Category In the News

Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times

Noon one day last week found 45 of the fittest young people on the planet — dancers with the Joffrey Ballet — lying on their backs in the company’s Loop rehearsal space, on a floor covered with what looks like hay.

Swedish contemporary music plays. Suddenly they leap up and scatter, running in all directions, flinging the hay at each other, while a big hay wheel is rolled in. Two dancers leap atop it and perform a kind of courtship gavot.

Welcome to the dress rehearsal of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” opening next week at the Civic Opera House. Despite its name, the ballet has nothing to do with either the Shakespeare play or George Balanchine’s 1962 ballet. Rather, this is Alexander Ekman’s joyful solstice frolic.

A glance at the prop list gives an idea of the production’s whimsy. Along with 45 flower crowns, 40 umbrellas, 40 wooden chairs, 40 wine glasses, two bicycles and a hand-held fish — not to be confused with the wooden herring; this is a Scandinavian entertainment, after all — at the very end, in bold-face so as not to be missed, is:

“Hay: 1100 pounds total.”

“It’s actually raffia,” said stage manager Mandy Heuermann. “Haylike, but much less allergenic. It’s flame-treated, to make sure it’s safe, since we basically cover the whole stage floor with it.”

Real hay might also impale the dancers, who are barefoot and are experienced at performing in clouds of various types.

“The dancers are pretty accustomed to dealing with atmosphere,” said principal stage manager Katherine Selig. “We use fog, we use smoke, we use haze. They’re used to it; it’s just part of the job.”

Still, the hay presents unique challenges. Fog doesn’t get wound around your ankles as you twirl.

“It’s definitely a pas de trois, with the hay,” said Amanda Assucena, a Joffrey dancer, laughing as she used the French term meaning “dance for three.” “It’s an extra element, something to be aware of, and take your time working with. It tends to get stuck on our feet; that’s why we rehearse with it.”

There are some good things about the hay — it tends to cushion interactions with the stage. And some bad aspects too.

“When we’re laying on the floor, flinging our arms, it feels like you’re getting waterboarded by the hay,” said Assucena, who also danced “Midsummer” when the Joffrey last performed it in 2018. “I breathe through my mouth. We close our eyes and count, and when it’s time to come up, we come up. We just care about the beauty of it.”

The Joffrey ordered its raffia in 50-pound bales from Ohio.

“All our raffia is harvested from the raffia palms of Madagascar, then dried and stripped into pieces to appear like grass,” said Shelby Owen, at Joseph Stern, a Cleveland-based raffia importer since 1915. “In the past we’ve used it to make faux hay bales for theater performances and displays. Currently, most of our raffia is sold in bulk to duck hunters as camouflage for their hunting blinds and florists as additional foliage decoration. It’s also been used to weave baskets, purses, hats, hula skirts, and figurines.”

Some of the hay is left over from the Joffrey’s previous production of “Midsummer,” which debuted in Sweden in 2015.

“We ordered a lot of it the first time,” said Heuermann. “We weren’t sure how much it would take to fill the stage, we had some left over. It gets reused — it holds up surprisingly well.”

So what does the hay mean?

“Alex really likes to work with different elements,” said Assucena. “He wants the natural look of human beings in nature. In this production, the opening scene, the stage is fully immersed in hay, the dancers flailing it around. The feeling that the sun is finally out, it’s been months and months, The gray skies are gone and now the vibrant color of hay and the dancers flinging it around, can’t help but put a big smile on your face. For me it represents freedom, freeing yourself from something resembling the winter blues — no coats, pure freedom. Beauty and freedom.”

“The hay is its own living, breathing essence in the show,” said Joffrey communications director Ramsey Hoey.

The hay was also pressed into some unscripted roles — Joakim Stephenson, a stager sent by the choreographer to monitor rehearsals, twists a few strands around his fingers, almost like rosary beads, while he scrutinizes the dancers.

“Good job everybody!” he says standing, after a scene concludes. “Let’s spread the hay a little bit ...”

Midsummer Night's Dream April 25-May 5 at the Lyric Opera House. Purchase tickets here.