In this essay I will present one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, Mats Ek. I will describe his specific stylistic characteristics, themes and dance vocabulary bringing as examples some of his most important re-adapted works such as Giselle, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.
Life and career
Mats Ek was born in Malmo, Sweden on the 18 of April 1945. He came from a very culturally active background: he was the son of a famous Swedish actor Anders Ek and the internationally recognized choreographer Birgit Cullberg, founder and director of the Cullberg Ballet, his sister Malin was an actress and his brother Niklas a dancer.
Mats Ek started his dance studies (Martha Graham technique) with Doya Feur in 1962 alongside with drama studies. In 1965 he became a full time drama student at the Marie College but few years later he returned to dance training at the Stockholm Ballet Academy. His first theatrical working experience began as the producer and then director of the Puppet Theatre in Stockholm.
During the season 1980-1981, he was associated with the Nederland Dans Theater as dancer as well as choreographer. Few years later he joined the Cullberg Ballet as a dancer and in 1985 he became the artistic director of it, he directed the company for eight years. He left it in 1993 being replaced from Lidstrom and Wennergren Juras.
Re-making of the ballet classics
“Over ten years ago I saw it(Giselle) for the first time- with Makarova. She was really gripped me. Already then, I thought the traditional story of Giselle contains many hidden possibilities which are not recognized. There are various trails leading inside, but they are not utilized. They lie fallow or else are powered over”
(Ek, Mats interviewed by Tegeder, Ulrich. Create characters, special people. Ballet International,5,1983:19)
Mats Ek is a very innovative choreographer of his time, the post modern era. Postmodernism is a movement that rebels against traditional ideas. Mats Ek is an active man of his time fully absorbed by the rebellion that was happening those years. This new ideas incite him to rebel against the traditional ballet classics radically modifying them and giving his own interpretation of them. All of his works are still narrative works but the storyline of all the ballets is updated.
“The investigation of narrative alleys,epic paths and metaphorical tunnels is what provides the primary stimulus for re-telling those stories by creating new dances”
(Giannandrea Poesio, Dancing Times, October 2003 page 23)
His alternative storylines are pure reality not fairytales, he is not interested in abstract concepts, he change the conventional viewpoint putting on stage actual themes. He gives the audience a taste of contemporary reality.
“A fairytale is a sweet little cottage, but on the door you can read: Explosive!” Mats Ek
The most famous ballets he reinterpreted are traditional ballets such as Giselle (1982), Swan Lake (1987) and Sleeping Beauty (1996).
Mats Ek’s Giselle is something completely different from Perrot’s original version. The character of the young Giselle is completely flipped over; she is not the sixteen years old innocent girl but a passionate and sexual active woman. In Giselle in fact, Ek introduces and shows sexuality and love seen such a sexual one and not a romantic one anymore.
“A lonely, somewhat weaker than the-average-Prince-Siegfried, who questions his sexuality (think Oedipus complex) and his mother’s open issues in attempting to marry him to someone just like herself. The Prince encounters androgynous creatures, swans that waddle through the ground rather than the graceful water creatures that we know from Petipa/Ivanov.” (http://www.theballetbag.com/2012/07/13/mats-ek-biography/)
“The teenager Princess Aurora falls in love with “the wrong guy” and ends up in a drug-induced coma. Carabosse appears as a drug dealer and tempts Aurora into pricking her finger with the “needle”. At Aurora’s birth the fairies are maternity nurses and later they are pop culture characters out of a TV show, while the Prince is a spectator.”
“Ek has made an astounding break from the Sleeping Beauty we know and love, leaving not a single stone of Petipa’s edifice standing, renouncing all the choreographic gems cut by the imperial jeweller of the Tsarist ballet”
(Vollmer, Horst. Irreverently Classical: Mats Ek stages Sleeping Beautywith the Hamburg Ballet. Ballet International,7,1996:19)
Törnrosa – GöteborgsOperans Balett
There are also some works that seem not to follow a precise storyline like Smoke (1995) or Appartement (1999) but they can’t be described as abstract works because oh their strong content.
