Mats Ek's Goodbye
Vita Khlopova

Translation from Russian - Giulia Loi
Editor - Alisa Hyam
As we recover from emotions the New Year stirs up, and while we gather ourselves after seeing Sylvie Guillem's last «Bolero», we receive the news of two other great artists leaving the stage — Mats Ek and his muse, Ana Laguna. What does it mean for a choreographer to bid farewell to the stage? Most probably, that no new work will be developed, and also, what is even more tragic, that Ek will not be controlling the quality of production of his old works. In other words, all of Mats Ek's pieces are leaving the theatre along with him, wherever they might be playing at the moment. We hope you managed to catch his «Apartment» at the Bolshoi.
Ana Laguna and Mats Ek in "Memory".
Photo -
In 2015, the great Swedish choreographer celebrated his 70th birthday, 50 years of which he spent in the theatre. We can probably understand his desire to clear his schedule and allow for unplanned meetings. Of course he might be a little disingenuous when he says it is not a goodbye, just an evening of good dance. 'Never say never', he ads. However, this decision, taken two years ago, still seems the most logical to him. He does not trust assistants with his work, though many do work that way, as he explains, he feels the need keep everything under his own to control. Alas he does not feel like doing that anymore, he is tired.

"I was on stage for 50 years. It is better to stop before someone makes you. Life is longer than work." .
Perhaps many will remember VHS tapes with scratched out stickers with Home Alone 1, 2, 3 - Giselle. Mats Ek scribbled on them. These tapes, re-recorded until they lost all quality, opened the world of contemporary dance to us in Russia. Starved for information on 20th century dance: dancers, choreographers and scholars conscientiously shared Ek's oeuvre from hand to hand. Saying that his interpretation of Giselle which he decided to place in a psychiatric hospital, moved us deeply, would be an understatement. We knew her story so well it hurt. It is also important to remember his was the 1st oeuvre we saw in its entirety in contemporary Western dance. The rest we usually experienced in extracts and pieces.

No fixed points has decided to pay homage to this fantastically creative couple's artistic journey, and to thank them for the pleasure they have given us.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Berger
Niklas and Mats Ek, their mother's sons: Birgitt Culberg.
Photo: Sven-Erik Sjöberg
Even if Mats Ek was born into an artistic family, he came to Dance relatively late.

Not only is Birgit Culberg Mats Ek's mother, she has practically mothered contemporary dance in Sweden. Aside from her troupe, the Cullberg Ballet, there always was the traditional ballet theatre, the «Royal Swedish Ballet» where Birgitt also directed her pieces. She 1st attended Kurt Joos' school and the Royal Academy in London. Then, in 1967, she founded her own troupe, the Cullberg Ballet, beginning only with eight dancers. They were all soloists and received equal salary.
One of her key productions became «Miss Julie», an adaptation of famous Swedish dramaturg August Strindberg (1950). In 2014, 64 years after its premiere, the piece became part of Opera de Paris' repertoire.
"Miss Julie", Opéra de Paris, Eve GRINSZTAJN/Audric BEZARD
Ek's father, Andres Ek, was also a famous Swedish artist, though he had little to do with choreography. Andres was a famous stage actor for the Royal Dramatic Theatre, who also often worked for Bergman in his films.
Birgit Cullberg - Mats Ek's mother
Anders Ek - Mats Ek's father
With such a wonderful gene pool it would almost have been impossible for Mats Ek not to become famous. His brother, Niklas Ek, followed his mother's steps, becoming a famous dancer, whereas his twin sister — Malin Ek, became a stage actress, as Mats continued to shift and hesitate between the two artistic expressions. Neither dance nor theatre satisfied him completely. He later admitted: "I wanted the choice to really be mine. I did not want to imitate my mother." He stood by the bar for the 1st time only at 17, and even then it was during a summer course. The masterclass was led by Donya Foyer, who danced for Martha Graham and Paul Taylor. Later she moved to Stockholm to work for the Royal Dramatic theatre where she met Bergman and subsequently collaborated with him for many years.

