There are many words that could describe George Balanchine’s full-length "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" — captivating, elegant, enchanting. For me, though, “sweet” captures best the essence of this glorious ballet. Even when Balanchine is depicting the power struggle between Titania and Oberon or the romantic tension between Helena and Demetrius, there’s a sweetness that pervades both the movement and the mood.
That sweetness comes, first and foremost, from Mendelssohn’s expansive music, beginning with the overture, which in just a few minutes encapsulates the magical workings of the fairyland whose comings and goings will unfold before us in the following hours. Mendelssohn wrote the score, which includes his famous wedding march, as incidental music for the Shakespearean play and not as an evening-length ballet.
To build a full-length production, Balanchine added other Mendelssohn creations, including the overtures to “Athalie” and “Son and Stranger” and “Symphony No. 9 for Strings.” The result is one of his most seamless meldings of music and movement with a dazzling array of contrasts in speed, emotion, and style.
From Oberon’s astounding scissor jumps to the transcendently beautiful “Divertissement” duet to the fluttering hands of the adorable bugs and butterflies, there is hardly a moment when the movement stops. Balanchine dispenses with much of the silly pantomime that pervades so many story ballets and proves that character can be conveyed and a story told entirely through dance. He draws Oberon’s feistiness, Titania’s haughtiness, Bottom’s ridiculousness and Helena’s desperation in an instant with the flash of a leg, the flick of a hand, a fall to the ground or a series of whiplash turns.
Perhaps more than in any other of his works, Balanchine demonstrates the range of his choreographic inventiveness and theatrical skill. Whether portraying the frantic comings and goings of lovers or the physical embodiment of refined and harmonious love, his steps are surprising and original and perfectly attuned to their musical underpinnings.
One of the greatest treats of "Midsummer" is the number of soloist roles it contains and the chance it gives a company of PNB’s stature to showcase the prodigious skill of its many talented dancers. On opening night, it was hard to say who dazzled the most. Jonathan Porretta was as thrilling as ever as Oberon with his sky-high jumps and technical precision. Carrie Imler was her powerhouse self in the demanding role of Titania, all split leg jumps and whirlwind turns. Josh Spell embodied the impish Puck with his legs-curled-under jumps and exaggerated body language. Carla Körbes was supremely elegant in the exquisite second act “Divertissement” — especially in the delicate use of her arms which, as she leaned against partner Jeffrey Stanton, floated away from her body like wings.
Rachel Foster gracefully flittered in and out as Butterfly while Maria Chapman, Chalnessa Eames, Olivier Wevers and Lucien Postlewaite were sprightly and funny as the confused and confusing lovers Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius. The children who danced as bugs and butterflies were appropriately charming and well up to the demanding steps that Balanchine has given them.
Martin Pakledinaz’ spectacular sets and costumes are an essential part of the charm of this particular production. From the gigantic trees, insects, and frogs that frame the stage to the glittering nighttime sky, Pakledinaz has created a set that provides a beautiful backdrop for the action without overpowering it. And his costumes shine with just the right amount of sparkle, allowing us to see the finest details of Balanchine’s choreography while flowing with his lyrical movement. The PNB orchestra played with its signature richness and the live singers — Christina Siemens, Melissa Plagermann, Maria Mannisto, Sarra Sharif, Linda Strandberg and Stacey Sunde — added a welcome immediacy that recorded voices would have lacked.
With so much to recommend it, there is a singular flaw in this "Midsummer," but it’s one shared by many story ballets. Essentially, the entire story is told in the first act, with the second a pure dance showcase almost entirely disconnected from what’s gone before. However, when the music and dancing are as delicious as in this “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” that’s a flaw easy to forgive and forget.
If you go: Pacific Northwest Ballet’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," through April 17 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St. Tickets $27-165 (half-price student tickets available 90 minutes before show) at the box office, by phone (206-441-2424), or online.