- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

When George Balanchine was creating “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he said he revered Shakespeare’s play but his principal inspiration had come from Felix Mendelssohn’s music.

This luminous score and choreography are seamlessly fused in his “Dream,” being danced through this weekend by the New York City Ballet at the Kennedy Center.

Like rereading a familiar book, seeing Mr. Balanchine’s 1962 ballet again in all its richness reveals new beauties. The opening scene unfolds with a stage full of fanciful creatures — irresistible little bugs and flocks of butterflies. Mr. Balanchine’s genius here is to send his tiny bugs circling around the stage with fast little running steps against which the butterflies dart and swoop. It’s a lovely scene, with small children auditioned from local schools scurrying across the stage in complicated floor patterns — bravo for them — while company members leap and flutter as counterpoint to their whirling formations.

When the same characters reappear later, the bustling scene is enlarged with a series of brilliant solos for Oberon, one of the fastest, most challenging dances in the entire male repertoire. Its fleet virility retains the imprint of the original Oberon, Edward Villella.

At opening night Wednesday, there was more to admire in Mr. Balanchine’s intent than in the company’s lackluster rendering of it. Benjamin Millepied was not always incisive in tackling the demanding footwork for the formidable role of Oberon. Titania was the statuesque Maria Kowroski, whose dancing was gracious but a little more chorus girl than queenly. Daniel Ulbricht was a scene-stealing, high-flying Puck, his gestures sharp and witty.

The shimmering Mendelssohn music calls for virtuosic performance, particularly at the tempo set by conductor Maurice Kaplow. Unfortunately, neither the orchestra — the NYCB’s own, brought here especially for the occasion — nor the chorus — the Shenandoah Conservatory Women’s Choir — was always able to articulate it.

A special wonder of the Balanchine choreography is the way he sketches in the story with all its plot twists — Oberon showing Puck the rose that becomes a love potion, Puck’s misadventures in trying to sort out the quarreling lovers, Titania’s infatuation with Seth Orza as Bottom transformed into a donkey — with brisk clarity and high humor.

The plot, complicated but crystal clear in the telling, is tied up with almost slapstick dispatch at the end of Act I. Lovers are reunited with their proper mates, Bottom is restored to his simple peasant self, the Amazonian Hippolyta flashes through the cloud-filled scene with her retinue of prancing hounds.

The complexity and drama of the first act are followed after intermission by a wedding celebration that opens to the sound of Mendelssohn’s familiar Wedding March.

Wave upon wave of formal ballet formations follow in some of Mr. Balanchine’s less inspired ensemble work. However, embedded in this act is a jewel, one of the most beautiful of all Balanchine’s romantic pas de deux. It becomes a metaphor for perfect trust as the dancers gravely and sweetly spool out an unending flow of movement with an extended catilena that held the audience transfixed on opening night.

Wendy Whelan gave a sustained, spellbinding performance in this remarkable role with Philip Neal as her attentive partner.

The sublime dancer Kyra Nichols, about to retire, will give her final Washington performance tonight as Titania, with Antonio Carmena as Oberon, Mr. Ulbricht as Puck and Yvonne Borree and Nikolaj Hubbe in the second-act pas de deux. At tomorrow’s matinee, Sofiane Sylve, Joaquin De Luz, Sean Suozzi, Jenifer Ringer and Nilas Martins will dance those roles; and the opening night cast will dance this afternoon and at tomorrow evening’s conclusion.

***

WHAT: New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

WHEN: Today and tomorrow at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

TICKETS: $29 to $99

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS

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