Ballet and humor aren't the most common dance partners, yet the Sacramento Ballet has found comic charm in its new program at the Community Center Theater.
Opening with George Balanchine's wry "Western Symphony" and following with co-artistic director Ron Cunningham's whimsical and elegant "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the company sustains a deft lightness throughout.
(The program continues tonight and Sunday afternoon.)
Both pieces revolve around the vagaries of lovers and would-be lovers, and of matches well-made and ill-fitting.
Choreographer Balanchine, a Russian émigré, had a fondness for Americana and he indulged it with winking admiration in his three-part "Western Symphony," which premiered in 1954. Set in the woodsy saloons and dusty streets of a romantic Old West, each section features lovelorn cowboys and enticing dance hall girls who keep the fellas guessing.
Hershy Kay's exhilarating score imbeds orchestrations of classic American folk songs, including "Good Night Ladies," "Red River Valley," "Rye Whiskey" and "Oh Dem Golden Slippers."
Similarly, Balanchine's classical choreography slyly incorporates Western folk dance movements and gestures. Amanda Peet and Oliver-Paul Adams take the frisky lead in the opening Allegro, which includes 12 other dancers in Balanchine's representation of what could have been a square dance.
In the middle Adagio, Alexandra Cunningham repeatedly flirts with Stefan Calka's eager cowboy, and the rousing Rondo and Finale feature Ava Chatterson and Christopher Nachtrab and the vibrant company in what feels like a celebratory barn raising.
Cunningham's own sensual (and demanding) choreography for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" benefits from Christina Giannini's ornately visceral scenic design. (Giannini also designed the costumes with Theresa Kimbrough.)
Both Shakespeare's source play and Cunningham's ballet center on couples and their romantic tribulations, though here the matters play more comic than dramatic.
Cunningham foregrounds his story with the dispute between Oberon, king of the fairies (a commanding Oliver-Paul Adams) and his queen, Titania (the fine Kaori Higashiyama). He's jealous of a young boy (Dylan Margolis) she's adopted and demands she give him up. Titania, as queens sometimes will, refuses.
Adams has a regal physical presence that serves his brooding unhappy king quite well. Jackson Jirard brings an explosive vibrancy to his antic Puck, who creates chaos among young lovers in the forest.
Peet, Calka, Alexandra Cunningham and Nachtrab play the mortals trying to find the right matches and fall under Puck's love spells during a night of wandering, highlighted by stunning partnering and pirouettes. These mortals often convey their story with comic, silent-film-style miming.
Puck, of course, has the most fun with Alexander Biber's hapless Nick Bottom.
Composer Felix Mendelssohn's music includes the well-known "Wedding March," and the large cast is filled out by a gloriously outfitted children's ensemble.
Cunningham's production has an ethereal quality fitting the essence of the story.
THE SACRAMENTO BALLET
What: Ron Cunningham's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with George Balanchine's "Western Symphony"
When: 7:30 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Community Center Theater, 1501 L St., Sacramento
Tickets: $17-$70 at the box office
Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.