George Balanchine, legend has it, was once a bug.
The great choreographer appeared in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in his home of St. Petersburg, Russia, at the age of 8, about a century ago. While the details of that production are lost to history, perhaps a bit of the spirit of it lives on in Balanchine’s own “Midsummer,” choreographed in 1962 and featuring a crew of very young dancers, whimsically costumed as bugs.
Long a signature work for Pacific Northwest Ballet, “Midsummer” will grace the McCaw Hall stage for an eight-performance run beginning Friday. Among the most excited members of its cast are 48 students from the PNB School, aged 10 to 14, who make up two 24-member bug corps. Each will dance four performances; all have been rehearsing for several weeks, learning the choreography from PNB ballet master Otto Neubert and listening carefully to the lush Mendelssohn score.
In “Midsummer” the bug chorus is interwoven with the action of the story; they’re essentially its corps de ballet. The Shakespeare play on which the ballet is based is filled with plot: A royal couple, two pairs of star-crossed lovers, a feuding fairy king and queen (complete with butterfly court), a group of rustic tradesmen bent on putting on a play. All of these stories overlap as one, with the bugs providing atmosphere (it’s a forest, on a warm night) and charm. The choreography is reflective of much of Balanchine’s work for adult corps de ballet: as a group, they’re perpetually forming intricate, interesting shapes — a constantly moving sculpture of bodies.
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This is challenging work for young dancers, and “Midsummer” is a showcase for some of the school’s finest students, each of whom has studied at the PNB school for at least three years. Unlike PNB’s most kid-centric ballet, “Nutcracker” (which employs far more students; around 200 each year), the “Midsummer” crew didn’t audition for their roles, but were cast by invitation. Ballet masters visited school classes and talked to teachers, looking for musicality, dancing skills, ability to follow direction and respond to corrections. Students were measured, as costumes dictate a specific size range. Not long afterward, letters went out in the mail.
Four bugs, sitting around a PNB conference table last week, remembered that day.
“I was so excited, screaming and jumping up and down,” said Eudora Sheridan, a 12-year-old from Bellevue, about receiving her letter. Ten-year-old Sarah Brooks, from Woodinville, agreed. “My mother said, ‘There’s a letter from PNB! They want you in ‘Midsummer!’”
“ Then I kind of went nuts. I didn’t sleep that night.” Keegan Daley, a 13-year-old from West Seattle (and a veteran of a previous “Midsummer” production) and 10-year-old Lucas Galvan, of Beacon Hill, smiled at the memory.
Of rehearsals, all agreed that the Balanchine choreography is hard work. “There’s so much choreography, you try to keep that in your head as well as all the timing,” said Keegan. “The timing is really fast and kind of hard,” agreed Lucas. Eudora noted the importance of precision: “If anyone’s off or different from someone else, since we’re in the corps, you can really notice it.”
The students are currently rehearsing alone, and things will get even more complicated when the adult dancers join them: Balanchine’s interwoven puzzles allow few missteps. Sarah described a moment where “all the butterflies are running through. We have to be standing in a circle and they’re spinning inside of us and if we’re too close we’re going to trip and fall on our heads.”
It’s difficult, to be sure, but “Midsummer” stager Francia Russell (former PNB artistic director, who worked with Balanchine for many years at New York City Ballet) says the young dancers always rise to the occasion. “They always get it, all of them,” she said. “You can’t overestimate what kids can do.”
Most of the students, she noted, have already had performance experience through “Nutcracker” — “they’re already semiprofessionals. They know the routine of being backstage, they know how to behave, they know what it’s like to dance with an orchestra, they follow all the rules to make a performance possible.”
Eudora, Keegan, Lucas and Sarah all said they’d like to be professional dancers someday. But for now, the “Midsummer” opening night is the goal. “I can’t wait until performances,” said a grinning Lucas. They still await costume fittings (“kind of a ginormous unitard,” said Keegan of the bug costumes, complete with antennae), full company rehearsals, and work on the McCaw Hall stage.
“They’re expecting us to act professionally,” said Sarah — and no doubt, these students, dancing in the footsteps of Balanchine, will do no less.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org