Alexan­der Ek­man pricks pre­ten­sions with Cacti

One of the world’s fore­most young chore­og­ra­phers has made a new work that pokes fun at the pre­ten­sions of con­tem­po­rary dance, writes Matthew Westwood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

TAKE care when ap­proach­ing Alexan­der Ek­man’s dance piece Cacti. It’s a lit­tle bit spiky, a lit­tle bit prickly. Its thorns will snag the sleeves of the un­wary: the oh-too-se­ri­ous con­nois­seur of con­tem­po­rary dance, the overly an­a­lyt­i­cal critic.

The 30-minute piece has an en­sem­ble of 16 dancers, a string quar­tet and an or­ches­tral sound­track. And, un­usu­ally, it in­cludes a de­lib­er­ately pre­ten­tious voice-over that of­fers a run­ning com­men­tary on the dance.

For read­ers’ in­for­ma­tion only, Cacti is play­ful, ex­u­ber­ant, joy­ful and quite silly in parts. But we’ll go easy on the ad­jec­tives be­cause Ek­man is se­ri­ous about the non­sense that sur­rounds so much con­tem­po­rary dance.

‘‘ I walked around for a long time very an­gry at crit­ics and the way that art crit­i­cism works,’’ he says, on the phone from Stock­holm. ‘‘ This was where I could speak back.’’

Ek­man’s prob­lem is not only with flat­footed crit­ics who would an­a­lyse dance to death. Chore­og­ra­phers, too, have a lot to an­swer for, mak­ing pieces that are so self­ab­sorbed that no one out­side the re­hearsal room can un­der­stand them.

‘‘ It’s a lit­tle bit rude to­wards the au­di­ence,’’ Ek­man says. ‘‘ There is a lot of mod­ern dance that is very one-di­men­sional and doesn’t really com­mu­ni­cate with the au­di­ence, I find. It’s not a se­cret. I think mod­ern dance has a lit­tle stamp on it for be­ing a lit­tle bit bor­ing and dif­fi­cult for the au­di­ence to un­der­stand.’’

Ek­man ad­mits he some­times groans at the prospect of sit­ting through an­other evening of avant-garde dance. And this is from a young dance-maker right in the thick of it.

At 28, Ek­man is one of the fast-ris­ing tal­ents of dance, closely as­so­ci­ated with Nether­lands Dance The­atre and Swe­den’s Cull­berg Bal­let. His pieces have been seen in many Euro­pean cap­i­tals and in New York, where he has worked with Cedar Lake Con­tem­po­rary Bal­let.

There’s more. Ek­man de­vises not only the chore­og­ra­phy but some­times the mu­sic and scenic de­sign as well. He has made a film with Cull­berg Bal­let, 40 M Un­der, cre­ated a dance in­stal­la­tion at the Mod­ern Mu­seum in Stock­holm, and next year will make his de­but as a drama­tist with a play he will di­rect him­self.

Syd­ney Dance Com­pany’s Rafael Bonachela met Ek­man when the two pre­sented works in a shared pro­gram at IT Dansa in Barcelona. Sev­eral years later, in 2011, SDC was on tour in New York and Bonachela in­vited Ek­man to see his com­pany there. They started plan­ning for Ek­man to visit Syd­ney and to stage Cacti — orig­i­nally cre­ated on the NDT2 en­sem­ble — with Syd­ney dancers. Bonachela says he wanted to in­tro­duce Aus­tralian au­di­ences to Ek­man’s work, so dif­fer­ent from his own.

‘‘ There is a sense of rhythm that is very par­tic­u­lar to him,’’ he says. ‘‘ He is a com­poser, and that in­flu­ences the way he makes rhythm in his work.’’

Ek­man cred­its his cre­ativ­ity to grow­ing up in Swe­den, the long, dark win­ters be­ing con­ducive to mak­ing things in­doors. He started at dance school at the age of five and at 16 joined the Royal Swedish Bal­let.

In 2002 he trans­ferred to NDT2, the ju­nior arm of NDT in the Hague. The the­atre’s long­time guid­ing force, Jiri Kylian, had al­ready stepped down as artis­tic di­rec­tor, but he con­tin­ued to make work at the com­pany.

Ek­man re­calls Kylian mak­ing a piece called Sleep­less on the NDT2 com­pany.

‘‘ Those big chore­og­ra­phers, some­how you just con­cen­trate so hard when you are in the stu­dio with them,’’ he says.

‘‘ I was just so amazed with what you could come up with when you are in that ex­treme con­cen­trated state of mind. It’s the state I al­ways try to work with, to push the dancers to get to. We are ca­pa­ble of so much if we really con­cen­trate like that. I re­mem­ber be­ing amazed with what I came up with my­self in that state.’’

Ek­man did not stay to grad­u­ate to the main NDT com­pany but quickly es­tab­lished him­self as a chore­og­ra­pher. He made his early dance pieces in work­shops and won a prize at an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion in Hanover with a piece called The Swingle Sis­ters. His break­through came in 2006 with Flock work — Ek­man did the chore­og­ra­phy, mu­sic and scenic de­sign — that toured through Europe with NDT2.

