City Ballet's Sleepy 'Midsummer Night'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

It's a peculiar turn of events when eager little schoolchildren outshine their professional counterparts onstage, but such was the unbalanced picture presented by the New York City Ballet in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which opened Wednesday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

George Balanchine's condensed account of the Shakespeare comedy ought to be a showcase of crystal-clear dancing and vibrant personalities, but the rare appearance of either element left one wondering exactly how tired the dancers are after recently completing their winter series in New York.

In any case, "Midsummer" misfires. Coming on the heels of a radiantly energized Bolshoi Ballet -- the stage is barely cold from its hugely successful run last week -- the New York City Ballet will have to pull up its socks for the rest of its stay. On Wednesday the most motivated dancers were to be found among the local ballet students portraying pages and bugs.

Kids in cute costumes: Yes, there's a bit of a school-recital aspect to this ballet, one of Balanchine's rare narrative works, and one in which he let his Russian affection for children and for fairy tales have full rein. He tempered the sweetness with conceptual rigor, however: The ballet, accompanied by appropriately summery Mendelssohn scores, is a marvel of succinct and witty storytelling. You don't need to read the play to follow the romantic kerfuffles among quarreling fairy monarchs Titania and Oberon and the dimwitted mortals Helena, Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander, who are trying to sort out who'll win whose heart. The humor is broad, the mime is simple and obvious; but in the hands of a committed cast, it's a solid charmer.

Lacking dancers who can put its strengths over, however, you notice the shortcomings: the repetition, the ensemble dancing that feels like filler, the maddening finger-fluttering (bugs have wings -- we get it!). This was the case with Wednesday's underpowered cast. Maria Kowroski's Titania flaunted all the leggy glamour of a Hollywood starlet -- a feature that the showgirl-loving Balanchine built into the role -- but when it came to interacting with either Benjamin Millepied's Oberon or Seth Orza's donkey-faced Bottom, she had zero personality. Her reserve felt odd in this ballet about love; she has a free and expansive technique, but her heart wasn't in it.

Daniel Ulbricht's high-flying Puck made everyone sit up, but the great height of his jump and his insistent friskiness only underscored how deflated the rest of the men looked. Millepied had curious difficulties with the choreography. It was left to the dancers in secondary roles to enliven the evening: the unflappable Teresa Reichlen as Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and especially Wendy Whelan, who with Philip Neal led the second-act divertissement. In her tempered passion and accommodating softness, the ballet finally found its heart.

Here's the real missed opportunity: Bolshoi Director Alexei Ratmansky is still in town, rehearsing City Ballet dancers in his works. The company just wrapped up performances of his highly acclaimed "Russian Seasons" at Lincoln Center (to which the New Yorker's Joan Acocella devoted an entire column), and it will present Ratmansky's "Middle Duet" there in the spring. Yet while the dancers, the choreographer and the Kennedy Center have intersected, Washington audiences would never know it.

A Midsummer Night's Dream continues through Sunday evening, with cast changes.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company