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  • Megan Kudla

Joffrey Ballet's mystifying "Midsummer Night's Dream"

With the arrival of June, the maypoles in Sweden are resurrected, and the celebration of the summer solstice begins. The Midsummer tradition is known for its revelry, particularly in the countryside. Dance, love, and libations… This is the scene where the Joffrey Ballet’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” begins—but it’s not where it ends.

 

This show takes the themes of the Scandinavian summer solstice tradition and abstracts them, bringing the audience on a journey through a vivid series of dreams. It experiments with sound and illusion, and, like any dream, a moment of clarity quickly becomes a moment of confusion. It has the glamour, sensuality, and comedy similar to Shakespeare’s famed play, but it takes on a life of its own with choreographer Alexander Ekman’s rendition.

 

Photo by Cheryl Mann

When the curtains open for the first time, the audience is assailed with a striking visual: Under a warm, sunlit glow, a crowd of country-goers are rollicking in a sea of hay. It’s a textural paradise, with large fistfuls of the soft golden grass being thrashed and sprayed up into the air with pure delight. The blissful dream has begun.


By the finale of Act I, after a sumptuous dinner around a long candle-lit table that cuts across the stage, there is a foreboding that looms. The mystique is palpable as the company spills, in slow motion, over the lip of the stage and into the audience, as if being pulled by an invisible force into the ether. The haunting voice of Swedish vocalist and pop sensation Anna Von Hausswolff sings, “How many fears of yours / Can alcohol drown? / This one will surely go down.”

 

Two headless, suited people sit at a long table and throw wine glasses in the air. Joffrey Ballet's Midsummer Night's Dream
Photo by Cheryl Mann

And down it goes, as we are plunged into a disjointed dreamland of absurdities, with unexpected and over-the-top visuals, like two headless men having a drink;

the long table slowly tipping up into the air and a man falling from it; and a fish growing in size each time it makes an appearance. Rapid flashes of performers run and scream across our line of vision, becoming more and more disheveled, reckless, and hilarious.


Through it all, Von Hausswolff remains a ghostly character, walking among the performers, joining the chaos, and ultimately leading us through the wild churning of events. As themes, sounds, and images of the Midsummer festivities slowly break down and disappear, she guides the audience through both moments of beauty and ongoing commotion.

 

A woman in a flower crown holds a candlestick
Photo by Cheryl Mann

Dreams are nonsensical. They pull out bits of reality and obscure them into horrifying images and laughable circumstances. As the performance reaches the end, we are lost within this bewildering universe, unsure when the dream ends, the nightmare begins, and the fantasy becomes complete abandon.

 



You can buy tickets starting at $36 to Ekman’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” performed by the Joffrey Ballet, at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Upper Wacker Drive, through May 5, 2024. Visit Joffrey.org for more information.




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