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Flash Review 2, 7-11: Dreaming in Midsummer
Whelan Ascends to Farrell Territory; SOS to Corps: This is not a Rehearsal

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

On two beautiful evenings in late June, when the heat of the day had cooled into breeze and moonlight, the New York City Ballet conjured up an enchanted world of its own inside the State Theater in Balanchine's 1962 "A Midsummer Night's Dream." These days, NYCB breathes fairly easy in Robbins ballets, and it comes to rapt attention in the works of Christopher Wheeldon, but it often looks lost and nervous in the Balanchine repertory. "Midsummer" gave the dancers a sheltered, magic-forest world in which they explored the paths of Balanchine's choreography much more freely and imaginatively than they can at present in the bright light of his pure-dance works. Any ballet whose setting is the bracing, risky terrain of dancing itself seems to be a terror to many of these dancers. But a ballet with a situation, with "characters," seems to give the company confidence (as we saw also this season in "La Sonnambula" and "La Valse."). Its performances of "Midsummer" were a wonder, and the perfume of those nights still lingers.

On June 27, with Wendy Whelan as Titania and Damian Woetzel as Oberon, the ballet had a gentle, mature air about it. These two fairy nobles had been together for a long time, and nothing could faze them. Woetzel often looks so bored with his daredevil dancing that it's easy to take him for granted. His Oberon was somewhat unengaged (and certainly not the witty mischief-maker Benjamin Millepied would make him later in the week), but in the Scherzo he danced marvelously, with light beats and a fluid, curving upper body. Whelan was all abandon, every moment of her movement at one with the music's phrasing. (The score for this ballet comprises Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for Shakespeare's play, as well as parts of his other works that Balanchine himself put together.) The texture of Whelan's dancing grows more and more rose-petally; it's silken to the touch. As Titania, she was both sprightly and regal, a warm and elegant queen. Among the dancers, Whelan has a reputation as being the one of the funniest women in the company; we got to see it in her charming duet with Kipling Houston as Bottom.

The big event of the week was 20-year-old corps member Carla Korbes's debut as Titania (originally scheduled for June 29, though she officially made her debut the night before, stepping in for Darci Kistler). I saw her on the 29th and was completely impressed. This is a dancer of extraordinary amplitude and command, with a melting port de bras, a strong and expansive arabesque, a secure technique in turns, and a ravishing musicality. I liked the youthfulness and fun of her Titania: in her argument with Oberon, Korbes was full of spunk, and in the scene in Titania's bower she shared a girlish camaraderie with her retinue. In a beautiful pas de deux, James Fayette was a perfect Cavalier -- this strong partner was the ideal choice for the young Korbes. I think Millepied may be a better Oberon even than Woetzel -- his wit and regality (a la Francaise) is amplified in the mime sections of this role by the power in his arms and hands. Millepied darts around the stage like no other, although on June 29 the tempo of his Scherzo was so quick that he got a bit jammed trying to stay with the rhythm. My favorite moment: While waiting for Puck to come around, Millepied tapped his foot in lackadaisical impatience. His Oberon is more a handsome spoiled brat than a proper King, and I like this interpretation a lot. (The part was originally danced by Edward Villella.)

