A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Felix Mendelssohn (Overture and incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21 and 61, 1826, 1843; Overtures to Athalie, Op. 74, 1845; and The Fair Melusine, Op. 32, 1833; The First Walpurgis Night, Op. 60; Symphony No. 9 for Strings [first three movements], 1823; Overture to Son and Stranger, Op. 89, 1829
George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust
Scenic & Costume Design
Randall G. Chiarelli
January 17, 1962; New York City Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere
May 16, 1985; new production: May 27, 1997
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 1997 redesign of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was made possible by PONCHO, Susan & Jeffrey Brotman, Kreielsheimer Foundation, The Ackerley Group, The Allen Foundation for the Arts, SAFECO, Kayla Skinner, Mr. & Mrs. Roland M. Trafton, and Arlene A. Wright.
George Balanchine created A Midsummer Night’s Dream for New York City Ballet in 1962. The choreographer’s fondness for Shakespeare’s fanciful tale of love’s delusions and mishaps dated from boyhood when he had performed as an elf in a St. Petersburg production of the play. As an adult he still remembered many lines (in Russian) and loved to quote them, especially those enchanting ones of Oberon that begin, “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, / Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows… “But Balanchine’s desire to bring this favorite theater piece to the ballet stage waited more than twenty years for fulfillment while he searched for music with which to expand Mendelssohn’s original score to suitable length.
Although Balanchine is famous for his rejection of the evening-long story ballet tradition that dominated the 19th century, he was not, in fact, opposed to story ballets per se, only to their excesses and excrescences. In Midsummer, which dance writer Anita Finkel has called “possibly the greatest narrative ballet of all time,” he demonstrated brilliantly that the pace of a story ballet can be fleet rather than ponderous, that mime can be delicate and exquisitely to the point, and that the tale can be told almost entirely through dance.
Still, Balanchine said that “it is really impossible to dance Shakespeare,” and that the primary inspiration for his ballet was Mendelssohn’s lush music. Nevertheless, of all Shakespeare’s plays, this one perhaps lends itself most naturally to dance. Indeed, Shakespeare critic Enid Welsford has described Midsummer as “sound and movement turned to poetry.” Certainly, the airy, delicate voices of the fairy kingdom translate readily into balletic magic, and the frantic comings and goings of the mismatched lovers make for delicious choreographic activity.
Perhaps most inspired is Balanchine’s sustained employment of ballet’s central metaphor of love—the pas de deux—to embody the play’s subtle insights into the many permutations of the love relationship. The cloying embraces of Hermia and Lysander, the distraught pleadings of Helena with Demetrius, the thrashing resistance of Hermia to Demetrius and of Helena to Lysander—all are distortions of the ideal partnership between lovers, traditionally conveyed by the ballerina and premier danseur. This human game of power is also played out in the fairy realm where, tellingly, the disputing spouses Titania and Oberon never dance together but instead perform self-celebratory solos for their admiring retinues. When Titania does condescend to take a partner, it is either the non-descript cavalier, who functions more as prop than peer, or, in the work’s most charming episode, an artless ass. Only in Act II, which is pure dance, do the battles and imbalances, the self-indulgences and self-deceptions give way to a genuine dance partnership. In the magnificent Divertissement pas de deux which crowns the wedding festivities, competition has no place, and restraint, mutuality and trust define the mature ideal of love.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s repertory since 1985. In 1997, with the approval of The George Balanchine Trust, PNB commissioned set and costume designer Martin Pakledinaz to re-design the entire production—a “first” for a Balanchine story ballet. Staged by PNB Founding Artistic Director Francia Russell, with every step, movement and gesture as Balanchine intended, this freshly-designed Midsummer, which PNB premiered in Seattle in May 1997, brings the choreographer’s dramatic ideas to life scenically as never before.
PNB has performed its production of Midsummer to great acclaim at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 1998 and at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London in February 1999, where the production was filmed by the BBC and subsequently released on DVD.
Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, London Symphony/André Previn, EMI Classics 471632A
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pacific Northwest Ballet (BBC/Opus Arte, 1999)
Notes by Jeanie Thomas; edited by Doug Fullington, 2007.
A forest near Athens, one Midsummer Eve
The First Act takes place in a forest near the duke’s palace. Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, quarrel over the changeling child they both want. Oberon orders Puck to bring the flower pierced by Cupid’s arrow (which causes anyone coming under its influence to fall in love with the first person the eyes behold) and, while Titania is asleep and unknowing, he casts the flower’s spell over her.
Meanwhile, Helena, wandering in the woods, meets Demetrius, whom she loves but who does not love her. Demetrius rejects her and goes his way. Oberon watches and tells Puck to use the flower on Demetrius that he may return Helena’s affection.
Another couple, Hermia and Lysander, very much in love, are also wandering in the forest. They become separated. Puck, eager to carry out Oberon’s orders, mistakenly anoints Lysander. Helena appears, and Lysander, under the flower’s spell, at once and to her amazement tells her how much he loves her.
Hermia now returns. She is astonished and then dismayed to see Lysander paying attention only to Helena. Puck manages to bring Demetrius, too, under the flower’s spell, much to the delight of Helena, who doesn’t care for Lysander at all.
Demetrius and Lysander, now both in love with Helena, begin to quarrel over her. Puck, at Oberon’s order, has separated Bottom, a weaver, from his companions and transformed his head into that of an ass and placed him at the sleeping Titania’s feet. Awakening, Titania sees Bottom, thinks him fair, and pays him close and loving attention. At last Oberon, his anger over, has Bottom sent away and releases Titania from her spell.
Hermia now gets no attention, Helena too much. The men, completely at odds, quarrel seriously and begin to fight. Puck, by his magic, causes them to separate, lose one another and wander apart in the forest until, exhausted, they fall asleep, with Puck arranging for Helena to fall asleep beside Demetrius and Lysander (his spell removed) by Hermia.
The Duke and Hippolyta discover the lovers asleep in the forest, awaken them, find their differences resolved and proclaim a triple wedding for themselves and the two couples.
At the Court of Theseus
The Second Act opens in the Duke’s palace with parades, dancing, and divertissements in honor of the newly married couples. When the celebrations are over and the mortals retire, we return to the demesne of Oberon and Titania, who are now reunited and at peace. And at last, Puck, having put order into disorder, sweeps away the remnants of the night’s doings. The fireflies twinkle in the night and reclaim the forest.
Reprinted from 101 Stories of the Great Ballets by George Balanchine and Francis Mason.