Despite all this, neither his mother Brigit Culberg nor Donya Foyer succeeded in attracting the young Mats to dance, so once his drama education was completed, Mats began working in a Marionette Theatre. Only at 27 years of age, in 1972, he finally gives in to dance and joins the Cullberg troupe.
First success. «The House of Bernard Alba» 1978
Mats' 1st ever mise-en-scène dates from 1976. His 1st real success however, was without a doubt "The House of Bernard Alba": an adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca's drama of the same name. That is when Ek's style — a mixture of Kurt Joos' biting caricature and Martha Graham's thoughtful movement, proved itself so evidently.

Bernarda Alba's role, a powerful mad mother of four daughters, having not only buried her husband, but also the possibility to marry her younger daughters with the promulgation of his will, was written for a male dancer. Mourning her husband for 8 years, Bernarda Alba embroils her daughters in her grieving at a time when they should be falling in love and discovering the world. The only time a male figure appears in the house is as feet of a dresser, shaped like vulgar soldier boots. Bernarda is as unwavering in character as in the choreographic notes, where she is described as taut and only allows herself to relax in the final moment, when alone on stage. Even after her daughter's suicide finally comes to light, Bernarda does not react, unable to let any emotions out.

This is one of the only ballets of Mats Ek's where the 1st role was not given to his main muse, Ana Laguna. Though this ballet along with many others, will be taken off repertoires (including from Opera de Paris where it has always been brilliantly performed), we do still have its official recording with the performance by the Cullberg Ballet. (you can have a glance at it just below)

Афиша к балету "Дом Бернарды Альбы"
Photo by Leslie Spinks from MATS EK, Max Ström Publishing
New wine in old wineskins
Having become artistic director for the Cullberg Ballet in 1980, Mats Ek starts his brilliant series of adaptations of the classical heritage. In truth, who has not become tired of witnessing our young country girl Giselle's trouble or the well-known tale of sleeping beauty still after 200 years? Or Swan Lake for the matter, which Ek also reworked then.
Mats Ek, with his unmistakable humour and intellect, dusts off old themes and (re)expresses them, transposing them into 20th century mundanity. What seemed the most important was the well-overdue psychoanalysis of these well-known stories.
"Every fairy tale evokes a lovely wooden shed, on the stoop of which opens a 'mined territory'."
"Giselle" 1982
And so, in 1982, Mats Ek puts on the 1st ballet of this series, after which his fame spreads also outside of Stockholm. Mats Ek's «Giselle» was lauded throughout the world (shown more than 300 times in 28 countries), and propelled its protagonist Ana Laguna into fame. Even though critics did not foresee it, many later admitted it was indeed Ek's «Giselle» which gave contemporary dance a new direction. The young farmer girl becomes a simple, naïve and cooky woman in a funny beret. Albert is not a count, but a real city dandy. The backdrops do not need to be tested for posterity: mountains become women's breasts, and the psychiatric hospital decor gives off a feeling of dissection. Giselle does not die at the end of act one, but as would be expected, loses her mind. The second act does not take place in a cemetery but in a psychiatric home, where, as you have probably guessed, Mirta is the main nurse, desperately reminding us of nurse Ratched in «One flew over a cukoo's nest». Still, Mats Ek decides not to change the moral of the story: Giselle, with a wrapped head, opens a new world for Albert and enriches his spoiled soul. Unfortunately, there is no happy ending here either. His final nakedness is not Ek's surprise effect, but a way of showing Albert's complete rebirth and the refusal of his past life. Finally, Ilarion covers him with a plaid; what becomes of him we can decide for ourselves, Ek leaves the ending open to interpretation.
"Swan Lake", photo Gert Weigelt
«Swan Lake» 1987

