As reality rained down hard this week in Uvalde and the basest human impulses took center stage during a hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, a distant world of dreams and shadows unfolded at the Kennedy Center. Leave it to George Balanchine to impose order on the mortal experience and tease out the glory, as he does in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which New York City Ballet performed Thursday in the Opera House. (Performances continue through Sunday.)
Balanchine unveiled his full-length account of the Shakespeare comedy in 1962, and it remains a strikingly modern fairy tale, so different in dance language and tone from the much older, more reverential European story ballets, the “Sleeping Beauties” and “Swan Lakes.” For one thing, “Dream” is laugh-out-loud funny, with sharp double-takes, clown antics, huffing, puffing and vaudeville-style knocking about. It’s all part of the clever shorthand Balanchine uses to tell a complicated story of mixed-up lovers in a magical forest, overseen by the feuding fairy couple Titania and Oberon and their mercurial collaborator Puck, who scurries around, flower potion in hand, with well-intentioned recklessness.
The ballet was cast from strength on Thursday, with Sara Mearns as a warmly regal Titania, not so much a fairy queen as a vital creature of nature, capable of changing the weather with a sweep of her arm. As Oberon, Daniel Ulbricht skimmed the stage with quicksilver lightness. He managed to grab his bay leaf crown from the stage floor with the same effortless grace, after the headpiece flew off from the force of his turns. Taylor Stanley’s Puck was a master of otherworldly control and earthy comic timing.
That Puck is both a clown and a magician is telling. For who is Puck but life’s immortal choreographer? He runs the show, first bungling it up, as any creative is prone to do, then unbungling. He rearranges people — and their emotions — until he gets it right. Not only right, but spiritually satisfying. Balanchine surely saw himself in Puck, and what fun: He also laughs at himself.
“Dream” is not a perfect ballet — it has its slow spots — but it is deeply affecting. Balanchine is at his most persuasive here on the values of human connection, gentle tolerance and the great balm of love. The loveliest expression of these is in the second act, where the enchanted forest is replaced by a pure-dance divertissement. In this act’s central duet, Tiler Peck, partnered by Tyler Angle, was all soft lines and unhurried flow as she unfolded her limbs and leaned weightlessly into Angle’s arms. This tender display of tranquil support and ultimate trust is the antidote to the antics of the first act — it is a vision of purity and human goodness. Peck was lover, poet and muse all at once, writing a monologue in whispers and air.
Andrew Litton conducted the Opera House orchestra in the Mendelssohn score.
The company is dancing at full powers in this ballet, a fact that was not nearly as clear in the earlier program of three short, new works by Jamar Roberts, Sidra Bell and Justin Peck that opened New York City Ballet’s run on Tuesday. A different program order could have helped; Peck’s “Partita,” danced in sneakers and shorts, was the most successful of the three works, but it landed heavily at the end of a long night, especially given its recorded accompaniment, Caroline Shaw’s a cappella composition “Partita for 8 Voices,” a challenging piece for the ear.
A musical mismatch tripped up Roberts’s “Emanon—In Two Movements,” which attempted to fit fairly conventional ballet choreography to excellent, fevered jazz by Wayne Shorter (performed live by the Opera House orchestra, which included a marvelous jazz quartet). The result was more awkward than revelatory, and even some of the dancers seemed unsure about it at Tuesday’s opening. Bell’s melancholic “Suspended Animation” was mostly notable for the oversize, wonderfully eccentric costumes by fashion designer Christopher John Rogers, with retro- ‘90s flair — bicycle shorts, neon colors — that put on a show of their own.
The New York City Ballet performs, with cast changes, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” through June 12 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.