Patricia McBride was just 19 when New York City Ballet premiered "A Midsummer Night's Dream," choreographer George Balanchine's ethereal take on Shakespeare's beloved comedy. She's now 69, and the associate director of N.C. Dance Theatre, but she recalls her debut as Hermia as if she rehearsed it yesterday.
"It was such an honor, being chosen to play Hermia," McBride said. "It's such a wonderful ballet, and it gives everyone a chance to shine. There are such great characters in it."
The original 1962 cast list of Athenian dukes and fairy monarchs reads like ballet royalty. Arthur Mitchell, the pioneering founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, played Puck. Edward Villella, the dynamic artistic director of Miami City Ballet, was Oberon, and the late Melissa Hayden, longtime teacher at the UNC School of the Arts, danced Titania.
The stars won't come out in quite the same way when Carolina Ballet presents "Midsummer" this week at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, but the local dancers are excited about reviving a ballet they debuted seven years ago. "Midsummer" will share a program with two short premieres: a pas de deux by artistic director Robert Weiss and a ballet by company dancer Attila Bongar.
"I was so excited when I heard we were going to do 'Midsummer' again," said principal dancer Margaret Severin-Hansen, who has been cast as Hermia. "I love this ballet."
Carolina Ballet is using costumes and sets borrowed from Utah's Ballet West.
"They are beautiful," Severin-Hansen said. "The fairies have long, beautiful flowing dresses. It's just a great ballet for costumes."
The George Balanchine Trust must approve all new "Midsummer" costumes to ensure they replicate the gossamer allure of the original 1962 production. Now it may seem like a no-brainer - a play about fairies should make for a great ballet - but other than "The Nutcracker," "Midsummer" was actually New York City Ballet's first full-length ballet. Success wasn't a given, but Balanchine, the legendary choreographer who directed the company from 1948 until his death in 1983, was determined to turn his favorite play into a dance.
To prepare for her role as Hermia, Severin-Hansen recently reread the text and McBride said that the dancers in the original production carried the script around the studio, too. Balanchine worked very quickly, slipping in choreography sessions between day-to-day rehearsals.
"You needed to be a strong actor to be believable as a character," McBride said. "And I was lucky to have such a beautiful solo, full of pathos, and despair, and stamina - to be as strong in the end as you were in the beginning."
Severin-Hansen learned the solo two weeks ago, when a stager from the Balanchine Trust came to Raleigh. As fans of the play may recall, Hermia becomes the odd woman out of a love triangle once Puck puts a spell on Lysander, sending the mortal chasing after Helena. Many theatrical productions feature jealous Hermia pitching a fit, but Balanchine treated her with greater sympathy.
"The solo is very much driven by angst, and anxiety and searching, and not just because you are feeling lost in the forest, but because your lover just ran off with somebody else," Severin-Hansen said.
Done well, and viewers will never know they are watching choreography conceived 50 years ago.
"It's such a wonderful ballet, as fresh today as it when we first did it," McBride said.