Stylistic elements of his choreography
Mats Ek choreography has two main characteristic elements: clarity and irony. All of his choreographies have a direct and immediate message, really easy to understand by the audience. With the new version of the traditional ballets in fact Ek wants to go straight to the point in the shortest time possible opposing his works to the articulate and often ambiguous traditional ballets. “Clarity is the choreographer’s key word, as opposed to what he calls the ambiguity of the conventions and the cliché of classical ballet, “clarity”, however, should not be mistaken of simplicity. In both Giselle and Swan Lake there lies beneath an accessible, straightforward dramatic construction an intricate amalgam os social, political, cultural and literary references”
(Fifty Contemporary choreographers) Another important element of Ek’s choreography, as the quote above suggests, is the dramatic construction of his works. Ek does not just present dramatic situations to the audience but he creates all around an atmosphere of irony.
“Irony is a characteristic element of Ek’s choreography, in which strong images and dramatic situations often contrast with brief, humorous episodes”
(Fifty Contemporary choreographers second edition)
“Even amidst the darkest and most poignant moments of a not-so-happy-ending situation, he manages to insert fire-cracking comic sections or references that enhance greatly the dramatic build up by creating a unique game of contrasts and choreographic chiaroscuro”
(Giannandrea Poesio, Dancing Times, October 2003 page 25)
Clear examples can be found in Giselle and Swan Lake: The two male peasants’ comic duet in front of Albrecht’ fiancée just before the arrival of the aristocratic and the end of the act in Giselle. The three jesters’ dances just before the end of the lack scene in Swan Lake. These comic episodes are introduced with great ability every time a dramatic situation reaches its climax.
“Political, social, racial and sexual concerns informed Ek’s first three creations, Kalfaktorn (1976), St George and the Dragon (1976) and Soweto (1977); psychological themes and gender issues played a part in both House of Bernarda Alba (1978) and Antigone (1979) long before Giselle and Swan Lake” (Fifty Contemporary choreographers second edition)
The main interest of the choreographer is to explore the human psychology and the human relationships.
“In reworking ballet classics, Ek’s creed is to render the characters alive, providing a clear description of their inner emotions and contrasts. The psychological characterization of the role is thus enlarged; the characters’ relationships and their emotional response to the development of the action are considered in greater depth ” (Fifty Contemporary choreographers second edition)
There are various examples of different human relationships in Ek’s works:
Man/Woman in Smoke.
“In “Smoke” Mats Ek shows the relationship between a man and a woman (Niklas Ek and Sylvie Guillem). Each of them has his/her own life as expressed in their respective solos. They meet and mingle tenderly and violently in two pas de deux. The smoke which comes from their clothes and mouths expresses their communication.”
Family relationships (parent/ child) in Swan Lake as Prince Siegfried are given an oedipal complex or in Sleeping Beauty when Aurora turns against her parents. Close to this is the very theme of “motherhood” that is explored many times as well as the one about gender issues in his works. In Giselle, for example, the only activity conducted by the women is giving birth as the eggs brought on stage by the peasant woman seem to suggest. Gender issues are overall explored in The house of Bernarda Alba (1980) since the main character is performed by a man and in Carmen where the main character seems to be much more masculine than her man. Ek is, once again, fighting against traditions; he rebels against the traditional way of characterizing by stylized movements man and woman on stage. Ballet pieces tend to prefer some movements to be performed by female dancers and different ones by males. Ek instead tries “to cross the boundaries of given gender-specific movements, finding that really interesting” (Ek,Mats in Jensen,Gunilla, Intervista a Mats Ek, Reggio Emilia Danza: Edizioni del teatro municipale Valli,2002, p.38)
“The movement language usefully opens up gender binaries leading to much more contemporary representations of man and woman. He exposes complexities of gender by inverting the far more conventional, steryotiped and idealised figures of traditional ballet”
(Midgelow Vida, Reworking texts- inverting bodies, Mats Ek radically reconceived the classics, Ballet Theatre Journal)
Rich and poor in Giselle. In this work Ek introduces the social theme of class differentiation. Giselle, completely in love with prince Albrecht who is clearly from a different social class, attempts to transgress the social rules. Finally she will be punished and rejected from her and Albrecht’s social class.
