“Cacti”, Alexander Ekman (“EK | EKMAN”, Staatsballett Berlin, 2023) ©Yan Revazov

Treading through sticky power dynamics

Two Swedish choreographers of two different generations, Mats Ek (b. 1945) and Alexander Ekman (b. 1984), share a total of six evenings of performances (Three in February and three in March) at Deutsche Oper. “A Sort Of…” by Ek and “Cacti” by Ekman is performed by Staatsballett Berlin and premiered on 16 February 2023. 

In the program booklet, Christiane Theobald, the acting artistic director of Staatsballett Berlin, asks Mats Ek, “Do you think there is a Swedish style?” To this, Ek answers that he doesn’t know and hopes not, but “it is often easy to recognise the traces of influence.” Witnessing Ek’s and Ekman’s pieces side by side, I do notice an overlap between the two choreographies: Both ballets show a strong touch of contemporary dance, and they demonstrate a close-knit relationship to music. Despite this similarity, the two works reflect a clear generational gap between the choreographers, which intrigues me the most. 

In “A Sort Of…”, it seems that Ek tries to play with gender roles; however, the work does not quite succeed to break out of normative notions of gender. Perhaps the choices Ek has made were perceived as progressive back in 1997, when the piece premiered for the very first time at the Nederlands Dans Theatre. But since the work is restaged in 2023, I will observe it through the lens of the present times.

The work begins with a duet, where a male dancer with beard and moustache, Arshak Ghalumyan, is wearing a purple dress and a female dancer, Vivian Assal Koohnavard, is wearing a light brown suit. A large part of their dance deviates from classical balletic movements, and uses movement vocabularies that I identify as contemporary dance. The duet ends with Koohnavard being pushed into a big suitcase, where she gets locked in. Rolling the suitcase with one hand, Ghalumyan walks across and off the stage at a leisurely pace. At this moment, a wall that has been blocking the view of the three-quarters of the stage lifts up and away, revealing the world behind it. 

In this world, all dancers are wearing costumes that follow the gender norm; all females wear dresses and all males wear suits. When Ghalumyan and Koohnavard reappear onstage, their costumes are swapped, so that they correspond “correctly” to their gender stereotypes. The two dancers proceed to carry out a duet that displays more of a traditional balletic repertoire, such as grand jetés in a circular path while they hold hands. One dancer, Alexander Abdukarimov, however, is naked except for a pair of loose boxer shorts in bright red. ‘Could this be a more gender-neutral costume choice?’ I wonder. A part that follows shortly after confuses this questioning.

In this scene, a “pregnant woman” (She has a big bulge on her belly that she carefully holds) in a pale pink dress and a tall man in black suit walk slowly towards one another. When they are almost touching, the male dancer pops the balloon under her belly. In sync with the loud bursting sound, the female dancer drops to the floor and writhes violently, and scoots off stage. Three male dancers in suits carry out a short unison, until Abdukarimov appears with a bulge on his crotch area. The balloon gets popped by another male dancer and Abdukarimov also writhes off stage. Lastly, a female dancer in a dress enters with bulges on her breasts and buttocks area, which all get promptly popped by a male dancer. Witnessing this part bothers me, because I sense an undertone of patriarchal violence. Perhaps having the balloons popped is a metaphor of dismantling gender stereotypes; however, the fact that there is a strong male domination in the scene (Men, exclusively, are the ones who make the decisions) and that the receivers of the popping action are depicted as not having any agency over their bodies feel troublesome to me. 

In “Cacti” by Ekman, which was created in 2010, gender roles are not a topic at all. The work is in fact quite gender neutral without hierarchies. The piece focuses on collective bodies, rather than an individual. The opening scene shows four musicians playing string instruments live on stage and a solo dancer, Alizée Sicre, moving very slowly. The orchestra pit that has been opened before the start of the performance rises up, and to my surprise, there emerge 26 dancers instead of musicians. All dancers are dressed in the same costume: Tight black swim hats that cover their hair and black overalls with the top part rolled down and tied around the waist to reveal the dancers’ torsos, dressed in light beige unitard. Sicre joins the group, and the 27 dancers interact with the live musicians to create the soundscape together. With a movement vocabulary that reminds of contemporary dance, the dancers, in unison, breathe, shout, laugh, clap, and make percussive sounds by hitting the floor or their bodies.

When the four live musicians exit the stage, the dancers drag the ivory-coloured pedestals they were each sitting on further upstage, occupying the entire depth of the stage. Then follows an impressive play of spotlights, music, bodies, pedestals that turn into props at times, and big cacti that dancers bring out on stage. 

If “A Sort Of…” attempted to disturb gender norms, “Cacti” is concerned with disrupting a different kind of power system. Throughout the work, narrations of male voices recite exaggeratedly intellectualised analysis of “Cacti”, clearly poking fun at those who impose meanings on the work. Following are some examples: “But in this work – the artist’s own Sistine Chapel once is invited to a new decade’s utopia. A world where we are not dancers, not musicians, but all members of the human orchestra.” “What did we see? What was revealed? What does it mean? […] But it is not the ivory pedestals that hold the heartbeat of this work. Instead, it is the cacti, pulsing with the subtext almost too subtly to detect. But the trained eye sees the truth, and the review is revealed.” “What does it mean? Clearly, the genderless, anonymous, parallel bodies on a horizontal plane represent the absolute principles of having men and earth.”

In the program booklet, Ekman writes: “Cacti was created during a period of my life where I was very confused and upset every time someone would write about my work. I did not find it fair that one person was going to sit there and sort of decide for everyone what the work was about. I have stopped reading my reviews, but still question this unfair system mankind has created.” I understand Ekman’s frustration and agree with his viewpoint. Even when some systems are “unfair”, it seems that society is not able to easily deconstruct these pre-existing structures. Perhaps this is due to a sense of safety that people in positions of power feel when the normative ways are secured. If I may continue the discussion on imbalanced systems, I ask why Ekman chose all the narrations to be in male voices. Was it to give the voices more “authority”, and if so, why do we carry on the preconception of male voices having more power? Furthermore, why are most of the celebrated ballet choreographers I have learned about in my dance education white and male, and why am I witnessing two ballet works by white male choreographers, yet again? Finally, why does ballet remain as a bourgeois art form that is accessible only to the middle and upper class audience members? These questions bounce around my body as I clap along with the explosively enthusiastic audience clapping to the beaming faces of the dancers, who I admire for their incredible physical skills and discipline, as they bow once, twice, again, and again, then again.

“EK | EKMAN” – Choreographies by Mats Ek (“A Sort Of…”) and Alexander Ekman (“Cacti”) by Staatsballett Berlin premiered on 16 February 2023 at Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Next performance dates: 12 March at 4pm and 8pm, 22 March 2023 at 7.30pm at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Tickets at staatsballett-berlin.de. A family workshop is offered on 12 March at 2pm in combination with the visit to the family performance at 4pm the same day, prior registration is required.