‘‘ I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing, I guess, since I was really young,’’ Ek­man says.

‘‘ When I tried [chore­og­ra­phy], it felt so right some­how. Also, I really love to work with peo­ple, to di­rect a group. That’s half the job. Chore­og­ra­phy is really peo­ple-man­ag­ing at the same time. Dancers have big egos some­times, and you have to man­age that and keep the dancers happy.’’

He de­scribes chore­og­ra­phy as a skill set com­bin­ing artistry and some­thing like per­son­nel man­age­ment. ‘‘ You have to be so­cially tal­ented to get what you want out of a dancer,’’ he says. There is a chuckle down the line. ‘‘ How to ma­nip­u­late them.’’

He comes back to the prob­lem with con­tem­po­rary dance. On the one hand is the chore­og­ra­pher with the big ideas and pup­pet-master ap­proach to the dancers: ‘‘ Put the arm up on five and drop down on six.’’ At the other ex­treme are those dance works de­vised in the re­hearsal room, where the ‘‘ process’’ of mak­ing some­how ends up as the per­for­mance. You can al­most hear Ek­man yawn­ing.

‘‘ That’s a big dis­cus­sion right now,’’ he says. ‘‘ Peo­ple say, ‘ Oh, the process was amaz­ing’, but the end prod­uct on stage is maybe not that in­ter­est­ing.

‘‘ To­day there are a lot of chore­og­ra­phers who work very closely to­gether with the dancers, and they have a great process maybe. But maybe that end re­sult doesn’t come out on stage.’’

One rea­son Ek­man’s work has been well re­ceived by au­di­ences, he says, is that he wants peo­ple to en­joy them­selves. Cacti, seen by this writer on a ref­er­ence DVD, may have dance-world in­jokes but it is cer­tainly en­ter­tain­ing. It be­gins with a solo cello on stage, play­ing pizzi­cato, and the dancers on in­di­vid­ual plat­forms. The artsy com­men­ta­tor tells us we should think of the per­form­ers not as dancers or mu­si­cians but as ‘‘ mem­bers of a hu­man orches­tra’’. Ek­man pro­ceeds to show us such a trans­for­ma­tion, with the dancers mov­ing as a syn­chro­nised en­sem­ble while the mu­si­cal forces grow from solo cello to string quar­tet and full orches­tra (a record­ing in the Syd­ney per­for­mances).

All the while, the voice-over of­fers its inane com­men­tary. When the dancers are sud­denly il­lu­mi­nated, hold­ing pot­ted cacti, there is only one thing to say: ‘‘ What does it mean?’’

Bonachela has in­cluded Cacti in a triple bill at Syd­ney Dance Com­pany that he is call­ing De

Novo. It will in­clude a re­vival of Larissa Mc­Gowan’s Fa­natic — about fans of the movie

Alien vs Preda­tor — that Bonachela pre­sented as part of last year’s Spring Dance fes­ti­val in Syd­ney. The third piece, Emer­gence, is by Bonachela with a spe­cially com­mis­sioned sound­track by in­die pop singer Sarah Blasko and com­poser Nick Wales.

Part of the ex­cite­ment of Cacti comes from Ek­man’s care­ful or­ches­tra­tion of dance en­sem­ble, mu­sic and stage and light­ing de­sign. Bonachela says the highly co-or­di­nated, syn­chro­nised move­ment is tech­ni­cally im­pres­sive and hard to achieve. ‘‘ He gets in­vi­ta­tions from a lot of com­pa­nies,’’ Bonachela says.

One of Ek­man’s most am­bi­tious fu­ture projects in­volves noth­ing less than the most canon­i­cal of clas­si­cal bal­lets, Swan Lake. The pro­duc­tion for Nor­we­gian Na­tional Opera and Bal­let in Oslo will imag­ine the cre­ation of Swan

Lake — a flop at its pre­miere in 1877 — ‘‘when it was just ideas at the pro­duc­tion ta­ble’’. Ek­man’s ver­sion will in­clude a 30m lake on stage. ‘‘ It’s not go­ing to be a tra­di­tional Swan

Lake,’’ he says. Liv­ing the life of a free­lance chore­og­ra­pher and not yet 30 — he has re­cently moved his base from New York back to Stock­holm — Ek­man may be too young for re­grets. But he still won­ders about his ca­reer as a dancer.

‘‘ It’s kind of a con­flict be­tween Alex the dancer and Alex the chore­og­ra­pher,’’ he says.

‘‘ Alex the dancer wants to go back on stage some­times, but he hasn’t been on stage for a very long time. Alex the chore­og­ra­pher won. From that point I haven’t stopped.’’

De Novo, fea­tur­ing Alexan­der Ek­man’s Cacti, at the Syd­ney The­atre, March 1-23.

Top, Cacti per­formed by Nether­lands Dance The­atre; left, Alexan­der Ek­man

FREDRIK SAND­BERG

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