Balanchine’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’: PNB’s Serial Seducer (Review)

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Kiyon Gaines as Bottom and principal dancer Carrie Imler as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Angela Sterling

It’s a different Dream every night at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of the Balanchine work–the casting options must be driving balletomanes wild. Midsummer Night’s Dream (through April 17; tickets) has just one more weekend ahead of it at McCaw Hall and then, like so many dreams, it’ll be gone.

With eight dancers leaving PNB at the end of this season, the stakes are high. So are the leaps. Of course you have to see Olivier Wevers and Kaori Nakamura in the Divertissement–but then there’s Carla Körbes and Jeffrey Stanton, too! How to choose between Postlewaite, Porretta, or Griffiths as Oberon?

If it seems like Balanchine’s Dream was “just” here–it was, in 2008–you really can’t fault PNB for bringing it back. For one, the iconic production is gorgeous and blessed with an eternal youth. The scenic and costume design by Martin Pakledinaz is superb. The set has a pop-up book aesthetic that nonetheless contains enough reality (in the right light, from Randall G. Chiarelli) so that the forest is both moon-dappled, forbidding, and wild. Huge flowers and roses overhang the fairy kingdom, and an outsized frog lurks above Oberon and Puck’s heads. That’s not getting into the costumes–Oberon and Titania’s fabulous trains, Helena and Hermia’s long tutus, which emphasize the line of their arabesques. Knowing what I was in for, I rented opera glasses in the lobby ($5) to better take in the details.

For two, you have Francia Russell to restage it. And for three, you have Allan Dameron in the pit, leading the orchestra through Felix Mendlessohn’s lush, eerie, and joyful score. Over on The Gathering Note, Richard Campbell says, “the orchestra has to be one of the best in the country,” and from an early chord, a whistling treble atop thrumming bass, you hear an extraordinary clarity out of the pit.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Ariana Lallone as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Angela Sterling

In Balanchine’s hands, Shakespeare’s midsummer entertainment becomes an exploration of the attitudes and movements of love and desire, from the pride and possessiveness that distances fairy king Oberon and his queen Titania, to the courtly reserve of Theseus contrasted with fierce self-sufficiency of Hippolyta, and the muddled-up amours of Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius.

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Josh Spell as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Angela Sterling

I saw Lucien Postlewaite as Oberon–Postlewaite makes for a young fairy king, which works in his favor so far as preternatural youth and fairies go, but it will be a while before the role looks lived in. Postlewaite can soar above the stage, hanging there, dismissively touching down, but he briefly lost his footing after a tricky series, and unintentionally injected an extra thrill into his performance. He was assisted by Jonathan Porretta as Puck, who embodied a startling energy, his legs kicking as if galvanized by electric shock, and always communicated a cocksure insouciance.

Postlewaite’s Titania was Carla Körbes, who–perhaps it isn’t in her–was less of a preening narcissist than you sometimes see. Körbes gave her steps a martial precision, knees sharply up, as she danced with her Cavalier (Seth Orza), and barely deigned to notice him. Her Titania is locked up in regimented feeling. When Körbes melts, then, for the donkey-headed Bottom, it feels like summer has arrived, if somewhat crazily. My night’s Bottom was Ezra Thomson (which, go ahead, laugh! Let it out!), who made Pakledinaz’s donkey mask into a living thing: woebegone, nonplussed, drawn to the scent of fresh hay, and (peering down into Titania’s decolletage) randy.

This isn’t a question of talent, so much as where your attention settles, but for me the evening held two revelations: Lesley Rausch as Hermia, and Olivier Wevers and Kaori Nakamura’s Divertissement. Rausch’s line unspooled like silk as she sought to gain Lysander’s (Jerome Tisserand) attention, while ducking Jeffrey Stanton’s overly persistent Demetrius. But she also, after Puck has dosed everyone with a magic flower, wandered lost, slipping into an arms-outstretched sleepwalker’s trance and jolting awake as if from a nightmare. It’s difficult to play “lost” onstage, because it’s the one thing you can never be, as a performer, but Rausch’s pained distraction looked real, even from the first balcony.

With Wevers and Nakamura, the whole auditorium knew we were watching something unfold. The Divertissement comes in Act II, which is devoted to dance, rather than story. Everything wrapped up, Balanchine comes forth with a coda that illustrates that “competition has no place, and restraint, mutuality and trust define the mature ideal of love.” PNB’s Peter Boal describes it like so:

Here Balanchine offers reserve when other might have offered more steps. A diagonal of bourrées with delicate rising arms floats like soft wind. How wise to know that we would want to see it twice! A final endless arc arrests time with beauty.

Nakamura was both weightless and deliberate, rotating slowly, elegantly in her series of pirouettes as if she had worked out a new deal with gravity and the coefficient of friction. Wevers lightly guided, adjusted, turned–always anticipating. And then there came that impossible fall and catch, her arms back, back…. You didn’t need to know the first thing about dance to feel that moment run up your spine, but having seen it, you left the hall clutching an honorary degree.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Angela Sterling