Mats Ek, one could say, is drawn to blood.
The Swedish choreographer has been digging into pain and violence for 40 years. He set his version of “Giselle” — that tender, Romantic-era love story — in an insane asylum.
In his “Swan Lake,” the tutu-clad swans are bald, squatty and awkward.
In another Ek work, a quarreling couple pulls a charred infant out of an oven.
Once, Ek made a meal out of his own mother, the world-renowned experimental choreographer Birgit Cullberg.
Cullberg was 83 when Ek created a witty and erotic dance film, titled “Old and Door,” to showcase her undimmed expressive skills. At one point in the film, after Cullberg sinks to the floor in a reverie, a young man appears, digs a fork and knife into a soft curve of her body and hacks out real-looking flesh, which he stuffs into his mouth.
The film, created in 1991, was meant for television. But it was deemed too provocative, even for Sweden.
So what can we expect when the Royal Swedish Ballet performs Ek’s take on one of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragedies at the Kennedy Center next week?
Ekishly, it’s titled, “Juliet and Romeo.”
Ek took the name from “Giulietta e Romeo,” a Renaissance short story that is considered one of Shakespeare’s sources. In Shakespeare’s play, as well, Ek says, key tensions arise from the teenage heroine and her clan.
“I thought it was time to pronounce her in the title,” he said recently by phone from his home in Stockholm. “Some of the major subjects of the story are connected to Juliet.” The choreographer, 71, mentions Juliet’s Capulet family, her controlling parents and their marriage plans for her that drive the plot. While Romeo is free to prowl around with his buddies, Juliet carries the hopes of a dynasty.
Ek gives her a granite will. She wears miniskirts and yells at her parents (to the extent that she can in this wordless dance world). Tybalt, her sadistic cousin, wears black leather. The Capulets swoop by on Segways. So, forget those other “Romeos.” Even if this is not your first “Romeo,” it may well feel like it. The music is Tchaikovsky — excerpts from various works — not the familiar Prokofiev ballet score. Most of the dancers are barefoot. The set design is spare, with long, movable walls and little else.
The lovers are surrounded by power grabbers: parents, a zealous Duke, Tybalt and other Capulets. Yet in this highly controlled world, Juliet and Romeo have a slight but significant strength. Their way out is desperate, but in Ek’s view, also brave.
And that’s what truly appeals to Ek. Not the blood but the heart. He is most moved by courage, especially by the ordinary, weakest among us, who quietly leap into the unknown.
He brings up the tragedy of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in 2010. Bouazizi was the young street vendor whose fruit was seized in a police dispute, and when he appealed to authorities to get it back, he was refused. As this had become a customary cycle, in despair — or resolution — he set himself on fire. His death three weeks later led to widespread revolts, contributing to the Arab Spring uprising.
That happened as Ek was planning his “Juliet and Romeo,” which premiered in Stockholm in 2013.
“This powerless man made state after state fall apart,” he says. “And in that sense, the small, vulnerable action has an effect on a much larger scale.” Ek saw a connection to Shakespeare, “where young love, through the price of its extinction, makes the story happen. Their death then releases the pieces.”
Ek made his first dance in 1976, and has continued since then to delve into the unknown, teasing out those human experiences for which there are no words. He mixes ballet and modern dance in a physical language of long lunges, rigid angles and explicit sexuality, to express what is often shrouded in shame and taboos.
“I think he’s allergic to pretty,” says Lesley Leslie-Spinks, a Canadian-born photographer living in Sweden who has documented Ek’s work for nearly 40 years. She recently published a thick, beautiful book of her atmospheric and dramatically lit Ek photos, titled simply “Mats Ek.” The book includes a DVD of “Old and Door.” (An exhibition of these photos is on display at the Swedish Embassy through Aug. 28.)
“He pushes his dancers to the limits technically, but they’re never allowed to be pretty,” Leslie-Spinks says. “Though they are allowed to be funny. He has a brutal sense of humor.”
That’s for sure. “Old and Door” was Ek’s last collaboration with his mother; Cullberg died in 1999. It is poignant, as you’d expect, and surreal, but mostly it’s playful. There’s a wacky, naughty moment with an enthusiastic Cullberg, her white hair streaming, and a naked man. The dreamy look on her face is note perfect.
Making that film, Ek says, “was a way to try to learn to know her. I know that sounds strange.” His father, Anders Ek, was a leading Swedish actor. Mats Ek took his father’s dramatic sensibility into his mother's world, dancing in the company she led, the Cullberg Ballet, making works for it and others, and later directing the troupe himself. Yet even after all those years of working together, Ek saw his mother anew.
“I thought I knew her, but I didn’t. I discovered a lot.” He laughs heartily.
What was the most surprising discovery? He thinks for a moment.
“That she was a young girl still,” he says. “And that she could be extremely present in each moment. Each shot was taken several times, but she was always ready for it. Hungry for it.”
Ek’s works have been performed throughout Europe, but rarely in the United States. And this rare chance to see an Ek work at the Kennedy Center may be our last. In January, the choreographer made known a stunning decision: He is retiring from making dances, and his works will retire with him, because he will no longer oversee the rehearsals. A stickler for detail, Ek stages his works hands-on for other companies rather than relying on associates, as many choreographers do.
Ek will travel to Washington to continue fine-tuning “Juliet and Romeo” with the Royal Swedish Ballet, for example. But according to his plan, after existing licenses expire, his dances will be performed no more.
So far, however, the retirement hasn’t exactly gone as he expected. Work has gotten in the way, as it has a habit of doing.
The Cullberg Ballet will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. So next spring, Ek will oversee the revival of one of his works (“It’s within the time when they still have a contract,” he says) and one of his mother’s. He’ll also perform two of his duets with his wife, the celebrated Spanish Swedish dancer Ana Laguna. His longtime muse, she will dance the role of Juliet’s Nurse in some performances here.
“What shall I say? Waves come to the shore,” Ek says, describing how obligations continue to fill his calendar. “And you don’t know really how they occur. Somewhere along the line they happen. There are things I have to take care of.”
Still, Ek says, he aims to stick to his plan to retire “before anyone else asks me to step aside.”
Isn’t it difficult for an artist to detach from his own creations? Ek pauses. “You have to be determined,” he says finally. “I’m not fully there yet. But I would like to be free, to step out a bit, and see what comes out of that. It, maybe, will be depressing, or maybe releasing, or simply something that I haven’t expected — and that is the point. So let’s see.”
Ek doesn’t rule out a possible return to the dance studio. “Maybe I will become unhappy without having creative expectations on me. Then I will start again. But I would like to experience not being occupied with my ongoing stuff, that always has demanded my attention and time.”
Bravely digging into the unknown has been Ek’s creative strategy. Now, in his private life, too, the unknown beckons.
And who knows . . .
“Maybe,” Ek says, “I will land, finally, where I should be.”