Of course, «Swan Lake» has had many adaptations. Whether with happy endings or tragic ones, Freudian analysis has been used in this case practically from the start. But Ek is capable of surprising us here again. If other choreographers (apart from possibly Matthew Bourne), have usually been inspired by the swans living on water, elegant and refined, what seems more interesting to Mats Ek is showing them on land: clumsy, crooked-legged, and hissing annoyingly. As for Odette/Odile, the choreographer's idea centers around the fact that we all seek a special princess (Odette) but usually end up having to make do with an earthly and complicated being (Odile). In every woman an ideal princess and a real human coexist, the question is how harmoniously we get on with each of them. Let's not forget that Ziegfried is completely under his powerful mother's heel, a detail which has prompted numerous international critics to write in depth about the Oedipus complex.

«Carmen» 1992

Ek's «Carmen» could be the closest interpretation of Prosper Mérimée's piece. We have become accustomed to the loud beauty with rouge and curls around her temples, to the passionate seductress, taking static poses for powerful photographs. Mats Ek's Carmen changes partners as she likes, since she works in a tobacco factory and is independent. On the contrary, Jose as the narrator, wants what a woman usually desires: a ring on his finger, a family, some simple wholesome happiness. By inverting their roles, Ek explores the contemporary woman as well. She is hard to please and even harder to fool with the ghostly promise of family hearth, what is definitely almost impossible is to satisfy her sexual appetite.

Ana Laguna - Carmen
«Sleeping beauty» 1996

It is easy to see why some, 20 years ago and today, still do not accept Ek's new handling of familiar topics, many accusing him of abusing classic material. But the last thing the choreographer can be accused of is abuse. His work is brilliant not only as choreographer, but also as marketer. If the theatre seeks to attract young audiences, it needs to amuse them with something. Not with Disney-like stories of eternal love, but with something that can be understood by new generations. This is why Ek's new readings attract young audiences. For his «Sleeping Beauty» put on for Hamburg Ballet, he was inspired by a scene witnessed behind a train station in a European city: young women addicted to junk, shaking all over with expressionless glass eyes, as if asleep, needles all around them... the seduction is hard to resist. Spoiled young girls who think they are old enough to exist without parents, but who end up caught up in a net of abuse and drug trafficking. Here she is, the sleeping beauty of the 20th century. The wicked fairy godmother Carabosse will shoot up in the vein. This dream: an existence addicted to heroin from which even the beautiful prince will not be capable of rescuing her. For contemporary "sleeping beauties", suggests Ek, there is no chance of a magical kiss.
"Sleeping beauty"
Mats Ek's style is a high quality mixture of his vast knowledge. He is not a direct descendant of Kurt Joos' dance theatre, but not recognizing Joos in Ek would be blind. A dance intellectual, having been able to combine in his style a classical basis, Martha Graham's technique, Joos' dance theatre, and Mary Wigman's expression, Ek makes his own version of "dance theatre" unique. Deep pliés in the 2nd position, arms extended like needles, wide body amplitudes, the continuity of gesture, strange jumps- all this is clearly explored in his work. An expert in dramatic theatre too, his knowledge of it is just as present in his mise-en-scène.
Today's strict parental guidance laws would probably prohibit children from viewing of these ballets. The world they portray is much too cruel. Not that his message is not always perfectly readable, or morally acceptable, but when discovering the fairy tale ballets, Mats Ek's versions should maybe not be watched first.
Another muse
Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek's "Bye"
photo by Bill Cooper, courtesy New York City Center
Rumours sometimes spread about a choreographer singing praises for a certain woman (as Balanchine for example), or a man (Paul Taylor or Bejart), but Ek only sang praises for Ana Laguna. As unusual for classical and contemporary ballet, this wonderful Spanish woman was given to Ek to bring to life his best female characters. A complete chameleon, in each of her roles on the stage Laguna looks exactly like Carmen, Giselle, or the Nurse, cleansing her ego in the works of the master. Not only having an exceptional technique, but also acting capacities to completely merge with her strong heroines; Laguna inscribed herself in the history of contemporary dance as one of its brightest performers. In case you decide to watch Ek's oeuvre again after this article, make sure to see the recordings with Laguna. You will not find anyone more innocent than her Giselle, or more sexual than her Carmen.

