In Balanchine’s Beautiful Forest

John Dominis/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
George Balanchine with ballet dancer Jacques d’Amboise on the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, circa 1963

When George Balanchine choreographed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the New York City Ballet in 1962, he had been living with Shakespeare’s play for most of his life. He was fifty-eight years old and recalled playing an elf or bug in a production when he was a child in St. Petersburg in the years before the 1917 revolution. He liked to say that he knew the play “better in Russian than a lot of people know it in English,” and his dancers remember that he quoted the text in English freely from memory. It was a play, and as importantly a musical score—Felix Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music—that seemed to follow him through life.

Dream was one of the first original American full-length ballets ever created. The opening performances were on the cramped stage at City Center in New York, but two years later, when the New York City Ballet moved to its new home at the just-constructed Lincoln Center—a monument to New York as the world capital of culture—there was a lavish gala performance celebrating Balanchine’s company as a leading American institution. It opened with a brassy fanfare composed by Igor Stravinsky in honor of the occasion, followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

To some, Dream seemed a surprising choice: for years, although Balanchine continued to make important narrative works, he had made his greatest mark by moving away from the nineteenth-century tradition of narrative ballet and toward a kind of abstraction in dance. In 1951 he had stripped his ballets The Four Temperaments and Concerto Barocco of scenery and elaborate costumes. In 1957 he went further with Agon, a completely plotless dance performed in simple practice clothes on a blank stage against a cyclone blue background to a partly atonal score by Stravinsky. In 1959 came Episodes in a similar vein to an atonal score by Anton Webern. Even the romantic Liebeslieder Walzer the following year had no narrative or story: just Brahms and dancing.

Balanchine was making a political point too. As an émigré who had fled Russia as a young man in 1924, he was profoundly anti-Soviet and well aware that his abstract ballets challenged the prevailing Soviet taste against formalism and for socialist realism in art (“I would have been shot,” he once told one of his dancers). And although the idea for Dream had been with him for decades, he started work on the ballet just two years after the Bolshoi had made a spectacularly successful New York debut to sold-out theaters with a full-length Romeo and Juliet, a Shakespearean dance-drama in a socialist-realist style. While he was choreographing Dream, plans were in the works with the State Department for the New York City Ballet to tour the USSR. Balanchine wanted…

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