Category In the News

Lauren Warnecke, Chicago Tribune 

April 26, 2024

This full-tilt, wackadoo extravaganza from Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman is back for the first time since 2018, when Joffrey was the first North American company to premiere it. Then and now, Ekman’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a massive undertaking, made even bigger and better in Joffrey’s new-ish home at the Lyric.

This “Midsummer” has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s “Midsummer.” Here, the material is the solstice holiday marking summer’s longest day, marked by a boozy feast, dancing around a maypole, singing, collecting flowers — and in Ekman’s native Sweden, a nighttime nude swim.

Ekman started with a question: Why do we do this?

One could ask that of most traditions. If you stop to think too hard about Easter bunnies, fireworks, solar eclipse glasses or gender reveal parties, it all gets very weird, very quickly. “Midsummer Night’s Dream” leans all the way into the weird — with extraordinary results.

The Lyric is dressed up for a backyard party, with string lights — those trendy ones with the big bulbs — hung in a canopy over the auditorium’s main floor. In front of the main curtain atop a covered orchestra pit, dancer Dylan Gutierrez lays in a comically short bed for his stature. Above him, random phrases in a sarcastically elegant script are projected on the main curtain; nature sounds are all around (birds and crickets and things).

An old-school alarm clock sound wakes Gutierrez from his slumber, but a cheery, humming Victoria Jaiani traipsing down the aisle and onto the stage is what really rouses him into a joyful realization: It’s midsummer!

As the curtain rises, Gutierrez and Jaiani join a party in progress, with nearly 50 dancers on their knees, whipping and thrashing a stage full of hay. Behind them, a string quartet, pianist and percussionist play composer Mikael Karlsson’s incredible score. Above them, where supertitles ordinarily appear at the opera, a clock indicates the date and time: Friday, June 21, 8:30 a.m. A blazing sun constructed from an orb of stage lights (by Linus Fellbom) gives further context clues about when and where we are.

They romp and frolic, sing and dance, don flower crowns and hold potato sack races in a relatively orderly fashion, at first, until a sudden rain and midday heat devolve decorum and things begin to resemble a frat party. Fernando Duarte smokes, tending a Weber grill in sunglasses. Lovers couple off. Real-life husband and wife Graham Maverick and Brooke Linford (who give their final Joffrey performances with “Midsummer”) get especially frisky, spending a consideration portion of the first act making out. Gutierrez cycles across the stage barefoot; Edson Barbosa sunbathes with vocalist Anna von Hausswolff. A pregnant pause finds the entire company standing awkwardly at the edge of the stage, disingenuously smiling as if attending a not-that-fun family reunion, their toes mere inches from the faces of patrons in the front row. It all leads up to an exquisite, drunken banquet preceding Gutierrez’ inevitable fever dream in the ballet’s second act.

As he startles awake after the intermission, Gutierrez finds himself in a kind of wonderland, though he doesn’t seem entirely delighted to be there. Ekman allowed his characteristically vivid imagination to run wild: flying fish, flying men, headless giants and an extraordinary, nearly naked pas de deux for Jaiani and Gutierrez—perhaps a nod to the aforementioned swim—with a literal fish dive, Gutierrez dipping Jaiani as she swipes a floppy sea creature from the deck. Ignore how ridiculous it all is for just a second to take in the incredible dancing of “Midsummer’s” incredible climax, not just here, but in glorious ensembles periodically popping up throughout the act.

Von Hausswolff reappears, donning a blonde Rapunzel wig, her soaring voice the ballet’s linchpin. If comparisons are useful, the Swedish pop sensation, as she’s billed in the program, has an Avril Lavigne persona with a voice like Kate Bush. But she’s something altogether different here as “Midsummer’s” storyteller and contemplator. It’s her voice, yes, that hits straight to the heart, but also what she says:

The sun stayed above

The moon lingered under

By morning the dancers

Will start to wonder

Had it all been a dream?

Had it all been a blunder?

And who was that foreign girl

With a song made of thunder?

Dreams are often fodder for ballets. Solor takes an opium-induced voyage to the Kingdom of the Shades in “La Bayadere.” There’s Marie’s dreamy trip to the Kingdom of the Sweets (or, in Joffrey’s case, the World’s Columbian Exposition) in “The Nutcracker.” In every case, suspension of disbelief is a useful tool, as it is here. But “Midsummer” is more David Lynch than Marius Petipa. The latter was unapologetic about making exhibition pieces. The former seems to shroud profound meaning in a ridiculous package — not unlike the festivities “Midsummer Night’s Dream” seeks to unpack.

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.

Review: Joffrey Ballet presents “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (4 stars)