Ana Laguna as Giselle.
Photo Leslie Lesley-Spinks
After the protagonist of all of Ek's best roles, his second muse, Sylvie Guillem, benefited from the relationship as much as Ek. Guillem, having decided much earlier to expand her repertoire in contemporary choreography, transitioned from Bejart's «pretty» contemporary ballet, to the «ugly» tales of a mundane woman.
Smoke/Wet Woman 1995

In 1995, Mats Ek, put on two small works for Sylvie Guillem, in the «cine-dance» genre: «Smoke» and «The Wet Woman». Widely acclaimed, «Smoke» was initially not developed for the stage, but for the film with Sylvie Guillem about contemporary choreography «Evidentia». Here, Ek's 52 year-old elder brother, Niklas, a brilliant dancer from a wonderful school (Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Maurice Bejart) dances a spectacular duet with the prima donna of classical ballet. Full of humour, gags and elegance, «Smoke» does not leave one any choice but to watch it again and again. It is precisely this duet which inspired Mats Ek for the creation of «a Solo for two», perfectly performed by Mikhail Barishnikov and Ana Laguna.
Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek "Wet woman"
"Bye" 2012

In her goodbye to the stage, Guillem included Ek's touching number «Bye» in her tour. In a series of videos, she explored the world of normal people, exiting her own undisputed queen position, and playing with the idea to stay unnoticed, thin and sometimes unremarkable.
Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek's "Bye".
Images courtesy Sadler's Wells Theatre
Ek at the Bolshoi
Diana Vishneva and Denis Savin in Mats Ek's "Apartment"
Photo Damir Yusoupov/Bolshoi Theatre
"I am not interested in showing dance, but life itself, through human situations."
In 2000, Opera de Paris bought a ballet from Ek. Thus creating «Appartment», a piece full of absurd, humour and wonderful duets. There is no subject as such, but a thread: two people, moving into an abstract flat, live side by side, mostly hiding their fears and problems. Each room is symbolised by a piece of furniture: the bidet, an armchair, a stove or a door. In each of these stories happens a particular tragedy, even when told through a smile. «The Apartment», not written for classical music but accompanied by popular Swedish group Fleshquartet, frequent collaborators of Mats Ek's. Translated into Russian, the title of the piece loses a pretty connotation since appartment (in English apartment), is of course a flat but the root is apart- which, means what it means. This is Mats Ek's main exposition: even if we inhabit the same spaces, we are in fact deeply lonely and separations never disappear.

Mats Ek rehearsals with Denis Savin.
"I do not have the aim to touch people's souls. It would be pretentious to think that, you know, they are waiting. Choreography is quite egotistical. You should only do what is important to you."
Goodbye to the stage
Ana Laguna and Ivan Auzely in Mats Ek's "Axe". Photo - Leslie Lesley-Spinks
Of course, we can understand Ek and Laguna: working for so many years so intensely is practically impossible. Even the decision to take all their shows down from the stages of the world seems adequate: even with assistants supervising, the clarity of movement does risk to weaken. Mats Ek has taken a harsh but fair decision. In the end, most of his ballets are recorded in the best compositions. His heritage will not be lost in the mists of time. Already recorded in history and deeply rooted in the work of all subsequent generations of choreographers. Bearing in mind that the name Ek is translated from Swedish as oak, the allegory seems fitting.
From the 6th to 10th of January 2016, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées a Paris, Mats Ek said his goodbyes to his public. No fixed points asked the critic Marina Zimoliad, present at the final evening, to share her views on one of these last performances.
Last evening of the block of performances for Mats Ek's goodbye «From Black to Blue».

