Moonbeams

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 24, 2008

Taking his structural cue from The Nutcracker, Balanchine devotes the hour-long first act to Shakespeare’s story and the half-hour second act to the nuptial rites, with a formal wedding march and divertissement and pas de deux preferred to “Pyramus and Thisby.” It’s all set in a forest of ancient, skyscraping trees decorated by turns with a giant tree frog and mushrooms, giant musk roses, and a long-legged spinner and her web. The children, as disciplined as necessary and no more, are as delightful as you’d expect; at the Wang they invariably received the loudest applause. (Balanchine made no bones about putting friends and relations in theater seats.) Shakespeare’s hempen homespuns are on barely long enough to be sent scurrying through bog and brake by Bottom’s ass; Hippolyta and her silver bow bound through the Acheron-shrouded Athenian wood in a blur of jetés and fouettés, but she and Theseus (they don’t show up together till the end) are otherwise just ceremonial. The four mortal lovers are but forms in wax; it’s up to the dancers to imprint them.

Balanchine’s emotional focus is on Oberon and Titania: she has a duet with her “Cavalier” (a Balanchine invention who does not reappear) set to Mendelssohn’s Athalia Overture and he follows with a volley of brisés volés and beats as gossamer as Mendelssohn’s Scherzo. Yet whereas both Ashton and Wells have Oberon and Titania kiss and make up to the humblebee honey bag of Mendelssohn’s Nocturne, Balanchine lavishes this fairy song on Titania and Bottom. There’s no sex in their hopping and gamboling; Bottom is as enamored of provender as he is of petting, and when Titania takes to her snail-shell bed, he curls up at her feet and not in her arms. And Puck, post–Arthur Mitchell at least, is more sprite (Walter Terry in the New York Herald Tribune described him as “Mercury subjected to a hotfoot”) than satyr. Balanchine reserves the intertwining of ivy and elm for act two and the divertissement couple’s pas de deux, which he set to the Andante from Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 9. The dance is as slow-footed and melodious as Theseus’s Spartan-bred hounds; Arlene Croce called its cantilena line “as perishable as anything in Divertimento No. 15.”

Wells’s enjoyable version played to the company’s strengths: good technique and better acting. (Toward the end Puck does a double take when he tries to direct Hermia and Helena and discovers he can bamboozle boys but not girls.) Balanchine’s genius is released through the precise execution of classic steps that have to look simple even when they’re not. Balanchine’s Oberon, who was choreographed on Edward Villella, must hop as light as bird from briar; Reyneris Reyes and John Lam are not entirely purged of mortal grossness, though you can’t fault their effort. (To judge by Arlene Croce’s remarks on NYCB’s post-Balanchine productions and by the 1999 Pacific Northwest Ballet DVD of this work, they’re not alone.) Karine Seneca is the most sensual of the three Titanias, Tai Jimenez the most feminine, Lorna Feijóo the most tomboyish. Each takes a doting delight in fanning the moonbeams from her Bottom’s lodestar eyes, but that doesn’t preclude a decided shake of the head when he begs for the tender shoots she’s holding behind her back. Feijóo looks at her donkey as if he were Eeyore; Jimenez’s is Prince Charming, Seneca’s Elvis. Boyko Dossev is an earthy, lusty Bottom; Gabor Kapin is more innocent and endearing — when he nuzzles Titania’s breast and his head goes up in wonder, you might well think he’s seen what no man has heard.

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  Topics: Dance , Entertainment, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Arlene Croce,  More more >
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