Nearly four centuries lie between the writing of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1595 and the creation of George Balanchine’s ballet in 1962 but despite the passage of time, the Bard’s quintessential romantic comedy remains the perfect antidote to the winter blues in the capable hands of Roy Kaiser and Pennsylvania Ballet.
This is due, in no small part, to the strength of the company’s lesser known dancers. Principals Jermel Johnson and Julie Diana were majestic as Oberon and Tatiana, King and Queen of the fairies, but Alexander Peters was fabulous as the impish Puck. His exaggerated tiptoes and hapless attempts to rectify the mix-up of the forest’s unsuspecting lovers had the audience in stitches. He’d leap into the wings, arms raised and knees nearly beating against his chest, only to reappear seconds later from the other side of the stage to continue weaving his web of confusion.
Also notable was the performance of Daniel Cooper as the bumbling Bottom-turned-donkey. His duet with Diana was physical comedy at its best; indeed, there are few things sillier than a beautiful ballerina besotted with a clumsy barnyard creature and his understated, Eeyore-like gestures provided the perfect juxtaposition to Diana’s dainty footwork.
Most remarkable, however, were the more than 20 students from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet who appeared as Oberon’s butterflies and fairies. Their involvement in the production was just right: not too much, so as to distract from the performances of Amy Aldridge, Abigail Mentzer, Jonathon Stiles and Ian Hussey, but just enough to endow the evening with a special something: the effervescent enthusiasm of young hopefuls, and well-trained hopefuls at that.
In whimsical wings, wigs and antennae they circled the stage, fluttering their hands like the wings of two dozen hummingbirds. Returning in the Second Act, they were both precise in their movements and precious in their final pose, each holding a tiny flashlight to transform the stage into a magical fairyland of sprightly fireflies.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first evening-length ballet that George Balanchine choreographed in America. For the score, he chose the work of Felix Mendelssohn, including compositions from 1826 and 1843 that were created for the play, in addition to several other selections that were not, including a portion of the composer’s Symphony #9.
To see the PA Ballet production, you wouldn’t know that the score had been pieced together. The only hint is the rather lengthy triple wedding that opened the Second Act. Although the familiar wedding march was part of Mendelssohn’s original composition, the nuptials took just a bit too long and the subsequent Divertissement, featuring Zachary Hench and Lauren Fadeley, seemed to come from nowhere. Nonetheless, both dancers smiled after completing their slightly shaky pas de deux and the audience shared in their joy.
No discussion of PA Ballet’s latest would be complete, however, without a mention of the set and costumes, both designed by Martin Pakledinaz. There were iridescent spider webs, gigantic garlands of pink roses, eerie black trees and of course dozens upon dozens of fairy wings. Hippolyta Queen of the Amazons is especially impressive in her huntress garb and the color-coded gowns of Helena and Hermia make the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s multi-faceted plot easy to follow. Between PA Ballet’s precise execution, the brilliant, larger-than-life sets and the whimsical nods of Balanchine’s choreography, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a delight, perfect for the entire family to enjoy.
Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist. She holds an MA in Dance Anthropology and is also the co-founder of The Lady Hoofers, Philadelphia’s only all-female tap company. Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.