Lucky Chicago. Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman chose the Joffrey Ballet for the North American premiere of his game-changing contemporary ballet Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the union of Ekman and the Joffrey is pure magic.
Although Ekman’s ballet is not directly based on Shakespeare’s play of almost the same name, the two works have genius in common. The Royal Swedish Ballet, which debuted Ekman’s creation in 2015, originally asked the choreographer to adapt the Bard, but Ekman chose his own trailblazing path, celebrating the sensuality of the Scandinavian Midsummer holiday. The longest day of the year makes for the liveliest of times on stage.
Theatergoers are clued into midsummer the moment they enter the lobby of the Auditorium Theatre, which is outfitted with bales of realistic-looking plastic hay as well as hay twisted into a mystical Swedish maypole: a cross topped by a triangle with dangling circles. A similar maypole will appear onstage, along with a Swedish flag, a metal-framed bed straight out of Ikea and — in the second act dream sequence, seemingly choreographed by Salvador Dali — a giant fish, all designed by Ekman. Like a master chef throwing together improbable ingredients, Ekman not only makes it work but also creates a whole new flavor of dance, one that leaves the audience longing for more of this fresh dish.
Those expecting tutus and toe shoes won’t find them in the first act — save for one male dancer, Chef on pointe (Fernando Duarte on opening night), firing up a grill in an apron and toe shoes. Nevertheless, this is ballet. Indeed, it is ballet at its best, exquisitely danced by the Joffrey ensemble under the artistic direction of Ashley Wheater.
Although the work begins in silence, with dancer Temur Suluashvili asleep on that spare bed, Midsummer Night is as much about sound as it is about dance. Music by New York–based Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson — think Aaron Copland with a tribal beat — is performed live by members of the Chicago Philharmonic under the direction of Scott Speck, and all performances feature the haunting vocals of Swedish indie sensation Anna von Hausswolff. Add to that shouts and coos from the dancers, and the stage is filled with sound.
The opening dance sequence is a stunner, transforming the agricultural act of threshing into art. As the barefoot dancers toss loose whorls of straw, the straw completes their arcing movements as if the stalks themselves are dancing. Contrast the buttery yellow straw with Bregje van Balen’s fluid costumes in shades of sage and seafoam and the effect is that of a John Singer Sargent painting, The Threshers, set in motion. Those arcing movements, along with outstretched arms that mimic the maypole, continue throughout, supplemented in the second act by edgier movement to match the fluctuating mood of the dream sequence, with one dancer floating through space and a pulsating corpus of dancers in tight flesh-toned costumes — a human bale of hay. Lyricism returns with lovers’ pas de deux (Jeraldine Mendoza and Greig Matthews; Brooke Linford and Graham Maverick) and a twist of female dancers in oversized gauzy shirts — more beautiful than any flock of classically dancing swans.
Props like a long table topped with candelabra (and sometimes with dancers) further the narrative and enhance the accessibility of the piece. It’s not necessary to decipher every puzzle in Midsummer Night — after all, some of it grows out of dream logic — but the work is constantly engaging.
Projected above the stage are illuminated date and time stamps that promise to carry the audience through the longest day of the year, but when examined carefully, the dates and times don’t add up. After all, time, like dance, is fluid. And with a work as fresh and original as Midsummer Night’s Dream, it pays to go with the flow.
Midsummer Night’s Dream
Through May 6
Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. congress, Chicago
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $34–$177 at Joffrey; Joffrey or Auditorium box offices; or (312) 386-8905
Photos: Cheryl Mann