Boston Ballet illumines George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a dizzy dance of a drama, meandering mystifyingly between May Eve and Midsummer Eve under a moon that goes from new to full swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow. Over here, you have a citizen comedy on the hot (in 1595) topic of whether a father has the right to choose his daughter’s husband, complete with mix-and-match swains whose troth is brief as lightning in the collied night. Over there, you have a merry band of May Game mummers whose rehearsal antics are even funnier than those of Shakespeare in Love. Here, there, and everywhere hover the play’s presiding Summer King and Queen, Oberon and Titania (often doubling as their mortal counterparts, Theseus and Hippolyta), fairy powerful but just as wrangling in love. And girdling the Earth in a mere 40 minutes is hobgoblin Puck, who’ll make an ass out of you if you don’t look sharp. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” he chortles, but for all that Oberon diddles Titania out of the coveted changeling page, you might wonder (along with Peter Brook in his Royal Shakespeare production of 1970 and Michael Hoffman in his 1999 film) what she and Bottom are up to in her flowery bower during the long stretch of act three scene two. For Bottom it was a most rare vision: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen . . . what my dream was.” Synæsthesia as a metaphor for transcendent sex?
Well, Bottom may be translated, but Midsummer hasn’t managed to hoof it as neatly as Shakespeare’s concurrent play about paternal prerogative, Romeo and Juliet. The Bard’s star-crossed lovers are blessed with Sergei Prokofiev’s darkly exalted 1936 ballet score; Midsummer has had to make do with the scant hour of incidental music that Felix Mendelssohn completed for Prussian emperor Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1843. In 1962, having scoured Mendelssohn’s œuvre for music with which to flesh out that score, George Balanchine created a 90-minute Midsummer Night’s Dream ballet full of elvish and insect children. (He himself played a bug in a St. Petersburg production of Shakespeare’s play when he was eight.) Two years later, Sir Frederick Ashton made The Dream, a 55-minute work using just the Midsummer music that, with no children, is more camp than cute. In 1986, adding Mendelssohn’s Die schöne Melusine Overture, then associate artistic director Bruce Wells choreographed a 70-minute Midsummer Night’s Dream for Boston Ballet whose tutelary spirits were its fireflies and its Puck. Boston audiences found little to reprehend: the work was reprised in 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2001. Now the company is “graduating” to the more demanding Balanchine version, which is being staged by former New York City Ballet principal (and former Clara in Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker) Sandra Jennings. Opening night, the moon was barely new, but through the weekend it began to fill and the hawthorn buds to bloom.
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