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A Midsummer Night's Dance: Love's Beauty and Roles

April 10th, 2008 | 6 min read

By Tex

The Pacific Northwest Ballet’s (PNB) performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream lifted a corner of the veil between plodding human beings and the world of fairies. The stage was set with magnificent roses and deliciously mysterious lights even before the curtain lifted to reveal a forested glen populated with the Little People. While George Balanchine’s ballet presented the fairies in the contemporary and Disney-esque vein, as beautiful and dainty creatures always trailing flowers and fairy dust rather than in the more Celtic or Scottish tradition one finds in Shakespeare, the permutation matched Mendelssohn’s music almost perfectly.

The light and airy strains of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, supplemented with some of his other works to fill out the entire ballet, provided the structure and framework in which some of ballet’s most graceful movements could be delicately and beautifully showcased. In Balanchine’s rendition of Shakespeare, it is Puck that moves the show along with his sprightly dance; however, it is the dances between the couples, the significant solos of Titania and Oberon, and the crowning symbolic dance of an unnamed pair at the wedding celebration that carry the weight of Shakespeare’s commentary on love.

Being in no way an expert on dance, I found the late PNB Director of Education Jeanie Thomas’ program notes illuminating:

Perhaps most inspired is Balanchine’s sustained employment of ballet’s central metaphor of love—the pas de deux—to embody the play’s subtle insights into the many permutations of love relationship. The cloying embraces of Hermia and Lysander; the distraught pleadings of Helena with Demetrius; the thrashing resistance of Hermia to Demetrius and of Helena to Lysander—all are distortions of the ideal partnership between lovers, traditionally conveyed by the ballerina and the premier danseur. This human game of power is also played out in the fairy realm where, tellingly, the disputing spouses Titania and Oberon never dance together but instead perform self-celebratory solos for their admiring retinues....Only in Act II, which is pure dance, do the battles and imbalances, the self-indulgences and self-deceptions give way to a genuine dance partnership. In the magnificent Divertissement Pas de Deux which crowns the wedding festivities, competition has no place, and restraint, mutuality, and trust define the mature ideal of love.” (see the full program notes)

If the partnership between the ballerina and premier danseur is the balletic symbol sin qua non of ideal male/female love, then classical ballet makes a telling comment on an aspect of the distinction between man and woman, lover and beloved, often disparaged by contemporary artists and intellectuals. The most striking feature of a beautifully performed pas de deux, is that the premier danseur makes movements and steps possible for the ballerina that could not be performed in a solo; take away either dancer and the dance is an impossibility.

It is the role of the man—his strength, balance, and care—that makes the role of the woman possible. As the ballerina pirouettes and daintily turns upon the tips of her toes, arms and legs stretched and curved to impossible circles of grace, it is her partner’s strong arm and guiding hand that balances her on the cusp of beauty: remove his touch and she tumbles to the ground in a heap of disgraced ruffles and frills.

Being a symbol of a deeper truth, there are many aspects of the relationship between danseur and ballerina that don’t support the analogy; however, as the fully extended forearm of the danseur trembled slightly from the weight and pressure of his floating partner, it was obvious that such marvelous feats of beauty were quite impossible without his sustaining strength. While complementarianism is out of vogue these days, to say nothing of patriarchy, the interchange of strength and grace between two dancers, male and female, proclaimed that beauty, a great beauty is made possible when individuals freely accept the roles assigned to them.

The final, glorious, Divertissement Pas de Deux crowning the ballet’s finale is heightened by contrast with the earlier dances between mismatched lovers. Act I was an exercise in tension and poignant disappointment as the confused lovers danced in imperfect balance. Great and beautiful choreography was born out of the spurned Helena’s pleadings with Demetrius and Lysander’s rejection of constant Hermia (and there is a lesson in this, too). However, the nearly palpable tension in these dances made it clear that, while beautiful, the rejection, confusion, and irrationality conveyed through mime and movement kept the couples from portraying the beauty of love finally made possible in unity and perfect balance. As long as Helena played the part of pursuer or Lysander was unable to see Hermia as his beloved—as long as circumstance or lack of true vision kept the couples from being themselves and fulfilling their roles—a portrayal of true love was impossible.

Balanchine’s choreography of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a glorious feast for the eyes and carries a deep lesson to the soul. Love is, finally, constrained. It’s truest expressions are possible only when its nature is truly understood.

Exit question: Does the possibility of ballet point to the existence of a universal structure for male/female relationships?