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
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