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Joffrey Ballet to premiere a very different ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Alexander Ekman rehearses "Midsummer Night's Dream" with the Joffrey Ballet.

Alexander Ekman rehearses "Midsummer Night's Dream" with the Joffrey Ballet. | Annie Costabile / Sun-Times

“You’re acting too much,” Alexander Ekman was telling a group of 43 Joffrey Ballet dancers. “It has to be believable.”

The internationally recognized Swedish choreographer was speaking during a rehearsal of a section of his new ballet “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which offers a strange mix of blind processions, temper tantrums and angry screams. If those don’t sound like the ingredients of traditional ballet, that’s the point.

“I think that’s the charm of it — that you don’t really know what it is,” Ekman says in an interview of the 2¼-hour work. “It’s not only dance, it’s not theater; it’s something in between, and it’s quite entertaining in a different way.”

The Joffrey will present the North American premiere of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with 10 performances, running Wednesday-May 6 at the Auditorium Theatre. It’s the company’s final offering of the 2017-18 season.

Joffrey Ballet, “Midsummer Night’s Dream”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, with nine more performances through May 6
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy.
Tickets: $34-$177
Info: joffrey.org
Run time:  2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

This work, which the Royal Swedish Ballet debuted in 2015, has nothing directly to do with Shakespeare’s play of the same title, so don’t be confused. The company originally did ask Ekman to create an adaptation of the classic comedy, but he decided to go in a different, more daring — yet, at times, still witty — direction.

“I think the evening has the same sensuality and lust and dreamy world as [Shakespeare’s] ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ so it was a good match on that level,” the 34-year-old choreographer says.

His ballet pays homage to the summer solstice and the centuries-old Scandinavian Midsummer holiday. It has a simple plot — essentially it follows a daylong celebration of the event, focusing on one couple in particular.

“In my work,” Ekman says, “I like to take ordinary situations and then just twist them a little bit more so we see them and relate to them and see the absurdity.”

The ballet opens with daytime activities like dancing around a maypole and ends with a grand dinner and the revelers going to bed. Act Two consists of a sequence of dreams — good and bad ones.

Alexander Ekman’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” being performed by the Royal Swedish Ballet. | Hans Nilsson

“I love that because just you can go crazy with your imagination because it’s a dream,” Ekman says. “So anything can happen.”

“Midsummer” is set to the music of New York-based Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson, who has collaborated with Ekman on several productions. The score, to be performed live, includes a string quartet, piano and an array of percussion.

Choreographer Alexander Ekman rehearses his production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the Joffrey Ballet on April 17. 2018. |
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

Joining the musicians for three songs will be Swedish indie-rock vocalist Anna von Hausswolff, who has a “dreamy” voice Ekman says is ideally suited to this work. A TeamRock.com review of her new album “Dead Magic” describes her singing as a combination of “art pop, drone and post-metal.”

People who have been to one or more of the Joffrey’s presentations of three previous, shorter Ekman works should have some idea of what to expect in “Midsummer.” Everyone else should be ready for a barrage of contrasting dance styles, as well as spoken word and vocalizations — elements not typically seen in ballet or dance of any kind.

“It’s really, really eclectic and kind of all over the place,” says Dylan Gutierrez, who has been a Joffrey dancer since 2009. “One minute, you’re stomping. One minute, you’re just using your arms. The next minute, you’re just walking around and making these very discrete rhythms.”

Ashley Wheater, Joffrey’s artistic director, found the ballet’s 2015 premiere in Sweden a “beautiful experience.” He thought it would be a perfect way for the Chicago company to reach out to younger audiences, people beyond its usual subscribers and ticket-buyers.

“A lot of people have an idea that ballet is something that they’re not sure they really want to see,” he says. “And this is really about performance art, theater and dance. So it’s very different way of looking at the company.”

First-year Joffrey dancer Greig Matthews encourages people to bring an open mind to “Midsummer.”

I think they’re going to love it,” Matthews says.”But it’s not going to be a typical Joffrey production.”

Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.

Members of the Joffrey Ballet rehearse Alexander Ekman’s production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the Joffrey Ballet on April 17. 2018. |
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018