White and black in Soweto (1977). The mechanical doll’s endless movements represent the white people’ prejudices against the blacks. They are repetitive movements and they symbolized the unchangeable ideas of the whites about the black people.
Society and outsider in the second act of Giselle. Giselle is banished from her social class and trapped into the mental hospital. This is a clear example of the society oppression. Giselle is banished because mentally disable and considered unable to find her place into the society again.
Mats Ek choreography is a totally new and innovative choreography. It is based on contemporary techniques. Ek gives much more importance to the body weight so his steps look more grounded and heavy. The dancers make a very good use of the floor. His movement language is really particular, there is a fluid use of the torso in contrast with the lower part of the body that is usually bend (bend knees). Very interesting is the constant research of opposition between inwards and outwards movements. The dancer seems first to perform a movement that reaches out from his body’s centre that ends being suddenly pulled back. Ek’s movement language reflect his themes and narrative intention, it goes against the original movements of the classical ballet.
“Ek’s choreography inverts the traditional language of the ballet, he eschews ballet codes. He leaves behind the conventions of gendered vocabularies and the structured hierarchy of the pas de deux in favour of more diverse representations”
(Midgelow Vida, Reworking texts- inverting bodies, Mats Ek radically reconceived the classics, Ballet Theatre Journal)
A clear example is given by the swans in Swan Lake. In the traditional ballet in fact swans are seen as beautiful and ethereal animals perfectly synchronized with each other in every movement. Ek’s swans instead are “a set of independent earthly creatures that cross the stage with weighty gallops and stamping feet” (Midgelow, Vida).
Mats Ek’s experience in different art form really helped to develop his choreography. Mats Ek is not just a dancer but also an actor and puppeteer. In some of the choreographer’s works there are some clear references to literature. Ek seems to be strongly linked to the famous dramatis William Shakespeare. For example the relationship between Prince Siegfried and his mother can remind us the one between Hamlet and Gertrude.
Influences and muses
His mother, Birgit Cullberg, was the most important Ek’s influence. He dedicated a whole work to her: Old Children (1989). He learned a lot from her while he was sharing with her the artistic leadership of the Cullberg Ballet. There are lot of common themes between the two of them but different stylistic characteristics. Birgit’s style in fact was much more closer to balletic style.
“The attention to psychological characterization, the sensitive portrayal of human feelings, the juxtaposition of strong images and humorous episodes can be seen as typical attributes of both Cullberg’s and Ek’s creations”
(Poesio,Giannandrea. Fifty Contemporary Choreographers)
Ana Laguna, Ek’s wife, is the inspiring muse of the choreographer. She originated Giselle character, the Swan Queen in Swan Lake and the protagonist in Carmen. “The character of Giselle would have never been born without Ana Laguna” (Giannandrea Poesio)
Ana Laguna, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mats Ek
Another great dancer who inspired him was Sylvie Guilleme. Ek created for her three works: Smoke, Wet Woman and Bye.
I enjoyed so much writing this essay. I think Mats Ek is an absolute genius, his choreographies are brilliant original and innovative. I love his reinterpretations of the three ballet classics, and his choreographic style. The movement vocabulary is unconventional and provocative. He is a choreographer simple and in its clarity and spontaneity we recognized his greatness. The messages arrive immediately to the audience, we do not need any explications or help to understand what the choreographer wants to say we just need to seat and enjoy the performance.
Martha Bremser, Lorna Sanders. Fifty Contemporary Choreographers, Routledge Taylor. London and New York 2011. Accessed on 8th of April 2013 Articles:
Pesio, Giannandrea. Mats Ek. The Dancing Times, October 2003. p 22. Accessed on the 12th of April 2013
Midgelow, Vida, Reworking texts-inverting bodies, Dancer Theatre Journal 15(2) 1999. p 4-7. Accessed on the 12th of April 2013 Jensen Gunilla, Mats Ek and the Cullberg Ballet, the Dancing Times. August 1997,p 993. Accessed on the 13th of April 2013