Some people avoid the well-trodden path and carve a unique trajectory. So it is with Mats Ek, who makes his London debut as a dancer at the grand age of 69. Together with his wife, Ana Laguna, he will perform the duet, “Memory”, in the Elixir Festival at Sadler’s Wells. Dance longevity seems to be a family trait; in 1977 he choreographed “Soweto” in which his mother, Birgit Cullberg then aged 69, played a central role.
Several years back I saw Laguna and Ek perform “Memory” at the Dance Salad Festival in Houston. At the dress rehearsal, youngsters from a local school were the invited audience and I asked their opinion of the programme. Most of their praise centred on the virtuosity and the costumes of the dance works, then one young man said in a rich Texan drawl, “And those two old folks! Man, they were so cool!” I thought it wonderful that a simple duet of human relations in a setting of banal domesticity had reached out across the miles and across the ages. This is the genius of Mats Ek: he cuts the crap and reaches directly to the heart of the matter. “That is the thrill. All communication, if it is worthwhile, is taking risk,” says Ek.
Mats Ek has been a dominant force in Swedish dance for decades. For the greater part of his career he was associated with Cullberg Ballet, first as dancer and later as choreographer and director. While his reputation rests on his revisioned classics, “Giselle”, “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty”, he has also had great success with one act works such as “A Sort of …” written for NDT in 1997 and “Appartement” for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2000 and recently taken into the repertoire of the Bolshoi Ballet. He has also written many works for the Royal Swedish Ballet who now come to London with “Juliet and Romeo”, his first full length ballet in 17 years.
Currently Ek moves with ease between dance and theatre. His productions, notably of August Strindberg’s plays, have received great acclaim. His current production of “Emigrants” at the Royal Dramatic Theatre is a sold out success. His talents extend to televised dance works: “Smoke” featuring Sylvie Guillem and Niklas Ek, and “Carmen” with Ana Laguna each gained an Emmy Award.
Ballet is so often equated with aesthetic beauty that, for the traditionalists, Ek’s sinewy and potent choreographic language borders on heresy. I asked him about the process that enables him to transpose the narrative into the body.
“I imagine all artistic language is a question of selection and if you chose not to use mimetic material you end up having to find solutions within the body. You can use the hands, of course, but maybe not in the conventional sense. You can use the face, yes, but not giving signals that could, in my case, be better expressed with the body”.
Ek’s “Juliet & Romeo”, set in an unspecified ‘theatre time’ centres on the tragic figure of Juliet and raises the still relevant question of a young women’s right to choose her life partner and follow her heart. Ek has dispensed with the character of Friar Laurence. “In the play, both the Friar and the nurse are confidents and matchmakers, so I simply use the nurse for both parts.”
Ek’s ploy also removed what he called, “a crucial difficulty” – how to embody in dance the message of the potion that simulates death. “You cannot tell that in dance, you can only portray it as a physical excerpt, or tell it through pantomime, which I wanted to avoid. My way to solve it was to use the fury of the father.”
I felt the father was also a victim of social demands. Ek agreed to some extent, “The father is caught in a culture of honour which tragically forces many fathers or brothers to kill their sisters and daughters to protect that so called ‘honour’. But the victim is, of course, Juliet.”
While many recent versions of the ballet end in the tomb with the lovers’ death, Ek continues on to a reconciliation. “Shakespeare meant it that way. One never knows what happens later, but mourning the deaths of the youngsters brings the families more or less together; so their sacrifice is not totally in vain.” In the final picture there is a mutual concession to the appalling events as the ensemble assumes the posture of the dead lovers, raising their bare feet in a visual symbol of empathy.
Another innovation in this production is the music which is like a breath of fresh air. Ek wanted a score that was less prescriptive than Prokofiev’s well loved music and worked with Anders Högstedt to arrange a selection of Tchaikovsky’s music. It is an evocative mix of the well-known and the little known. The light-hearted “Capriccio Italien”, accompanies the Nurse’s foray into the city to find Romeo while he gives the theme from the composer’s ‘Sixth Symphony’, popularised in the ballad “The Story of a Starry Night” to the lovers in the garden. The rarely performed “Tempest” fantasy overture backgrounds the opening in the smoke filled gritty urban scene while the Capulets strut and preen to his ‘Fifth Symphony’.
Mats Ek works primarily with ballet companies and declared, “I am very dependent on what the dancers offer.” He notes the importance of a good classical training but also experience and a talent for, “what we roughly call modern dance. I try to explore both and I don’t think, ‘now it’s modern, now it’s classical.’ It’s more about coordination.” Casting his Juliet he also widened the age range.
“I deliberately used some elderly dancers. There are things to explore in older bodies which are unlike a fresh young dancer; and the point is that they are unlike. While there are great possibilities to be found in young dancers it is difficult to play Shakespeare when you are 16. You need to have some baggage to live up to the possibilities he offers.”
The Elixir Festival, which opens on September 12, celebrates lifelong creativity and Laguna and Ek are prime examples. “I think it is an exciting trend,” he said. “The start for me was Jiří Kylián’s wonderful initiative with NDT3. That was the first time I worked with older bodies.”
I asked Ek about keeping in training in his busy life of choreographing and directing. “Well, I train to match my capacity and in order to manage my work. One can quickly forget how difficult, and how wonderful it is to be able to perform.”
Last Saturday at the Positano Awards in Italy, Ana Laguna and Mats Ek were awarded the most prestigious of the prizes, the Lifetime Achievement Award, for their contribution to dance. For the first time the Positano Prize was partnered with the Benois de la Danse prize, which went to Mariko Kida, who created the role of Juliet in Ek’s “Juliet and Romeo”.
In August 2014, Ek received an honorary professorship from the Swedish Ministry of Culture. The award dates back to the 18th century and is given in recognition of services to the community outside of the academic world.
The Royal Swedish Ballet perform Mats Ek’s “Juliet and Romeo” at Sadler’s Wells from 24-27 September. Click here for details.