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Joffrey Ballet mesmerizing in Ekman’s theatrical ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Joffrey Ballet performance of "Midsummer Night's Dream"

The Joffrey Ballet performs Alexander Ekman's "Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Auditorium Theatre. | Cheryl Mann

Barefoot dancers engage in a kind of massive pillow fight. But instead of stuffing feathers flying through the air, they throw bunches of the hay that is spread several inches deep across the entire stage.

Underwear-clad dancers situated across the stage simultaneously let out a primal scream with their faces in different contorted positions. Then, after a pause, one dancer, seemingly grateful for the moment, exclaims, “Thank you.”

The Joffrey Ballet — ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’
When: Through May 6
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Info: joffrey.org

A simulated fish falls to the stage, with an attached stage line making it flop around as though it had just come out of the water. A dancer in a black tutu steps over on point and cuts the line with a pair of lawn trimming shears.

These are just some of the extraordinary sights — and sounds — that populate Alexander Ekman’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which manages to be strange, witty, uncomfortable and wonderful all at the same time.

The 43-member Joffrey Ballet presented the North American premiere of the 2¼-hour ballet Wednesday evening at the Auditorium Theatre, with the production continuing for nine more performances through May 6. Because the Royal Swedish Ballet premiered the work in 2015 and several of the key artistic contributors are Swedish, including Ekman and composer Mikael Karlsson, that country’s ambassador, Karin Olofsdotter, was in attendance.

Forget George Balanchine or Michel Fokine. Set aside “Swan Lake” or “Giselle.” Aside from some limited pointe work and one short classical duet in Act 2 featuring Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili, “Midsummer” has almost nothing to do with traditional ballet.

And despite its title, this piece has no direct connection with Shakespeare. Instead, Ekman goes in a wholly original direction, paying homage to the summer solstice and the centuries-old Scandinavian Midsummer holiday.

“Midsummer” has a simple — some might say simplistic – plot. It follows a daylong celebration of the festival, with an LED monitor above the stage humorously keeping track of the date and time.

Act 1 focuses on the daytime celebration, which includes frolicking amid the hay bales, dancing around a Swedish maypole and enjoying a dissolute dinner along a long banquet table before the revelers finally go to bed.

Act 2 consists of a long dream sequence packed with a cacophony of wild, strobe-lit images – a duo of headless dancers, a levitating bed, a Cousin Itt-like creature covered with hay instead of hair and a male chef on pointe.

In the end, “Midsummer” is not really a story ballet at all. What Ekman has created is more a series of vignettes or tableaus with all kinds of delightful human touches – lovers canoodling under the base of flag pole, a bored cook smoking next to a barbecue grill, a drunk partier being dragged along. In short, the ordinary meets the surreal.

Although movement pervades this work, with the choreographer drawing on folk and modern dance elements among other sources, “Midsummer” still seems to be more theater than dance, at least in any kind of conventional sense. Indeed, one woman at intermission cracked, “Maybe there will be some dance on the second half.”

In the end, there is little in the way of lasting meaning or depth, which should and will frustrate some attendees. Instead, this was much more about sculpting a sensorial, immersive experience, and on that level “Midsummer” succeeds in spades.

The Joffrey has previously presented three shorter works by Ekman as part of larger programs, and the question going into this production was whether the choreographer could successfully sustain his distinctive aesthetic across a full evening. The answer is yes and no.

The piece does get repetitive times, with some sections arguably stretching too far. And that seems to be the point. Ekman wants to provoke a bit of unease, as he does midway in Act 1 when the dancers line up along the front of the stage with wine glasses and look and smile at the audience for an uncomfortably long time.

Joffrey’s versatile dancers deliver all-out, totally committed performances. Standouts include Fabrice Calmels and April Daly in their slow, intertwining duet in Act 2, and Edson Barbosa and Elivelton Tomazi, who enjoy some acrobatic slapstick as two “headless” dancers.

Karlsson’s alluringly iterative, electronic-tinged score, perhaps best described as pop-classical with elements of minimalism, folk and rock, is an essential part of this experience. The six first-rate musicians – a string quartet drawn from the Chicago Philharmonic, pianist Grace Kim and Swedish percussionist Niklas Brommare – are arrayed at the rear of stage, while Swedish indie-rock vocalist Anna von Hausswolff floats through the action as she performs her entrancing vocals.

Whether Ekman has created an enduring ballet is open to question. But this hip, imaginative work clearly taps into the contemporary zeitgeist, and if the ardent cheers Thursday evening were any gauge, “Midsummer” is likely to be a big hit.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.