At the Kennedy Center Opera House, music steals the show from the Pennsylvania Ballet


Alexander Peters of the Pennsylvania Ballet in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (Alexander Iziliaev)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic June 7

The Pennsylvania Ballet threw a charming party onstage at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Friday night. At its best, the production of Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with a sparkling cast that included some two dozen well-organized children, looked and felt like a birthday soiree on the lawn of a gracious old country estate.

But for all the fairies and flower garlands and lovers chasing around, the most delightful part of the evening was the Mendelssohn score. Thank goodness for the music, for its galloping rhythms and shining strings, without which this ballet, inspired by the Shakespeare play, would be insufferable. Pretty as the decor and costumes were, there was not much emotional substance behind the showiness onstage.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

The more interesting dynamics were going on in the orchestra pit, where Beatrice Jona Affron was conducting a summer garden of sound, with roses and a threat of storm and bees drunk on nectar. Later in the ballet, the Choral Arts Society of Washington added silvery vocals. The music shimmered with life and color, even when the stage action grew dull.

What with all the introductions of butterflies and fairy folk and the two pairs of mortal sweethearts who are about to have a confusing night, the ballet took its time getting started. A good 40 minutes in, Puck (the witty, elastic Alexander Peters) got the couples’ affections all tangled up with the wrong doses of love potion and suddenly — hooray — we were in a screwball comedy. Double takes, dazed reactions, vivid indignities; it was delicious fun while it lasted.

The dancing was splendid throughout, particularly in the leading roles. Jermel Johnson’s Oberon was a fairy king with leonine authority and crystalline footwork. Lillian Di Piazza, a Silver Spring native who trained at Maryland Youth Ballet, brought a fresh spontaneity and sensitivity to Titania, the fairy queen. She was an expansive dancer, thrilling to watch in her great sweeping turns, greedy for space like a true monarch.

Company dancers perform George Balanchine’s choreography in this ballet inspired by the Shakespearean comedy. (Lauren McEwen/The Washington Post)

Among other standouts, Brooke Moore’s Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, telegraphed a sense of moral purpose with her admirably unembellished classical technique. With their sympathetic rapport and flowing style, Lauren Fadeley and Zachary Hench brought their own light into the starry twilight sky of the second-act divertissement. Here, Martin Pakledinaz’s scenery and costumes attained the peak of loveliness, with tutus in peach and dusty blue and pink roses everywhere. The music crested in celebration, and you could believe you’d witnessed a triumph.

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