Pacific Northwest Ballet has always had a close connection with Balanchine’s ballets, largely because Francia Russell, founding co-director of the company from 1977-2005, was one of the choreographer’s first ballet masters, and one of those with permission to stage his works all over the world. Though now retired, Russell has frequently staged them for PNB and has done so for this month’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Angelica Generosa (Butterfly), Jonathan Porretta (Puck) with company dancers in Balanchine's <i>Dream</i> © Angela Sterling
Angelica Generosa (Butterfly), Jonathan Porretta (Puck) with company dancers in Balanchine's Dream
© Angela Sterling

It was also Russell who received permission for the company to redesign Dream in 1997, asking Martin Pakledinaz to create a northwest décor plus the costumes, and the results have been a resounding success. PNB has toured the production around the world – it was filmed in London in 1999 – and, very occasionally, PNB lends it out.

PNB has presented Dream at its home base, McCaw Hall in Seattle, every four or five years since then. This year’s opening night performance was one of the finest I have ever seen it do, notable for the musicality which imbued each dancer’s performance and the excellent acting which kept the audience glued to the story as well.

Conductor Emil de Cou with the PNB orchestra (considered one of the best in the business) was an equal in cuing the music just so to make the dancers’ precision possible.

The cast was uniformly at the top of its game, from the corps to the 14 solo roles, beginning with the sparkling Butterfly of Angelica Generosa, a dancer whose precise footwork was balanced by her graceful arms and body moves. Oberon and Titania (Kyle Davis and Laura Tisserand) brought haughty elegance to their roles as well as a clash of personalities as Titania refused the tiny page to Oberon. Davis shone: always a fine dancer, he came into his own in the best performance I have seen from him. Tisserand, not quite in the groove at first, became a delight to watch in the bower scene, dancing with lightness and a perfect contrast to the bumbling, endearing, ass-headed Bottom of Ezra Thomson.

Ezra Thomson (Bottom) and Laura Tisserand (Titania) in Balanchine's <i>Dream</i> © Angela Sterling
Ezra Thomson (Bottom) and Laura Tisserand (Titania) in Balanchine's Dream
© Angela Sterling

This situation had been engineered by the mischievous Puck who had completely upended the drunken buddies and their efforts at rehearsing. It’s one of the funniest scenes in the ballet and a signature role for Jonathan Porretta, who has danced it almost since he first arrived in the company 20 years ago.

This was a bittersweet night for Porretta, a final comeback for one of the company’s favorite dancers. He retires in June after 18 months out for serious injury. Always eye-catching, Porretta showed no reduction in his abilities as an exuberant Puck. His are not the majestic princely roles, instead always the character, the jester, the imp, the one who dances to a different drummer, roles at which he excels. (He will dance The Prodigal Son at the Encore program in June when the company says farewell to retiring dancers.)

Pakledinaz sensibly clad the four lovers – Lindsi Dec and William Lin-Yee as Helena and Demetrius, Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths as Hermia and Lysander – in mostly scarlet with teal accents for the first two, and the opposite for the other pair, making it easier to tell who is who when they flee/chase each other across the stage multiple times. Much of their roles are acting out the emotions and all four inhabited them as they danced: the pain, the yearning, the love, the rage, the bewilderment, all were present in these four.

Benjamin Griffiths (Lysander) and Rachel Foster (Hermia) in Balanchine's <i>Dream</i> © Angela Sterling
Benjamin Griffiths (Lysander) and Rachel Foster (Hermia) in Balanchine's Dream
© Angela Sterling

PNB’s school often provides extra performers where needed, from the pre-professionals, some of whom will end up in the company, down to the littlest kids, 24 of whom danced Balanchine’s bugs. (There are two casts, so 48 bugs and an equal number of devoted parents who bring them to rehearsal and performance.) Company ballet master Otto Neubert is a great trainer, and the children are always a hit, as they were Friday.

The second act largely belongs to the couple who dance a divertissement, here Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand. It’s the only part of the work that has a slow pas de deux. A matched pair as partners, Rausch had an ethereal presence, Tisserand anticipating and supporting her every move while each gave flawless solos.

Throughout the production the large numbers of courtiers, fairies and butterflies could crowd the stage but they never do, instead enhancing the action, while the formal dances in the second act were pure eye-candy. It’s typical of PNB that dancers who may be soloing one night may be part of the corps another night. The level of performance is high, the synchronization at this performance excellent.

I won’t forget this performance. It was one for the books.

*****