Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Hay as happiness, beauty and freedom at Joffrey's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

Photo by Carolyn McCabe for the Joffrey Ballet

     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 Lyric 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."

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  1. The photos here accompanying the blog are so much more evocative than those appearing in the newspaper. Every day actually, but especially so today.

    "Gavot." A new word for me. I looked it up and was surprised to see that the "t" is pronounced, even though it's French, and the accent is on the "a," not the "o." Maybe I'll see how it looks, if I can get off my butt and hie downtown to see a performance.



    1. I can't seem to find a solid answer as to whether it's spelled "gavot" or "gavotte," but in either case, us old Carly Simon fans should remember hearing that word in the last line of the first verse of "You're So Vain":

      "You had one eye in the mirror, as you watched yourself gavotte."

  2. What the hay? The Joffrey ordered its raffia in 50-pound bales from Ohio? Once again, Mr. S has enlightened me about something I had previously not known about my adopted state, and about a material that I had never heard of...until now. My wife remarked: "Of course you didn't,'s a girly thing..."

    Did not know anything about the raffia palms of Madagascar. Nor had I ever heard of Joseph Stern, a century-old Cleveland-based raffia importer that makes faux hay bales for theater performances and displays. And they sell to duck hunters and florists. And is bought for baskets, purses, hats, hula skirts, and figurines. I learn so much at EGD! And that made me do a bit of homework:

    Raffia can also be used for twine, rope, garden ties, and even tree grafting. Its fibers can be dyed and woven into products such as decorative mats, placemats, hats, and shoes. The sap of the Raffia palm can be fermented into raffia wine, which can also be distilled into stronger liquors.. The sap-gathering process, unfortunately, also kills the tree...sacrificed for a good buzz.

    Raffia is often used in textile manufacture, especially African clothing and accessories. Raffia baskets are used for storing household items. Raffia rope is strong and durable. Raffia can be used to create wreaths, garlands, and other decorative items, or as a gift wrap option. And now you know all about this versatile material, some of which is exported illegally from African sources. By the Raffia Mafia?

  3. "When we're laying on the floor, flinging our arms, it feels like you're getting waterboarded by the hay," said Assucena.
    I realize the young lady was having a bit of her own whimsy.
    But, no. It's not like being waterboarded. This is not unlike people saying, "it was like being shot," who have never had this misfortune. I'm confident the Joffrey will put on an outstanding performance. However, the playbill should state that no one was harmed during the production of this ballet.

    1. Mr. Peanut. I don't know why you had to get all bent-out-of-shape about the dancer's metaphor, but all she meant was that she had trouble breathing. This was not whimsy to me. These dancers are put through physical tests that you nor I can imagine. Sorry, but in your own words, "it is not like being shot."

    2. Mr. Peanut is new here, so doesn't realize how discounted being a literal idiot is round these parts. His remark is what I consider a self-own, telling more about himself than the person he is remarking upon.

  4. I had the privilege of producing the Joffrey Ballet's posters and graphics when Jerry Arpino moved the company from NY to Chicago in 1995. Like tate, I think the photography they produce is as beautiful as the dance itself. Going back to its founding, Herb Migdoll was the company photographer and captured the best moments of its revivals of "Parade", "The Green Table", " Afternoon of a Faun", not to mention "The Nutcracker" and many more.

    Thanks to N.S. we gained a marvelous insight today about how truly innovative the Joffrey's dancers and choreographers are. "The Clowns", "Astarte", and "Purple Rain" were all part of the legendary repertoire that made the Joffrey great. It looks like this will be another. How lucky we are to have them in Chicago.

  5. Ballet isn't just dancers in tights and tutus spinning on their toes. It is art form most of don't understand, mostly out of ignorance. Viewing Robert Altman's "The Company" opened my eyes. It's star, Neve Campbell, known for some teen television show, the name I can't recall, started in ballet. There is a point in the film, a group of dancers weaving about the stage, and on one pass before the camera a joyous smile appears on her face. I guessed that it was not an act but true joy from the dance itself, a career that she had once aspired to. While the Hay might have been somewhat annoying, I bet the dancers take joy from the artistry, creating something new for the audience. Brings to mind the finale of Blue Man Group and the storm of paper.


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