Mats Ek Sets Casi-Casa
on Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Mats Ek was well into a career as a theater director when he discovered that dance was his true calling at the age of twenty-seven. “It was a relief,” said the world-famous choreographer while in town to begin staging the American premiere of his “Casi-Casa” (2009) on Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. “My experience in theater was due to my delay to start dance,” he mused in a recent interview at The Lou Conte Dance Studio in Chicago. Ek, whose father was one of Ingmar Bergman’s leading actors, was especially taken with Graham technique, which he experienced initially as a theater student. “Theater uses a language close to reality. You can pretend things,” he said. “Dance is a foreign language (where) there’s no space for cheating.” Raw emotional honesty is a hallmark of Ek’s choreography, which typically grapples with a psychologically rich landscape of multi-layered characters and relationships in dramatic action. Even though his dance works often tell dramatic stories, albeit abstractly, “movement and text are quite different,” he said, reflecting on the differences between dance and theater. “Dealing with each, they are two different paths.” With dance, Ek says, “ I depend on dealing with situations. Without that, (you are) incapable of shape or flow, there is no mortar to deal with (the movement).”
Ek and his wife, Ana Laguna, had just finished their first day with HSDC. Casi-Casa, adapted and expanded from two earlier works – “Appartement” (2000) and “Fluke,” (2002), will be featured in Hubbard Street’s December 6-8 program at downtown Chicago’s Harris Theater. The work was originally commissioned for the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba.
Few American companies have had the privilege of working with Ek, who is known for daring re-imaginings of such classical ballet works as “Giselle” (1982) and “Swan Lake,” (1987) as well adaptations of opera – Bizet’s “Carmen” (1992) – and Greek drama – “Antigone” (1979).
“Casi-Casa,” which is designed to tour, was a good choice for Hubbard Street. “I wanted to open up to the possibility of setting the work on an American company.” His previous experience working with HSDC artistic director Glen Edgerton when Edgerton was director of Nederlands Dans Theatre gave him confidence that his work would be in good hands.
When asked what the biggest technical challenge was for dancers learning his technically demanding choreography for the first time, dancer Ana Laguna said, “It’s hard to link the technique with feelings.” They both expressed their hope for the dancers “to get comfortable with the movement, open up to feel relieved to dance.” The use of their upper bodies and center would be central to their grasp of his movement, which is grounded in a marvelous blend of ballet and modern technique that nourish his unique choreographic imagination.
Ek laments the loss of dramatic repertory in today’s classical programming. “Many modern dancers don’t want that ‘reason’ for doing,” relegating drama in dance to childish pantomime, not serious business. He recalls Merce Cunningham’s often-quoted statement: “Movement is the message,” as being misunderstood. Most people think Cunnigham meant to extol simply movement in the abstract, but Ek believes that’s not what Cunningham meant. “Many modern choreographers use it as an excuse to distance themselves,” but emotion and drama are “absolutely essential.” Echoing playwright Bertolt Brecht, Ek said, “you take a distance, but not without engagement.” European expressionism sought to get away from sentimentality. “No one deals with pure classical choreography anymore,” he said. The classical European companies are “pressed into a corner to renew their repertory and have turned to contemporary choreographers like Ek, who has set major works on the Paris Opera Ballet, Cullberg Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theatre among others. “The movement speaks for itself,” Ek says of his work.
HSDC’s American premiere of the dramatically riveting “Casi-Casa” will give Chicago audiences a chance to see just what he means.