Pacific Northwest Ballet’s staging of the Shakespeare comedy, which pairs choreography by George Balanchine with Felix Mendelssohn’s score, dazzles with precision performance amid a lighthearted fantasy realm. It runs through April 23 (and streams through May 1).
Sometimes it’s hard to get excited about old stories. Shakespeare, fairy tales, unrequited love — we’ve heard it all before. But once in a while, a tale told a thousand times has the power to jolt us out of our cushioned theater seats and bring joy into our chilled Pacific Northwest hearts. On Friday night, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream provided such a jolt to Seattle audiences and reminded us of why magic is still an integral part of our natural world.
Shakespeare’s story follows fairy royalty caught in a web of love and lies, orchestrated by an impish sprite named Puck who casts spells on lovers and lovers-to-be via an enchanted flower. Queen Titania, whom King Oberon intends to woo, falls in love with a literal ass, while Helena, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander chase each other through the woods in a complicated maze of love and jealousy.
A lighthearted interpretation of the story involves hijinks and silliness as couples are made and destroyed; but peer deeper into the abyss of symbolism and one might see references to sexual harassment, child slavery, and political commentary. Despite the odd presence of a child changeling (whom King Oberon and Queen Titania both want to own — and yes, this is disturbing) the PNB version is the lighthearted version. And light as a feather it is.
On opening night, Washingtonian and recently promoted soloist Christian Poppe danced the role of Puck. To really pull off a character that is equal parts demonic and comedic, a dancer needs to have a strong grasp on dramatic skills as well as technical abilities to leap across the stage as if on wings. Poppe has this down, his Puck becoming even funnier and more daring as the evening progressed. The large cast of butterflies and fairies performed by PNB School students was radiant and incredibly well-synchronized. Among the many young dancers coming up as apprentices and corps members, the dancers of the PNB School are increasingly promising with talent and stage presence.
Principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy’s Queen Titania was strong and elegant, with a new touch of artistry that conveyed both a convincing fairy queen and hinted at a growing sense of artistic identity seen in quite a few of her recent performances. This deeper sense of stage presence was also visible in principal dancer Leta Biasucci’s performance of Hermia. Biasucci’s long dark hair and velvet robes swung around her with every turn and kick and, at times, she appeared blissfully lost as she danced under the Pacific Northwest-themed flora and fauna of Martin Pakledinaz’s intricately painted set. Principal dancers James Yoichi Moore and James Kirby Rogers’ performances as Biasucci’s lover Lysander and Murphy’s cavalier, respectively, were as strong and poignant as ever.
In the comedic role of Bottom — the unfortunate weaver-turned-donkey who becomes the unwitting object of Queen Titania’s affections — soloist Ezra Thomson’s performance as the grass-eating ass was a work of character art on opening night. Thomson, who also excels as the mysterious godfather Drosselmeier in PNB’s George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, can change the mood onstage from apprehensive to comedic with a swooping nod of his donkey head.
But the highlight of opening night came from retiring principal dancer Lesley Rausch’s performance of the second act Divertissement. Shakespeare’s story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream concludes in Act I, while Act II is a giant wedding celebration and the romantic pause provided by Balanchine’s delicately choreographed Divertissement. Partnered by elegant principal dancer Dylan Wald, Rausch’s dancing was sublime, the most difficult steps, lifts, and turns appearing to take no more effort than a breath. Rausch’s arms seemed to command the rising and falling of Mendelssohn’s score, her gestures and facial expressions that of an artist at the height of her career. Rausch’s dancing will be missed.
Editor’s note: PNB’s annual season-ending dazzler, called Season Encore, this year will celebrate Rausch. The popular one-night-only performance is on June 11; see program info and tickets here.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through 4/23 at Pacific Northwest Ballet (in McCaw Hall, Seattle Center/Mercer side). Tickets ($44-$202) here. Digital version also available for viewing 4/27-5/1; see info here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available by most of them. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility note: Pay-what-you-choose tickets available for Thursday night’s performance (4/20); see info here.
Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with intermission.