There are so many props, bulky costumes, moveable set pieces, slippery fog effects, dark lighting, and masks in Act I of Midsummer that often enough, something goes awry. In keeping with the spirit of the ballet, these gaffes are usually hysterically funny. (Act II has one static set, bright lights, and short tutus so it is generally safe from mishap.) Wig issues like Amar’s are a major problem. I remember when one of my best friends—Carla Körbes—was dancing Titania and lost her fake curls during the bower pas de deux. They flew off her head and landed dead middle of the stage. The splatted hairpiece looked like blonde roadkill! James Fayette was playing the Jolly Green Giant, her squire, and he picked the curls up and threw them into the wings and the audience erupted
Back to bad ballet. Between all the body paint and sweat that ends up on the stage, not to mention the often spastic slapstick choreography, falls are another issue in Midsummer. I think the best one ever belongs to Sterling Hyltin as Hermia. In the lovers’ section to Mendelssohn’s Melusine, Hermia must run a huge circle around the stage and freeze in shock when she sees Lysander, her betrothed, embracing her friend Helena. At the moment she spots this adulterous pair the whole stage freezes. Some years ago Sterling ran the big circle and then belly-flopped to the floor at the moment in question. She didn’t miss a beat in her acting and lifted her head right on time to look up at the couple in horror. It was hilarious in an Acme cartoon kind of way. (She was okay, she just had the wind knocked out of her!)
The lovers’ section is probably the most error-riddled, since it involves so much fighting and running amok. There was a show a while back in which Alexandra Ansanelli was playing Helena opposite to Jared Angle’s Lysander that I always remember with a chuckle. Lysander accosts Helena after Puck anoints his eyes with a magical flower and he falls instantly in love with her. They have an exhausting chase sequence as he tries to hug and kiss her and she keeps pushing him away. It is the reverse of Helena’s first pas in which she tries to hug and kiss Demetrius. Russell Janzen, who debuted as Lysander this season, told me jokingly that he felt bad about how “rapey” his new part was. I think Balanchine keeps it securely on the farcical side, but it is true that it is an unfair match-up. Not so with Ms. Ansanelli, who pushed Jared so hard at one point that he fell over and ended up rolling into a backwards somersault from the force of it! She certainly had no need for mace.
Like in the play, Helena is spurned and spit on, harassed and hunted. I have danced this part for a few years now and it never fails to beat me up. My acupuncturist yesterday asked me what had happened to my arms because they are still all scraped up from sliding down the men’s spikily bejeweled tunics. This happens every year, and I always have to be careful not to get blood on my Act II tutu. One time, while dancing opposite to Tyler Angle’s Demetrius, I accidentally hit my head on my knee and got a bloody lip during the part when he throws me on the floor in anger. Tyler felt terrible but he had nothing to do with it! Helena is an intensely physical part if you really go for it, replete with wanton head-flinging which makes you feel like you have whiplash for the next few days after a show or rehearsal. Still, all the blood and aches aside, it is somehow tons of fun.
In dress rehearsal this week Tess Reichlen, as Titania, had what may have been the greatest Midsummer goof of all time. We were all bummed that it didn’t happen in a real performance so that we could have a taped record of it for posterity! The Titania shell bed is hugely problematic for everyone who has to deal with it, and that list is long. Puck, Oberon, Bottom, the tall fairies, and above all, Titania, have to pretend like it is an easy prop to maneuver when in reality it is rickety and wayward with a mind of its own. It drives like a grocery store shopping cart that tips easily and pulls hard to one side. You know—the kind you switch out quickly for a different one. It has a little kickstand to anchor it but it doesn’t always work. Basically, it is the most treacherous of all the Midsummer booby traps (or at least it is tied with the dry ice). The Titanias must spend a lot of time looking blissfully asleep in this chair, but it is terribly uncomfortable to sit in and precariously balanced. It takes more ab muscle to sit still in that chair than it does to work many gym machines. Anyway, in rehearsal this week, while the fairies were doing their lullaby dance to lull her to sleep, Tess sat in the chair and flipped the whole thing over backwards! A team of stagehands was deployed to rescue her, and rehearsal stopped for a good while for everyone to laugh and exclaim.
Bravo Tess, you are the winner of the Midsummer calamity contest! Current season runner up: when Zach Catazaro tried to make his finale entrance five whole eights early in the show on Thursday night and then ran back offstage with gusto. Well played. All-time contender: some years ago when Sofiane Sylve, as Hippolyta, got confused and started her fouetté turns way too early and so had to do like 64 of them with the surprised hounds awkwardly dodging her in the fog. Hers was one mightily impressive mistake, although I remember she put her neck out from all that spotting! As you can see, Balanchine’s Midsummer is often more of a farce than even Shakespeare intended.
The NYC performance year is over until the fall, and the company is on a little break before the Saratoga Season starts. (Two weeks this year, hooray!) But don’t go away; I will be posting during the layoff, along with some special guests. Like Shakespeare and Balanchine, I leave you with some words from Puck. Click here and here for Midsummer clips explained by one of the greatest Pucks--Adam Hendrickson.