The Boston Ballet usually offers enchanting and accomplished dance. Yet, while its current production starts out on a hopeful note with Gerald Arpino’s slight and appealing Suite Saint-Saëns, it is unable to sustain momentum through the headliner, Bruce Wells’ heavily anticipated A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both shows are strongly choreographed and well-staged dramatically, but Midsummer ultimately disappoints due to an inexperienced cast of dancers unsuited to the material.
Arpino, co-founder of The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, impresses, though, with Suite Saint-Saëns, which sparkles with a playful beauty and shows off a distinctly American spirit. Though the choreography is based in the style of classical ballet, it contains many modern elements and is blessed with a strong athletic theme that lends the piece a delightfully informal air.
Also instrumental in the success of the Sept. 25 show that I attended was the talented cast of dancers. In the first number, “Caprice Valse,” principals Jennifer Gelfand and Paul Thrussell were a thrill to watch; Thrussell’s strength made every lift appear fluid and effortless, and the two genuinely looked like they enjoyed dancing together. Additionally, soloist Tara Hench confidently filled a leading position.
The second number, “Serenade,” the most interesting to a wide audience of the remaining three, is marked by a gorgeous pas de trois, which featured Michael Johnson, April Ball and Josey Silva. Johnson was faced with the difficult task of partnering two women at the same time and was largely successful; matching balances were carried off with few wobbles.
The lighting of Suite Saint-Saëns, originally designed by Thomas Skelton and here recreated by Linda O’Brien, creates an intimate space on the stage that highlights the communal feeling between the dancers as they weave in and out of the principal focus of motion. The show leaves the audience with the memory of a beautiful ballet and excited about the promise of the grand theatrical piece to come.
Unfortunately, A Midsummer Night’s Dream did not live up to the expectations produced by Suite Saint-Saëns. It is not the choreography that misfires, as the dance is interesting and generally innovative, even if certain dances, like Oberon’s variation, seem crammed in, with insufficient motivation and emotion.
The main failing of the show—and it is a big one—is casting. In the rotation of parts, Sept. 25 featured few principal dancers in the showcase roles of the evening, and the lack of quality and polish were very apparent.
A major difficulty throughout the performance were transitions from one variation to the next. Most first turns and jumps appeared shaky; once firmly into the combination, technique improved, but the overall impression became one of rather disconnected groups of steps instead of flowing choreography.
The cast simply never appeared to be in sync with the choreography and each other. Hervé Courtain, as Puck, did an admirable job of portraying the whimsical role, which requires heavy amounts of acting and comic timing for a dancer. His rather feminine body (very apparent in the lack of a costume that Puck is required to wear) did not quite fit, however, with the particularly athletic style of Puck’s choreography. Courtain did pull off some amusing facial expressions and pantomime that attempted to fill in for Shakespeare’s words, but he always seemed about a half-beat off in terms of the character.
Tara Hench, who danced so well in Suite Saint-Saëns, does not carry her success over into her portrayal of Helena. Her acting was expressive, and she did capture the frustration and despair of the character, but her awkward arms distracted from her dancing and acting, contributing heavily to the downfall of her performance.
There were bright spots in the production worth mentioning, however. Newly-promoted soloist Sarah Lamb was a beautiful Hermia. Her acting skills met the requirements of the role, and her dancing showed great technique and artistry.
Her partner, Lysander (principal Simon Ball), got the most laughs with his facial expressions and shrugs. Ball’s interaction with Courtain’s Puck came closest to capturing the spirit and fun toward which the show aspires.
At its core, Midsummer is a good show; it sports beautiful choreography and stunning, complex stage scenery.
I happened to attend a dress rehearsal of this production with all the major principals dancing the lead roles, and the difference was astonishing. Paul Thrussell’s Puck was leaps and bounds above Courtain’s, and Pollyana Ribeiro’s Helena more than made up for the deficiencies of Tara Hench’s performance. During the dress rehearsal, I never felt that the ballet was too long or slow, as I felt during the Sept. 25 performance.
Midsummer remains a worthwhile ballet. With a cast up to the responsibilities of a large theatrical production, the entire night could deliver.
When I saw it, though, it didn’t.
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