David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; June 3, 5, 2014
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, no other of the company’s ballets covers all bases as successfully as this one. It’s got the lighthearted and eternally popular Shakespeare play as its libretto, Felix Mendelssohn’s glorious music (augmented by Balanchine with additional Mendelssohn 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 treat that New York audiences routinely flock to see 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 buzz around the stage like bees. The young dancers’ performance in Act II was a season highlight; they displayed ability, and dancing intelligence, far beyond their years.
The performance on Tuesday June 3 (the opening night of the ballet’s week-long run and the final week of NYCB’s Spring 2014 season) featured a ‘veteran’ cast, while that on June 5 was filled with role debuts. All dancers performed well – one expects nothing less – but there were several standouts.
On Tuesday, Joaquin De Luz and Maria Kowroski danced Oberon and Titania, and Ask la Cour was Titania’s Cavalier (the person with whom she actually dances). On Thursday, the roles were assumed respectively by Antonio Carmena, Teresa Reichlen, and Russell Janzen. Mr. De Luz has always been particularly impressive when he dances on his own, and his performance 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 missed placement. But compared to Ms. Reichlen, her performance was not as interesting, and much more austere. Unless there’s some reason to do it, Ms. Kowroski rarely smiles. Ms. Reichlen provided a fine technical performance, although it was not as ‘perfect’ as Ms. Kowroski’s. But her portrayal added a quality of personality that Ms. Kowroski’s lacked. She was appropriately stern in her dealings with Oberon, but she 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.
Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius were played, respectively, by Rebecca Krohn, Sterling Hyltin, Robert Fairchild, and Amar Ramasar on Tuesday; and by Faye Arthur, Ashley Laracey, Jared Angle, and Mr. la Cour on Thursday. 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 switch allegiances to Helena. The more experienced 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, with respect to her comic timing in general and particularly in her solo toward the end of Act I, was brilliant. Whatever she dances she does so with an unmatched quality of excellence. Hermia may have been a relative (and literal) walk in the park for her, but her performance was fabulous. In the same role, 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.
Hippolyta and Theseus were danced by Savannah Lowery and Joshua Thew on Tuesday, and by Ashly Isaacs (in a role debut) and Justin Peck on Thursday. Ms. Lowery is an extraordinarily powerful dancer, and her command was extraordinary as well. She was so dominating that there appeared little for Mr. Thew to do. But it was a one-dimensional portrayal; she was more Amazon than human. Ms. Isaacs’s performance had more character. ‘She was a more human presence, and as a result her portrayal was more effective (and Theseus’s marriage proposal more comprehensible). However, as she’s not as strong as Ms. Lowery, she needed more partnering support – and got it from Mr. Peck. One knows at this point that he is an accomplished young choreographer, but one tends to forget that he’s also a highly competent partner, who provided support for Ms. Isaacs (for example, by keeping her centered when she began to list during turns) when she needed it.
The role of ‘Butterfly’ was danced by Erica Pereira on Tuesday and, in a role debut, by Lauren Lovette on Thursday. It’s not a particularly meaty role, requiring only quicksilver movement and engaging stage personalities. Each delivered fine portrayals, but Ms. Lovette’s performance provided more character nuance and phrasing. 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 that Balanchine grafted onto the story, 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’s technique was flawless, as it usually is – but she added a degree of enthusiasm to her role that Ms. Fairchild, who didn’t smile until the pas de deux was nearly over, did not. Mr. Finlay, recently back from a lengthy period of injury recuperation, was a remarkable partner and dominating stage presence of his own. His 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. And 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” has now ended, as has 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. As I’ve observed previously, its young principals (Ms. Hyltin, Ms. Reichlin, Tiler Peck, and Robert Fairchild, among others) have had a remarkable year; and among the soloists, and members of the corps, Ms. Laracey, Ms. Lovette, and Ms. Isaacs continue to impress, and Mr. Janzen’s development (particularly when partnering Ms. Reichlen) has been noteworthy.
The schedule for NYCB’s 2014-5 season is rich with the Balanchine/Robbins legacy masterpieces, as well as the usual complement of new ballet offerings. Consequently, at least on paper, it promises to be significantly more exciting and rewarding for a viewer than the 2013-4 season. And it also appears that Peter Martins, NYCB’s Ballet Master in Chief, may be leaning toward offering more full-length (or close to it) audience-friendly productions of ‘story ballets’ in addition to the usual repertory evenings. Although it may be anathema to purists, the change is a welcome one, particularly for the casting (and acting) opportunities it provides for NYCB’s dancers, and if it encourages ticket sales. And perhaps the NYCB premiere of Mr. Martins’ “La Sylphide”, signals an effort to broaden performance offerings in the future to include new interpretations of classic ballets. Maybe there really will be a NYCB “Giselle” sometime down the road, as I fantasized a few seasons ago. It may be far down the road – and located in a Nordic village among the fjords – but it would be an interesting development.