There were three performances in total. If the 1st one, «She was Black» from 1994, is intellectual and a little dark, full of complex structures of composition, changes of rhythm recurrent in Mats Ek's art, also adding that according to the title of the evening «From Black to Blue», we probably could be at the start of a journey, is it possible also that this «Blue» towards which the movement is directed, could be a pessimistic direction for art overall?

«Solo for 2» 1996. An abstract wall with a door, an opening, and some stairs. There are two main colours on stage: brown and blue, and their different shades. The light transfuses between them, making them appear as different sides of the same plane.

A loose and ample brown costume for the young man (Oscar Solomondson) and a blue dress for the girl (Dorothee Delaby). The action takes place between the light and plane. The young woman touches the railing of the stairs with her finger, lingering during her transition from horizontal to vertical, continuing the flatness of the wall with her palm. The duet between the two protagonists- also often a construction of an invisible geometric space, where hands and legs represent planes, and where the angles of these planes are constantly shifting. But physiological gestures suddenly insert themselves within these abstract dance variations, resembling rhythmic sexual movements or smelling of one's partner. Or perhaps our heroine will suddenly fall nose 1st on the hero's buttocks. The protagonists completely swap clothes, and roles too, trying on each other's movements. Exploring the space, hanging onto the wall a little, climbing up the staircase with their head upside down, or even jumping behind a wall, into the unknown.

Unexpectedly, the backdrop now slides away, baring brickwork, an electric counter and cables at the back of the stage. Workers are taking the wall apart, and we can see the hidden bit with a big white cross in the middle of it, a pile of wood and a stump are brought in. This is how without an interval, the action transitions to the next piece: «Axe».

Following an Albinioni adagio, a stooped elderly man is cutting wood: he takes a log, puts it on the stump, a large sweep of the axe and the log breaks in two. In his physiognomy, in the way he holds his body, in his slightly bear-like clothes, everything transpires a certain tiredness, a fatality, the submissiveness of this work, at the same time as its dignity.

His movements and presence on stage resemble a miniature come to life, one of those with illustrations of seasonal peasants working from the breviary of the duke of Berinsky.

After a minute, an old woman appears, her white hair braided, wearing a roughly-cut black skirt and a jacket of a bland brown-green shade. The woman crosses the stage at one or another angle, while she characteristically sweeps her hands through the air widely, as her spine, not too flexible, bends down heavily. The old man does not pay any attention to her, submerged in his monotone work.

The woman takes the stump, pressing it against her chest, like a baby, makes a circle, and lays down herself, like a log on a stump, as if offering herself to the axe. Finally, moving backwards with tiny steps, she bumps her back onto the man's, arresting with her body, his work.

The next duet between the elderly couple definitely transforms the play into a parable, into a metaphor for life: their rigid and cautious plasticity reminds us every now and then of dry wood, like the image of an elderly person «doomed to be axed», and finally to be burnt. But how much wisdom in this dance, simplicity, certainly an acceptance of the order of things.

The fact these two shows played without interval gave the audience the possibility to view them as one in respect of the other and maybe, as a portrait of the choreographer in time. Indeed the title of the evening evokes the theme of a journey, of a destination.

All four dancers took a bow, just as Mats Ek himself, throwing his bouquet into the audience.

Marina Zimogliad
"These last 50 years I was drowned in projects. It is time to experience something new: doing nothing at all." Well, we do hope this experience will be of the couple's liking, but we hope even more that they will break their promise once in a while, and that if they miss the theatre and the stage, they will bring joy to thousands of fans throughout the world. In any case, here are our deepest thanks for the inspiration, re-recorded vhs tapes, for the transmuted consciousness and for all their collaborations. They were wonderful.

Ana Laguna and Mats Ek in Mats Ek's "Memory"
Photo - Dave Morgan
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