valiant”? The one from 1954? Probably not. But if you do – imagine Mr. Fairchild looking like the very young Robert Wagner, except his hair is blond and a little longer, and you get the idea.) Ms. Hyltin’s portrayal, particularly in her solo toward the end of Act I and with respect to her comic timing in general, was brilliant. Whatever Ms. Hyltin dances she dances with an unmatched quality of excellence. Hermia may have been a relative walk in the park for her, but her performance was fabulous. In the same role last night, Ms. Laracey’s portrayal was top notch – only some minor timing differences and character nuances that were not quite yet at Ms. Hyltin’s level. It was another superb role debut for Ms. Laracey, whose ability in all respects (execution, characterization, presence) has exploded since her promotion to soloist last year.
As Hippolyta and Theseus, Savannah Lowery and Joshua Thew danced these roles on Tuesday, and Ashly Isaacs, in a role debut, and Justin Peck did the same last night. Ms. Lowery is an extraordinarily strong dancer, and her command was extraordinary. She was so powerful, and dominating, that there seemed little for Mr. Thew to do. But Ms. Isaacs’s performance, though not as powerful, had more character – she was more human. I enjoyed seeing her portrayal more. But, as she’s not as strong as Ms. Lowery, Ms. Isaacs needed more partnering support – and got it from Mr. Peck. One knows at this point that Mr. Peck is an accomplished young choreographer, but one tends to forget that he’s also a highly competent partner, who provided support for Ms. Isaacs (e.g., he kept her centered if she began to list during turns) when she needed it.
The role of ‘Butterfly’ was danced by Erica Pereira and, in a role debut, but Lauren Lovette last night. The role is not a particularly meaty one, requiring only quicksilver movement and engaging stage personalities, which both dancers delivered. Ms. Lovette’s performance provided more character nuance and phrasing, but they were fine portrayals. (Ms. Lovette, as I’ve previously observed, has the stage presence that enables her to span ‘types’. As I watched her dance, it crossed my mind that she’d make a wonderful Titania – a role one might not consider in the same breath as Butterfly.)
In the pas de deux, the difference between the cast on Tuesday, Megan Fairchild and Mr. Angle, and last night’s performance by Ashley Bouder and Chase Finlay, in role debuts, was significant. The execution on Tuesday was adequate, but Thursday’s performance was scintillating. Ms. Bouder lent a degree of enthusiasm to her role that Ms. Fairchild, who didn’t smile until the pa de deux was nearly over, did not. And her technique was flawless – it was as if she was hardly working. Mr. Finlay, recently back from a lengthy period of injury recuperation, was a remarkable partner and stage presence of his own. (Mr. Finlay’s comfort level and command was such that at one point, when his hat loosened and threatened to fall off, he grabbed it, tossed it into the wings, and continued his partnering without missing a beat. He did it with such panache that it looked like part of the choreography.) The two of them worked very well together.
NYCB’s run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will end on Sunday, as will its 2014 season. Although the season has not been as exciting as others choreographically (except for Mr. Peck’s new ballet), it was another fabulous year for NYCB’s dancers. In particular, both Ms. Laracey and Ms. Lovette continue to impress, and in the performances I’ve seen, the dancing by Ms. Isaacs and Mr. Janzen (particularly when partnering Ms. Reichlen) has been noteworthy. And although it may be anathema to purists, NYCB’s 2015 season is not only rich with the Balanchine/Robbins legacy masterpieces and the usual complement of new ballet offerings, but it promises several full-length ballets – including the return of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” next spring. Management appears to be leaning more and more toward offering these audience-friendly productions in addition to its usual repertory evenings. The change is a welcome one – and if nothing else, the casting opportunities it provides are intriguing.