A ballet about the transforming power of love, George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is based on William Shakespeare’s comedy about the romantic adventures and misadventures, quarrels and reunitings, of two pairs of mortal lovers and the king and queen of the fairies. The ballet, through its themes of reality versus illusion, and change versus constancy, displays love in all its guises. In the first act there are dances of unrequited love and love that is reconciled. There is a pas de deux for the Fairy Queen Titania and Bottom, who has been turned into an Ass — a perfect illustration in dance of the old proverb, “love is blind.” In the second act, which opens with Mendelssohn’s familiar Wedding March, there is a pas de deux representing ideal, untroubled love.
Shakespeare’s 1595 play has been the source for films, an opera by Benjamin Britten (1960), and a one-act ballet by Frederick Ashton, called The Dream (1964). George Balanchine’s version, which premiered in 1962, was the first wholly original evening-length ballet he choreographed in America. On April 24, 1964, A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened the New York City Ballet’s first repertory season at the New York State Theater. Balanchine had been familiar with Shakespeare’s play from an early age. At age eight he had appeared as an elf in a production in St. Petersburg, and he could recite portions of the play by heart in Russian. Balanchine loved Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (composed respectively in 1826 and 1843), and it is this score, Balanchine later said, that inspired his choreography. Mendelssohn had written only about an hour’s worth of music for the play (not enough for an evening-length dance work), so for twenty years Balanchine studied the composer’s other oeuvre, finally selecting a number of additional overtures, a nocturne, an intermezzo and a portion of Symphony #9 to weave together the ballet score.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a German composer of the Romantic Era. Like Mozart, he was a child prodigy who excelled in every aspect of music: he was one of the finest pianists of his time, as well as an excellent conductor and well-known educator. Mendelssohn was only 17 when he wrote the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which musically introduces all of the ballet’s characters and themes.