4 out of 4 stars
One word: Wild! The Joffrey Ballet closes its 2017-2018 season with the North American Premiere of Alexander Ekman’s immersive full-length ballet Midsummer Night’s Dream. A vast departure from Shakespeare’s tale, this full-length contemporary production pays homage to the summer solstice and the Scandinavian Midsummer holiday – a time of celebration, mystery, adventure and love. The major theatrical production had its world premiere with the Royal Swedish Ballet in 2015. The performance fragments time and space by transitioning between modern reality and the surreal dreamworld.
This whirlwind performance illustrates the prowess of the internationally renowned Swedish choreographer. Having previously seen Ekman’s ‘Joy’ (April 2017), elements and themes within that piece cropped up within this performance. The fascination with minute and the mundane are hyper stylized. This is seen through the moments such as, ’the shoe drop’ in Joy, and collective sequencing. Taking simple motions and concepts paired with a grand scale and simple or nude costuming with draping hair really heightens the dancer’s movements and challenges the audience on societal norms in a humorous and dramatic way. Not only does Ekman excel at innovative contemporary choreography, but this production scale heightens the piece and is just astounding.
Accompanying the performers on stage is Swedish indie rock vocalist Anna von Hausswolff. Best known for pushing the limits of metal, experimental pop and progressive rock, Hausswolff possesses and extremely impressive clarity and vocal range. Her voice is hauntingly beautiful. Her fourth studio album, Dead Magic, via record label City Slang, has received major international praise following its release on March 2, 2018. Hausswolff performs three songs live among a commissioned score performed live by members of the Chicago Philharomnic by Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson, who has partnered with Ekman on several major works, including his popular contemporary work Tulle. The audio experience within the Auditorium Theatre truly sends you on a journey where you can feel the sun’s rays on your cheek, the rain begin to patter on your head and the floating ether of your dreams.
The timeline within the production is a little fuzzy, but I believe that is the point. Moving backwards from Midsummer on June 20th according to the digital clock suspended above. The first act focuses on the traditional sunny day of celebration full of love and wonder and joy. The staging highlights each characterized group in an absurd manner, but totally parallel to reality: that one annoying friend or relative non-stop photographing everything and everyone, the bbq master with cigarette dangling in mouth solely preoccupied with the grill, the couple constantly making out or the large collective group of party goers. Ekman stages these various clear characters in such a way to interact and flow together in centralized humor.
The hay sequence at the beginning pushes and pulls and flings physical hay just as a scythe would. Primarily focusing on arm movements while kneeling the physical demands then engages into running about the entire stage with loose material underneath. The arcs and extensions of the company in this group work really honor the traditional concept of ballet. Later in the dream sequence, we see a departure from the collective into more complex and abstract story telling. The dreamer, performed by Temur Suluashvili, experiences a night before Midsummer filled with anxiety, weird characters and nightmarish sequences. Suluashvili navigates the space wonderfully and possesses such strength and control in his movement.
The performance embraces the theatrical elements of set and design as much as it does the dancing. “Alexander Ekman is an astounding modern trailblazer,” said Artistic Director Ashley Wheater. “This production is unlike anything audiences have seen in ballet today, mixing together the bold performance elements Ekman is most known for to create a truly theatrical performance.” Ekman’s set design is incredible. The positioning of the musicians and the variety of props and moving set pieces was wonderfully executed. The work explored dimensions of space in such innovative ways that felt fresh although so familiar. A table rises into the air, hay bails roll across stage, breaking the fourth wall, and a full picturesque snapshot of absurdity lowered into the orchestra pit! It has it all!
One particular moment that I found to be impressive was the depiction of the sun. In collaboration with Linus Fellbom’s excellent lighting design, multiple tungsten spots in a large circular pattern cascades light across the stage bathing the dancers in a warm glow. The artistic appeal of something to that scale was executed well, as was the rest of the performance with dynamic gelled lighting and transitions that not only included onstage spots, but also the house lighting as well. Fellbom is credited with more than 180 productions, including the World Tour for Swedish rock band Refused.
The sun in this work seems to be along the lines of a pattern I have noticed with Ekman’s work. There is an element that serves as a stamp or icon in each piece. Comparing again to ‘Joy’, the clean backdrop of a dark space a singular element suspended in air draws attention to the theme or aesthetic of the piece. As if it is a chapter marker or singular representation in the landscape below. Overall, this performance is a must-see! Dynamic and compelling to say the least in the world of contemporary ballet. If you weren’t ready for summer, you will be after this show.
The Joffrey Ballet’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is presented for a limited 10 performance run from April 25th through May 6th, 2018. Tickets are available for purchase at the Joffrey box office (10 E. Randolph), the Auditorium Theatre Box office (50 E Congress Pkwy), by telephone 312-386-8905, or online at joffrey.org
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!