The joke is on dance patrons if they think choreographer Alexander Ekman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or if they’ll hear Felix Mendelssohn’s famed music. In fact, any preconceived notions about this show are best left at the historic Auditorium Theatre doors.
That’s because the North American premiere, performed by Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, is anything but traditional. For starters, the dancers speak, some drop trou, and a couple literally lose their heads with the help of Bregje van Balen’s imaginative costumes. Even more unexpected are times when the performers break the fourth wall, and the production lets down the curtain to expose the backstage mechanics used to generate theater magic.
According to the Joffrey’s decade-long 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.”
Indeed, the full ballet sometimes resembles a high-end musical. In addition to the contemporary score by Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson (perfectly performed on stage by the Chicago Philharmonic), the work features Swedish indie rocker Anna von Hausswolff, who sings as she walks among the dancers. Her haunting voice and thematic lyrics lend partial narration to an otherwise barebones story.
First performed in Stockholm in 2015, the American production is also set in Sweden, only during June 2018. It follows an unnamed man who has daydreams (Act One) and nightmares (Act Two) about the summer harvest. One could say he’s dreaming of wheat solstice as the Joffrey’s 40-member company makes hay while the spotlight shines.
Throughout the two-hour (plus intermission) performance, Ekman provides plenty of bells and whistles, sometimes at the expense of choreographic content. Along with an abundance of hay, thunder crashes, misty rain fills the atmosphere, a bed hovers above the dancers, a banquet table defies gravity, and the stage periodically rises and lowers for no apparent reason other than it can.
Superfluous set pieces (including a giant fish head and underused Maypole) are carried on and off stage thanks to the athletic cast that doubles as crew. More surreal than the REM setting is the fact that such talented artists are serving the props when it ought to be the other way around. Instead of sweeping hay off stage (or performing pantomime in slow motion and staring down the audience for laughs), the dancers could have been using more time to, well, dance.
Yet because the work favors spectacle over substance, its visual feats are undeniably impressive. The first-rate production may certainly delight seasoned patrons who feel they’ve seen it all before and dazzle greener viewers who ain’t seen nothing yet. It also fulfills a need for hybrid entertainment, not to mention amuse those with a taste for Scandinavian humor.
The Joffrey Ballet performs “Midsummer Night’s Dream” through May 6 at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway. For tickets ($34-$177), visit www.joffrey.org.
Photo credit: Cheryl Mann