Dance

Chicago Dreams About Summer with A Midsummer Night’s Dream–Joffrey Ballet’s North American Premier

Photo courtesy of Derrick Angnolett

The midsummer night’s dream that choreographer Alexander Ekman and artistic director Ashley Wheater are alluding to in this contemporary ballet is not the Shakespearean comedy of marriage and interwoven plots, but rather the Swedish midsummer—a time of intense celebration of rituals and pleasurable outdoor pursuits, preferably at one’s summer lake house. While in Scandinavia those traditions harken back to pagan times and still show up in charming rituals today (dancing around the maypole, collecting seven different flowers on the summer solstice and putting them under your pillow so you can dream about your future partner), they tend to strike the American sensibility as quaint. But the Swedes treat these activities with the kind of vigor and sanctity that Americans reserve for Christmas and Independence day. Still, there is no escaping the common understanding Chicagoans and Swedes alike have for the powerful need to embrace the summer season, and the glory one feels in direct proportion to its brevity. Now add to that a point in the year where it doesn’t even get dark outside, and the frantic sleep cycle fallout that must occur as a result. 

Ekman’s production captures this energy precisely with bewitching choreography, combined with vivid scenography (imagine an ensemble dance in a field of hay—not just dancing in it, but embracing it, tossing it, making it part of the dance and celebration itself) and the intensely layered and environmental score by composer Mikael Karlsson. The score is augmented by the Chicago Philharmonic’s expertise and the crystalline singing of Swedish indie pop singer Anna Van Hausswolff. Anna’s voice vacillates between Disney princess and Kate Bush as she glides her way through the dance sequences like a Nordic spirit, witnessing and commenting via lyrics as the actions unfold. For example, during an orgiastic dining scene at the famous Swedish farm long table, when things go from hilarious to gluttonous, Anna weaves through the chaos and sings, “How many drinks like these can you swallow down? How many fears of yours can alcohol drown?” 

Photo courtesy of Derrick Angnolett.

The ballet begins with a dreamer (Temur Sulusashvili) in bed. Dreamlike sequences evolve from there. With cinematic intensity, ensemble dance numbers unfold with the rising action that a good garden party demands: the toast, the Maypole, the love interest, summer downpours, the pesky photographer, herring! Everything summer is embraced and explored with good humor, and the dreamer himself revels in it for a time. Primary dancers Suluashvili and Victoria Jaiani command the stage but don’t own it, sharing it as they do with a huge cast of nearly 40 performers who seem to be in constant motion, whirling, embracing, consuming, going from summer attire to various stages of undress. Even the symphony is on stage, situated at the back, but clearly a visible component. At one point the pianist simply walks across the stage from a sidewing, temporarily astonishing the dancers and us, pausing the plot, as she takes her seat at the piano.

There is a playful duet in the first act that captures the joy and intrigue of young love, but all is not light and perfect in this summer world, and when we enter Sulusushvili’s nightmares, he still rises to the occasion, playing the dashing protagonist as we go deeper with him in to a dadaesque upside down dream sequence—in to the psyche of the sleep-deprived reveler who has finally succumbed to a nap and who relives the long day. In that world the herring is monster-sized, the furniture is suspended in the air, trees are inverted and hang from the sky, the guests are headless buffoons or lifeless mannequins, and the innocent love interest becomes a seductress, morphing in to three ballerinas in point shoes, and here is where the tone of Ekman’s work uses the vocabulary of classical ballet to question our preconceptions—where the beauty of an en pointe dancer can bend in to a bizarre, willowy otherworldly pose, portraying something not quite human.

Just as in dreams sexy sometimes careens in to creepy, the flocking nature of the dancers is at times humorous and other times an ominous portrayal of mindless group think. In this way, borrowing some of the mojo of Ingmar Bergman, Ekman takes a huge leap in to the obscure to capture the complexity of humanity and of our human foibles in this theatrical ballet, and all in the context of a party on the longest day of the year. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs until May 6 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. Tickets range from $34 to $177.

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