Visionaries, Innovators and Diviners: Mats Ek

To mark our first anniversary (!) as the magazine that pirouettes on the edge of psychology and art, I’ve been thinking about individuals that challenge how we think and how we approach life, and in so doing, forever change us. People who create ideological revolutions- artists, scientists, philosophers. You know, people like Darwin and Einstein, and Freud, and in the world of dance, Petipa, and Fokine, and Diaghelev, and Duncan, and Balanchine, and Robbins, and Tudor, and Ailey, and Graham, and Bausch and so many more. All  visionaries – people with vision, innovators who brought in the new, and diviners who saw what others could not see and made that vision a reality. Often, they were shunned by society and marginalized, even pathologized for their ideas, for thinking outside of the proverbial box and reaching further. Some appreciated only after their death, sometimes centuries after. Pushed into “otherness” with a big O for being different and thinking beyond the norm, they had to work from the outside in: breaking the rules and often making magic in the process – opening our eyes to another way, a different language.

I ask you: Is that not what art is all about anyway? Not just the communication of a vision but the capturing of what eludes the communal eye (I)?

And, when it comes to dance, about the incarnation of an aesthetic movement which galvanizes inner experience?


Now let me introduce you to Mats Ek. I say let me introduce you because, sadly, it is often the case that giants of dance on one side of the ocean are barely known on the other. This is the case for Mats Ek – artist, provocateur, keen observer of social issues, and master of a movement that is as deeply psychological as it is physical.

The voice of the embodied OTHER in all of us.

The Swedish choreographer and stage director Mats Ek was born into artistic royalty. His mother, Birgit Cullberg was a dancer, choreographer and the founder of the Cullberg Ballet. His father, Anders Ek was one of the most celebrated actors in Sweden and a favorite of Ingmar Bergman’s. His siblings are talented dancers, and much of his extended family is in the arts. Perhaps this gave him an early start in the language of otherness and the ability to question the status quo, and look further. Indeed he has 20/20 vision, x-ray like in its ability to capture human nature and experience.

Ek began his career as a stage director at the Marionett Theatre and the Stockholm Royal Dramatic Theatre (between 1966 and 1973) and joined the Cullberg Ballet in 1972. Ek’s work is well known in Northern and Central Europe and spans from ballet, theater and dance theater to opera, and selected works for television and video. He has held directorships at the Netherlands Dans Theater and at the Cullberg Ballet where he influenced generations of dancers, and at 68, he continues to choreograph and create works for television, film, theater and many dance companies.

The first time I saw one of Ek’s pieces I cannot say that I liked it. The dance was dark and full of angst. The dancers sometimes screamed and banged on the table. The movement was angular and strangled. This was not like any dance I had seen before. The piece was Bernarda’s House (1978) and it was danced by ABT.

photo by © Agathe Poupeney
photo by © Agathe Poupeney

It is based on The House of Bernarda Alba by Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca who called it a “drama about women”. The play explores repression, conformity, passion and the impact that men have on women. Lorca focused on a mother (Bernarda) and her five daughters, only alluding to men, who are only talked about and never seen. Ek not only introduces male characters to the story, he casts a male dancer as Bernarda, hinting at the character being a representation of masculine power over the “weaker” sex and to the vulnerability and leverage inherent in maternity. This was the first time I really understood that dance (like all art) could function as social commentary.

What makes Ek’s work stand out? His vision turned ballet and classical dance from their fairytale contexts and story lines to the reality of everyday life. In moving from classicism to neoclassicism to modern dance, Ek created a structure that literally bridged classical and contemporary dance while acknowledging their differences and shared origins and retaining technique at its core. The bridge between these had yet to be built, and Ek was one of its principal engineers. The dance scenes in America and Europe have numerous stylistic differences, perhaps most especially in the way that modern dance and ballet are treated. In this country we tend to keep them separate, while in Europe they have grown increasingly intertwined. Ek is a master bridge builder in this respect.

Ek’s style immediately became distinct for his creative and imaginative interpretations of narratives, which included the total de-construction of some classical repertoire, retold this time with characters that are real and pertinent to today’s culture.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

In his reinvention of classical ballet, Ek began with Giselle, choreographed in 1982 for the Cullberg Ballet. To dance fans the world over, Giselle is often thought about as the ballerina’s piece d’resistance, a must if she is to advance in the world of classical ballet. As such, Giselle remains the hallmark of romantic ballet. Originally created in 1841 at the Opéra de Paris, it tells the story of a beautiful ingénue, pure and virginal, who is seduced  and betrayed by prince Albrecht. When Giselle finds out that he is betrothed to another and has only been with her for sport, she dies of a broken heart. Later, in the hereafter, she continues to defend her lover and saves his life.

In his reworking of Giselle, Mats Ek highlights the drama of the situation by turning Giselle into the simpleton of the village, abused by a Don Juan come to visit to have a good time. Devastated, Giselle loses her mind and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. Albrecht is not pardoned, rather in questioning his actions and his life he joins her in the asylum. We know not what is to be of him, but the dancing is incredible.

Photo by Lesley Leslie-Spinks
Photo by Lesley Leslie-Spinks

Next came Ek’s post modern version of Swan Lake in 1987, where rather than celebrating his coming of age (as in the original) prince Siegfried is melancholy and questioning his sexuality, as well as his mothers’ wishes to marry him to someone like her. Mother dearest gifts him a younger version of herself, dressed in pink (think Oedipus complex), yet poor Siegfried has no idea what to do with her. This prince is not the victim of sorcery but rather of his own bewildering sexuality. He encounters not magical swans but rather androgynous creatures that waddle on the ground. When Odette emerges, she is an uninhibited bird who watches the prince leap about while leering at him invitingly. When she transforms into Odile she orders the prince about: “Come and get me,” she says “and I will show you just what I want you to do”.

