Review: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at Joffrey Ballet

Review: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at Joffrey Ballet

Pictured: Derrick Agnoletti. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

By Elizabeth Ellis

When anyone sees the title A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, of course we recall the familiar elements of the story: among others, Titania and Oberon, lovers’ quarrels, and Puck asking, “If we shadows have offended.” If you visit the Auditorium Theatre and expect to see any of the above, you’re in for a huge and wonderful surprise. While Alexander Ekman’s masterpiece adaptation for the Joffrey Ballet bears no resemblance to Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, it is nevertheless a joyous and exuberant blending of gorgeous movement and glorious imagination.

Take the overall feeling of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, blend in a little Salvador Dali, a touch of Roger Waters. and Pink Floyd, a pinch of Monty Python, and, as my companion said, “a little Molly,” and you have some idea of the experience of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Ekman, who choreographed and designed the fantastical set, chose the Scandinavian observance of the Summer Solstice (Midsommar) as the inspiration for the dance. Above the stage, long strings of tiny lights offer the warmth of a backyard party. On the closed curtains, we read projected phrases like “Have you seen my husband?,” “ I lost my shoe,” and “A roll in the hay?” Each gives you a hint to the celebrations about to take place. Off to one side in front of the curtain lies a man (Temur Suluashvili) sleeping in a white iron frame twin bed, soon to be awakened by a familiar beeping alarm. A woman (Victoria Jaiani) enters from behind the curtain to help him get dressed and begin his day. They depart to the stage and to one of the most striking and beautiful opening sequences. Above the stage is a digital clock that reads “Fri 20 June 2018”: this year’s Midsummer, and the whole stage is covered in hay. The 40+ dancers are illuminated by a bright sun and are dancing in the hay, swirling it about, tossing it, rolling in it (literally). The visual this creates is stunning and magical. After the harvest, the dancers collapse into the hay in exhaustion. The sun brightens and moves through the sky, and the giant backyard celebration is in high gear, including a huge banquet-table feast, a grill master and sun worshippers, and a towering hay-covered pole resembling a sigil, around which the partygoers dance. At one point, all the dancers come to the edge of the stage and toast the audience with their glasses, where Ekman also plays with the aural idea of all the company engaging in one sound (slurping their wine, later slamming all their glasses down at the same time). The drunkenness now permeates the assembled, as does the licentiousness, and the feeling becomes more like a potent Beltane observance as Act 1 ends.

Act II begins and the dream morphs into more of a nightmare scenario. It’s at this point that if you allow yourself to let the wonder of what’s happening onstage flow over you, and you give yourself over to the whimsy and strangeness, you will find yourself enchanted by the production. A replica of the white iron bed rises and floats above the stage, life-sized mannequins hang about the risen extra-long banquet table, and two headless men patrol the stage. Occasionally fish, huge and small, frightening and sparkly, make their way out. One male dancer, unclothed save for a strategically placed apron, dances en pointe, and most of the rest the company spends the bulk of Act II in their most basic undergarments, moving together at a glacial pace around perimeter of the stage. The dance resolves with Suluashvili and Jaiani returning to their morning routines, and we return from a fascinating dreamworld.

Swedish singer Anna von Hausswolff’s wonderfully haunting voice adds the perfect touch of eeriness, while Mikael Karlsson’s intensely beautiful score brings in elements of world music with simpler and more familiar themes. Bregje Van Balen’s simple yet timeless costumes, awash in neutrals, look like the company went to J. Crew for wedding party attire, and fit the production perfectly.

Obviously this is not a conventional ballet, with a recognizable narrative, and with only a small part devoted to traditional ballet dance. But this unique and astonishing achievement will long remain in the minds of Joffrey patrons, and cements Ekman as a singularly gifted creative force in 21st-century dance.

 

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM runs through May 6th. For more information visit joffrey.org.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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