“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
June 8, 2012
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Popkin
As New York City Ballet came to the final notes of its season, two performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” struck different chords. The opening night, with Maria Kowroski and Joaquin de Luz as Titania and Oberon, Daniel Ulbricht as Puck, and Wendy Whelan heading the second act divertissement, sent you out of the theater with feelings of nostalgia and pathos. On Friday the comedy broadened and the laughs took over when Kowroski repeated Titania, but with a different cast including Andrew Veyette as Oberon and Sean Suozzi as Puck. Two important debuts – Tiler Peck in the divertissement and Chase Finlay as Lysander – provided extra interest on Friday but didn’t change the tone.
On opening night, De Luz’s Oberon was also effortless and his character clear. Although he’s light for the Villella scherzo (you’d swear that de Luz’s heels never touched the floor once), he danced with the clearest lines, broke his brisé jumps elegantly at the waist, and finished his turns with ease. Beats were tossed off as grace notes and nothing was forced. His interchanges with Ulbricht’s Puck were good-natured; with Titania, benevolence and mischief underlay his resolve to teach her a lesson. Ulbricht - a natural ham and a powerhouse dancer – also maintained a light touch. The practical jokes never seemed malicious.
In contrast, Veyette’s Oberon on Friday was dramatically blank. Though he finished the elements of his choreography, the dance picture was muddy. He’s relaxed considerably over the past few years and opened in his upper body, but still gave the impression of fighting himself. He’d finish a pair of beats in the air but the landing and transition to the next jump would look like martial arts. The change in the role’s physical tone changed the emotional tone of the whole performance; Suozzi’s Puck was then also largely slapstick. Exaggerating his postures and making big facial expressions (“Oi vey,” you thought, when Puck discovered the mistake he’d made administering the love potion), Suozzi’s acting bordered on Larry in “The Three Stooges. ” Savannah Lowery’s Hippolyta was also punchy on Friday in contrast to Teresa Reichlen on Tuesday. Hippolyta leads the wedding march in Act 2 and Reichlen’s quiet restraint in the role anchored the act squarely in the classical realm.
The pas de deux between Titania and Bottom is the emotional climax of the first act and was poignant when danced Tuesday by Adrian Danchig-Waring and Kowroski. First looking down on Titania (draped over his arm) and then back up at the audience, Danchig-Waring got the timing and posture right, so that the moment conveyed both comedy and pathos. On the surface you laughed at the classical ballerina throwing herself at an ass; but Danchig-Waring’s management of the character also made you feel for the lowly animal basking in the sunshine of radiant love, torn between his appetite for hay and desire for Titania. You can’t escape your nature, the ballet seemed to say. Remembering that Balanchine cast Suzanne Farrell in this from her teens, you also sensed the pain of an ageing man's passionate love for a very young woman.
Taylor Stanley’s performance Friday in this same pas de deux was cumulatively funny but emotionally crude, making the audience laugh at the right places, but without the impulse to cry. When the duet is not just comic but also moving, it makes the second act divertissement read as consolation - in the form of high classical art – for the inescapable weight of our nature. The lovers’ quarrels and mistakes in Act 1 having been resolved, Balanchine’s classicism transports us to an empyrean world.
Whelan was sublimely elevated in this great pas de deux on opening night, with Jared Angle partnering her. Moving quietly, her body conveyed the singing lines of the choreography by dancing it big but with absolute economy of movement. Like the delicately emotional melody in the strings, the choreography was pregnant with meaning. In a pair of supported arabesques, first to one side and then the other, where Angle drew her arm across her body to create muscular tension across her back, the simple presentation of the line of her shoulders in effacée created elevated poetry against the long periods of the music. Jumps softly landed on the floor and finished with deeply scalloped poses in the arms. The two diagonals of quiet bourrées across the stage, with both dancers pushing their arms upwards, made you hold your breath until her final fall across Angle’s arm.
Peck’s debut in this same role on Friday, with Tyler Angle, was strong yet unfinished. You wanted to see this danced with more feeling for the music and larger physical amplitude. Where Whelan was able to take her line and – using an analogy from painting – make it Matisse-like and flowing, Peck, who is in her early twenties, seemed to want to stay upright or go off balance without enough intermediate territory; she was either classical like Fragonard or Rembrandt, or jazzy like Picasso. Something bigger shaped and more flowing was needed and especially something with more feeling for the music. It didn’t help that guest conductor David Wroe made the orchestra sound dull and muddy throughout Friday’s performance, showing little instinct for how his music affected what was happening on stage. On Tuesday the company’s new music director, Andrews Sill, had things brilliantly on key and set the tempi perfectly for the dancers. The drama and the dancers’ needs, not the orchestra’s, were paramount. Sill is a protégé of the late Hugo Fiorato (who in turn was concert master at City Ballet in its formative years) and provides a direct line back to Robert Irving, who first conducted this ballet.
In Friday’s other important debut, Finlay showed a surprising amount of personality as Lysander in Act 1, but his partnering of Abi Stafford was very weak. The couple never seemed to know where each other’s hands or arms would be, and in one frightening moment in Act 2, during what was supposed to be a series of supported pirouettes, he let Stafford get away from him and sent her spinning downstage alone.
But there was more to celebrate, and mention has to be made of Janie Taylor’s wonderful performance as Helena on opening night. No one’s been as good in this role since Carla Körbes left the company. Robert Fairchild and Amar Ramasar were also strong as Lysander and Demetrius in this same performance. The young corps de ballet was brilliant throughout the entire week’s run of the ballet, and a number of the younger dancers showed a jump in maturity at the end of the spring. Emily Kikta and Shoshana Rosenfield (among Titania’s retinue), Sarah Villwock (one of the butterflies), David Prottas and Andrew Scordato (in the divertissement) all caught the eye as the work flowed swiftly past. The thirty-three children in the production were also superb and their ballet mistresses – Garielle Whittle and Dena Abergel – deserve medals. The choreography for the children – butterflies, bugs and attendants for Titania and Oberon – is crucial to the ballet’s impression, making “Midsummer” a bookend to “The Nutcracker” in Balanchine’s employment of large casts of children in his opus, as well as in the company’s programming from November through high spring this dance year.
Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy of New York City Ballet: Maria Kowroski and Adrian Danchig-Waring as Titania and Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”