The secondary roles in this ballet gave NYCB's soloists and senior corps members a great chance to show their stuff. The company is strong right now in its second tier; night after night, it's dancers like Rachel Rutherford (inexplicably still in the corps), Amanda Edge, Jennifer Tinsley, Elizabeth Walker, Jared Angle, Stuart Capps, and Kurt and Kyle Froman who keep a performance together. Both Edge and Walker were beautiful as Butterfly, and Walker gave the part a particularly lovely lightness. Dena Abergel and Alexandra Ansanelli (in a debut) were suitably woeful as Helena, though Ansanelli's was a more rounded character. Rutherford and Tinsley created somewhat different Hermias: the former smooth and glowing, the latter vivacious and more dramatically varied. Both women were amazingly strong in Hermia's frightened solo in the forest. Capps was hilariously exasperated in his debut as Demetrius. Both Angle (looking very lovely in his wig!) and Alexander Ritter were great as the dopey, lovestruck Lysander. Houston has been dancing Bottom for more than a decade; his wistful, Eeyore-like interpretation is quite rightly the standard. Ritter, newer to the role, gave it a Fosse tinge (a terrific knock-kneed slump), and had a blast with Bottom's shuffling steps. Tom Gold did his usual Harlequin routine as a funny little Puck on June 27, while Adam Hendrickson, in a debut on the 29th, used his natural sharpness to blast his twinkle-in-the-eye sprite right into the rafters. As Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Jenny Blascovich was good and tough, but she couldn't come close to the blazing red-gold power Jennie Somogyi brought to the part on the 27th. Both dancers nailed their fouette sequence, but only Somogyi was able to achieve a dynamic arc in grand jete and in attitude, her taut back echoing the shape of her huntress's bow.

As for the corps, it reached its most disappointing level of the season in Titania's bower in Act I and throughout Act II. Arms drooped, only incidentally attached to shoulders (much less to any energy coming from the upper back), as if they belonged to mannequins; bodies wobbled getting into a simple tendu croise; eyes went blank; knees sagged in bourrees. These ladies and gentlemen should all get fortune cookies before each performance containing this message: You are not in rehearsal. (Arlene Croce once wished that those sitting in the balcony would let down a banner saying to the City Ballet corps, "WE SEE YOU.") Being at ease on stage is one thing. Being careless is another. A special thank you to Amanda Hankes for giving us someone to focus on in the midst of all those bobbles and smudges. The little girls who played the fairies and bugs were coached by Garielle Whittle and were uniformly splendid (I love the shushing of their shoes as they run in a circle).

Many consider this ballet's Act II -- a wedding divertissement at the Court of Theseus -- something of an afterthought, not really part of the "real" "Midsummer," centered in Act I. After several viewings in recent weeks (I also saw the Pacific Northwest Ballet production, broadcast on Bravo), I am coming to think that the twilight pas de deux in Act II is in fact the heart of the ballet, that it carries into itself everything from Act I and projects out of itself the shimmering finale, which takes place back in the forest. This is one of those very special Balanchine duets -- like the "swimming" pas de deux that opens "Chaconne" or the second movement of "Symphony in C" -- in which time stands still, and in which the deepest meaning of the ballet is revealed. (The Fall 2000 issue of Ballet Review contains a fascinating 1978 interview in which Balanchine reveals that he intended this pas de deux as a sort of apotheosis, or even as the telling of "Bottom's dream," which Shakespeare's Bottom never got a chance to tell.)

Performances like these burn each step into your memory. Like many of Balanchine's pas de deux, this one seems so simple, with just a few elements: some slow supported cabrioles, a pose in an upstage corner, a series of switch-footed bourrees on a diagonal, a pivoting echappe, an entrechat quatre, a long promenade in arabesque in which the man and the woman turn in opposite directions. What it adds up to, though, is magic. On June 27, Miranda Weese and Philip Neal danced as well as I've ever seen them dance, with flawless finger turns, clear dimensions in the duet's oblique angles, and a generous phrasing that gave the dance a gentle perfume, like a breath of lavender on a Provencal hillside. On the 29th, Whelan went so far into the music (the adagio of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 9) that *it* was her partner even more than Jock Soto was. She looked as though she was in love. With her completely liberated arms and head, the quick action of her hips, and her light steel pointes, she was like a silver dagger wrapped in blue velvet. Physically, Whelan recalls Suzanne Farrell in very few ways, but in her independence, musical intelligence, and rhythmic spontaneity onstage she now stands indisputably with Farrell in the line of great Balanchine ballerinas. I could hardly stand to leave the world that she created in the calm passage of this pas de deux -- a world of music, dreams, and perfectly consummated love.

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