In Shakespeare’s giddily confusing original, a palette of castes and characters intersect, collide, and re-form under moonlit skies.
A Faerie Kinge and Queene squabble over who will get to keep a pretty boy as pet. Both assume that they deserve the prize. Poor pet.
Two young ladies and two young laddies, aristocratic but earthbound, assume they are/are not in love. Mistaken.
A duke (of Athens, no less) and his warrior bride assume that a new play would be just the dignified thing for their nuptial celebrations. Not the best of ideas.
A calamity of roughhewn craftsmen assume they can write that play — and even learn to act — all in one day. But they don’t.
Plus Puck, an elf, who assumes knows what he’s doing, but really doesn’t.
None of them ever really catches on to the fact that : « when you ‘assume,’ you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’”
Then there’s the real ass in the room, the enchanted and enchantingly silly Bottom the Weaver, whom Puck transforms into a donkey. Sweet and naïve Bottom will assume that a Faerie Queene doesn’t need magic to have the hots for him…
So let us look at Balanchine’s adaptation of this classic “from top to bottom” as it were.
Act 1 (about one hour).
Overture and Scene 1
Big butterflies and cute little fireflies prancing around with Puck, the imp, find their forest glade traversed by a variety of characters: a young woman semaphoring despair; a stumblingly drunk troupe of artisans; the faerie kinge Oberon and his queene Titania.
Titania and Oberon seem to be having a rather stately quarrel – she is clearly saying “no” a lot. You see, Oberon wants his wife to hand over her little page (usually costumed as an IndianIndian in a turban). He’s so patronizing, you might mistake him for her father. He doesn’t win this round.
Now yet another guy in a crown turns up. It’s Theseus, Duke of Athens. He’d like to be concentrating on his fiancé, another queen, Hippolyta. She’s the restless one with a hunter’s bow stuck in her fist: she’s a warrior Amazon.
But first Theseus has to deal with the desperate young woman – her name is Helena – and the plaints of her three equally desperate companions: Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander…but who is who? If Theseus looks a bit frustrated, perhaps you can sympathize. I’m not kidding, remembering who goes with what name has always been the hardest part of experiencing this play. For reference, Hermia is the one first adored by both of the boys, then rejected; Helena is the one first unloved by both and then loved too much by both for her own taste. It will take magic to disentangle this one, not Athenian law.
Titania and her butterflies do a full aerobic workout before bedtime, interrupted by people of the male persuasion: first Puck and then…not Oberon. One of the deliberate quirks in Balanchine’s version, which overflows with duets, is that Titania never dances with her husband. Nevertheless, a ballerina still needs the occasional man to hold her up. The solution, which I find a bit odd, is to here have a random guy pop in out of nowhere to partner her. The pas de deux is quite juicy, but we will never see him again. If it makes sense to you that she’s so mad she’s having an affair, feel free to go with it.
Surrounded by dancing insects, Oberon broods. One butterfly does a lot of dancing (the role is named “Butterfly”). He has a brainstorm: it is time to use his secret weapon, the flower with nectar so potent it makes you fall violently in love with the next creature you see. He will use it to humiliate his stubborn wife. But first he orders Puck to use it to put some sense into Demetrius, the boy Helena longs for.
Well, because Puck can’t tell from the program which one is Demetrius and which one is Lysander either, chaos ensues, with the four young people all either running at or away from each other. Helena is still desperate because she now has TWO partners pawing at her and Hermia is in tears.
Titania – I guess she couldn’t fall asleep after all that exercise – wafts in with her ladies and launches into a solo. Hermia then has her turn. And the artisans who briefly appeared during the overture stumble back in. As the little crowd crosses the stage Puck plucks out the weaver Bottom, transforming him into a donkey. This is really mean, for in Elizabethan times donkeys were reputed to be extremely randy.
Oberon finally catches Titania asleep, pops the love potion into her eyes and strategically positions Bottom. The result is utterly charming: her movements and mime filled with enormous tenderness, the bewildered ass seems to have his mind more on food and scratching. Their interspecies “love affair” is utterly innocent: she caresses him as if he were a beloved cat and the donkey practically purrs.
Remember Hippolyta, the one with the bow? Well here she comes, shooting grand-jétés and fouettés all over the place, as a pack of hounds race with her through wafting dry ice. Theseus finds himself face to face again with the four angry young things. Oberon decides that it is time to fix everything. Bottom loses his ass-itude, Titania wakes up to Oberon’s bemused gaze, ready to surrender the little boy. Lysander wakes up in love with Hermia; Demetrius won’t stop loving Helena (I hope I got that right). Theseus and Hippolyta decide to host a group wedding.
Act 2 (about 30 minutes)
We hear the Wedding March (yes, that one). Everyone is now in high classic attire (i.e. tutus). And that’s it for the plot. The stage is given over to a stream of “divertissements.”
In the midst of the action, your heart will stop as you witness an utterly meltingly lyrical pas de deux that seems to encapsulate the very meaning of true love. You will literally have to fight the urge to sigh out loud. It’s a masterpiece about how body and soul can find harmony and peace. But, oddly, it’s danced by none of the dancers you’d finally come to recognize. A new couple just appeared out of nowhere and started dancing. Poof! They don’t even have names, and are identified in the cast list as: “Pas de deux.” In a story that has too many people in it in the first place, I remain puzzled by the need to add a Mr. Prop-Up Partner in Act One and then a Mr. and Mrs. Allegory of Love in Act Two.
This interlude, I guess, let Balanchine feel he could avoid having to deal with finding a way to impart the end of the story about Bottom and his friends. They just disappear. I think if you have ever seen the play live – or any other cinematic, operatic, or choreographic adaptation of it — you will agree with me that the “performance” by the artisans of The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby during the wedding celebration is just about the funniest thing you’ve ever seen in your entire life. I miss its absence terribly here. If a way could be found to sneak Puss and Boots into the action of Aurora’s wedding, then why did the dance-master not allow these guys to stumble back up on to the stage?