Dreams, dance and reality

Portrait of Mats Ek

By Anne Le Berre 24 April 2022

© Ann Ray/ OnP

Mats Ek en répétition à l’Opéra national de Paris

Dreams, dance and reality

While he announced in 2016 that he was leaving the stage and the world of dance, the Swedish choreographer Mats Ek returned in 2019 to the Opéra national de Paris for the entry into the repertoire of Carmen and the creation of two pieces: Another Place and Bolero. With a choreographic poetry drawn from tales, everyday objects, and always inspired by the richness of music, Mats Ek invites us back to the Palais Garnier in May. A look back at his career.

From his relationship with theatre and dance, Mats Ek has doubtless gained a remarkably expressive use of his dancers’ bodies. His training, on the theatrical side, began at Marieborg Folks College in his father Andres Ek’s footsteps, but he pursued it in the wake of his mother Birgit Culliberg with an immersion in the world of dance. His mother, a disciple of Jurt Jooss and the founder of the Culliberg Ballet in Stockholm, involved him in the artistic direction of the company, which, from 1985, he was to direct on his own. A choreographer with a personal language, notably because of its deep pliés in second position, Mats Ek is famous for his new versions of classical ballets (Giselle, which in 1982 he transposed to a psychiatric hospital, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty in 1993) in which he deconstructed classical grammar in order to create dancing bodies tensed by the lines of force in their jumps, their flexed feet and flat, brandished hands. In 1993, he began to create productions for major ballet corps as an independent choreographer, and was awarded the prestigious Benois Prize for dance in 2006 before retiring from the stage in 2016.
Marie-Agnès Gillot dans Giselle, Palais Garnier, 2004
Marie-Agnès Gillot dans Giselle, Palais Garnier, 2004 © Icare / OnP

It was when Giselle entered the repertoire that Mats Ek first forged links with the Paris Opera Ballet, going on to create his ballet in ten sequences Appartement in 2000. Over the years since Giselle, the Ballet repertoire has been enriched by his works, namely Une Sorte de... and La Moison de Bernarda. The Swedish Royal Ballet also came here to perform Romeo and Juliet in 2013. Now Mats Ek returns once more to the Paris Opera with his Carmen, never before performed here, and two new works.

A form of dance situated between music and literature

Mats Ek has always expressed a taste for raw materials, whether text or music. A rereading of fairy tales or inspiration drawn from music by composers as diverse as they are varied are the matrices of his choreographic universe, a world in which one no longer knows whether he is transposing dance to theatre, or text to dance, but in which he always tells a story.

A return to music

For major ballets as for smaller poetic pieces, Mats Ek juggles with the classics of the musical repertoire to let the dance emerge from them. His Rite of Spring (1984) is set in the ritualised society of the Samurai, “because I found in the music a mixture of precision and eruption, of control and savagery”, he explains.

Mats Ek rewrites and renews his scores according to the story he wants to tell: “It seems to me that, very often, the music for classical ballets have a richer, more complex potential than is exploited by their choreographies”. For Juliet and Romeo, he reworked Tchaikovsky and not Prokofiev which he judged to be too close to a linear narrative; where he could have chosen Berlioz, who had already selected passages from Shakespeare’s drama in his “Dramatic Symphony” of 1839, he preferred to open Tchaikovsky’s 1872 score which revolves around motifs of love and passion, and to incorporate other works (Concerto for piano no. 1, Symphony no. 5, extracts from Manfred and The Tempest...), thus satisfying a “need for a symphonic quality” necessary to the narrative intensity of the piece.    

Appartement avec les danseurs du Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, Palais Garnier, 2002
Appartement avec les danseurs du Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, Palais Garnier, 2002 © Christian Leiber / OnP
Above all it is creation that appeals to him. For Appartement, Mats Ek collaborated closely with the ensemble Fleshquartet (violin, viola, cello and percussion). He selected a variety of pieces which prompted the birth of the ten “sequences” of daily life and its tumult. “This is contemporary, urban music that smells of asphalt,” says the choreographer who positioned his dancers on a pedestrian walk-way, a scene symbolic of the solitude of the individual invaded by the agitated city’s incessant and oppressive whirlwind, which is suggested by the rhythms of Fleshquartet.

A return to the text

Just as he allows himself to be guided by the music, Mats Ek choreographs by plunging back into tales and folk stories, sometimes almost ignoring the existing classical ballets. This anteriority permits a return to the roots of the narrative, allowing him to detach himself from simple transpositions and attain a freer form of creation. In his Giselle (1982), he delved into the romantic fable and discovered “many complex relationships of a social and spiritual order, which were lying dormant in the original libretto”. Mats Ek’s dance invites one to view the fairy-tale as a universal platform from which it can be deconstructed. His dancers embody characters filled with strength drawn from this purified form of the fairy-tale; a Giselle seized with psychiatric torments worthy of the most turbulent romanticism, a Carmen just as feisty as Mérimée had imagined her.
José Martinez dans La Maison de Bernarda, Palais Garnier, 2011
José Martinez dans La Maison de Bernarda, Palais Garnier, 2011 © Agathe Poupeney / OnP

Mats Ek choreographs and exacerbates the narrative thread to give it depth. In his interpretion of Lorca’s play, La Maison de Bernarda (1978), we are confronted by a denuded stage, a man in the role of the mother watching implacably over her five daughters. The characters live only through their dance, a veritable metaphor for the madness and tensions present in Lorca. It is through this vitally necessary return to raw materials that the poetry of Mats Ek’s dance bursts forth.

A Choreographic Poetry

Emblematic pas de deux

It is through the pas de deux that the delicateness of his universe is delineated. His “Solo for two” series, intimate reflections on how couples function, from Smoke (1995) until Place (2007) and soon Another Place are often dedicated to his fetish dancers: Niklas Ek, his brother, and Ana Laguna, his wife and collaborator, whom he met in 1975 at the Cullberg Ballet.   

Vincent Chaillet et Séverine Westermann dans Une sorte de…, Palais Garnier, 2011
Vincent Chaillet et Séverine Westermann dans Une sorte de…, Palais Garnier, 2011 © Agathe Poupeney / OnP
In a universe that has often been qualified as close to that of Magritte, dreamlike and almost surrealist, the pas de deux in Une sorte de... (1997) link the couple through dance and their voyage which is inspired by the notes of Little Requiem by Gorecki. Far removed from fairy-tale writing, Mats Ek does however evoke the delicateness of the modern couple, it’s beauty captured in a more morose reality.    

Objects and the banality of life

Mats Ek is particularly talented at developing the theme of banal existence and giving it lyricism. Objects, from an axe to a bidet, contribute to the drama without ever being provocative. In the choreography, gestures that seem trivial take on new meaning: “It is necessary to be concrete, and from that situation extract something with vaster resonance”1.

Alice Renavand et Nicolas Le Riche dans Appartement, Palais Garnier, 2012
Alice Renavand et Nicolas Le Riche dans Appartement, Palais Garnier, 2012 © Ann Ray / OnP

Tables, so often present in Mats Ek’s work, and which feature again in Another Place, have become one of the motifs of these stories of daily life, in the same way as doors. For the premier of Appartement in 2000 at the Paris Opera, multiple objects present on stage were, like the dancers, propulsed by the choreography into a world in which grace operates. A movement from the prosaic to the ideal, the dance of Mats Ek shifts the stuff of daily life on the stage with elegance.

1. Citation from a broadcast on France Culture: 7th January 2016 “From back to Blue: Mats Ek takes a final bow”

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