This erotic fantasy catapults him into total despair. His search of the ideal woman ends with him picking the (wrong) girl but when the black swan reappears and shakes a leg suggestively…well take a look for yourself, it is not the usual fairytale.

Originally commissioned by the Spanish government, Ek’s version of Carmen (1992), is told retrospectively from José’s point of view – in a series of flashbacks. It is an eclectic work, based on Merimee’s short novella and Bizet’s opera, re-contextualizing the original sources while commenting on the prevailing sexual prejudices.

Playing with sexuality and gender roles is something that Ek enjoys doing, often expanding each gender to capture the sensibility of the other. Ek gives Carmen many traditional male characteristics – she smokes a cigar, has wild hair, sits with her legs wide apart, and moves about with an aura of power and authority, sometimes mirroring the steps of the male dancers and banging chests with them. It is Jose who embodies the traditional female qualities, and goes on about marriage and serenity.

In 1996, Ek took on the classic fairytale of Sleeping Beauty. Here, the teen-age Aurora is rebelling against her over privileged upbringing and falls in love with a drug dealer (Carabosse) who tempts her into using the “needle”. She ends up in a drug-induced coma, and upon recovery has to learn that there are no happy endings – we create our lives through choices. 

Photo by Goteberg Opera.
Photo by Goteberg Opera.

Ek turns the fairy godmothers present at her birth into maternity nurses, and later they re-appear as pop culture characters out of a TV show, while the prince is a spectator. Quite a different story than the one I grew up with!

Ek gently pokes fun at ballet’s conventionality while examining the world of ballet and classical dance through modern eyes, adding a new sensibility and humor, as well as rich imagery and fluidity of movement. His reworking of the classics shifts them from danced stories for children – tales to entertain and help navigate potential trauma and moral dilemmas – to narrated movement for adults, which captures the reality of daily life and the complexity of human interaction. His ballets involve complex emotional representations of humanity, exploring the dark side of the human heart, without the need for magic spells and supernatural happenings, but with a focus on the many facets of psyche and sexuality, of gender and modernity.

Ek broke with classical tradition because he viewed it as diminishing the possibilities of what dance could do and say, what it could convey. His revisionist ideas drive much of his choreography. Rather than narrating a tale, Ek’s style takes on a lyrical approach, which conveys emotions and feelings through movement. This is what the danced language of the Other looks like and feels like. Perhaps this is what makes Mats Ek a controversial figure: most of his works focus on the disadvantaged, the ignored and those who are considered “weak” by society. Ek works in contrasts and polarities, often setting up opposites so that movement can take place in between. He manages to use the abstractness of dance and literally flesh it out- linking feelings, ideas and memories to a body, and does that body dance!

Part of what makes Ek’s choreography appealing to contemporary and classical dancers alike, is that he retains a precise and definitive technique while releasing the body from the rigidity that technique can impose. Seem like an oxymoron? Take a look at his grand plies ala seconde, or his open jetes, or the flexion of the feet – exact, detailed, explicit – each movement scrupulous and meticulous, a link in a chain of flesh and muscle that expresses the all that is felt and now expressed through the dance.

What is interesting about choreography for Ek, is how it can capture and imitate real life while providing a new context for it through movement. Movement to Ek is limitless in its expressive abilities. It is un-gendered while retaining a rich sensuality that flows effortlessly into the erotic. Ek is interested in relationships between people and the emotions that drive them, and that interest is transformed into the creation of an impression through movement that bypasses the filters of the intellect. It just is. He speaks to the intimacy between partners and family and spans to the wider group and to society, always with a keen eye toward the marginalized and disenfranchised.

Mats Ek is an acquired taste. He is not interested in conveying beauty, although he often does. But in attempting to capture the reality of human nature he often shows us its underbelly: the uglier side, the shadow – and this is depicted and expressed through movement, often angular, shaky and disturbing.

Ek is not here to entertain us and transport us to a magical land (although he does both nonetheless). He asks us to think with him, to enter the dance fully, body, soul and mind, much like one does when one reads a good novel- we are invited and moved to relate fully. Mats Ek provides us with “a way of touching the untouchable”.

Other Works:

Kalfaktorn (1976)
Saint George and the Dragon (1976)
Soweto (1977)
The House of Bernarda (1978)
The Four Seasons (1978)
Antigone (1979)
Memories of Youth (1980)
Cain and Abel (1982)
Giselle (1982)
Rite of Spring (1984)
Pa Norrbotten (1985)
Gräs (1987)
Swan Lake (1987)
Like Antigone (1988)
Gamla Barn (1989)
Over There (1990)
Light Beings (1991)
Journey (1991)
Carmen (1992)
Pointless Pastures (1993)
Dans Med Nasten (1993)
She Was Black (1995)
Wet Woman (1995)
Smoke (1995)
Sleeping Beauty – for Hamburg Ballet (1996)
Solo for Two, stage version of Smoke (1996)
A Sort Of – for Nederlands Dans Theater (1997)
Pa Malta (1997)
Appartement – for the Paris Opera (2000)
Fluke (2002)
Place – for Mikhail Baryshnikov & Ana Laguna (2008)
Bye – for Sylvie Guillem (2010)
Romeo and Julia (2013)


Smoke (Part I)
Smoke (Part II)
Smoke (Part III)
Wet Woman
The Cullberg Ballet in Swan Lake
The Cullberg Ballet in Sleeping Beauty
The Cullberg Ballet in Carmen
Nicolas Le Riche and Céline Talon in the Grand Pas de Deux of Appartement
The House of Bernarda Alba (extract from Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse)
Mikhail Baryshnikov & Ana Laguna in Place