Jann Parry spoke to the internationally renowned Swedish choreographer via Zoom on 30 June, shortly after the Royal Ballet premiere of his woman with water in the Beauty Mixed Programme – the bill remains in live rep until 11 July 2021. (review).
Reports of Mats Ek’s retirement in 2015 were evidently much exaggerated, as was the withdrawal of all his works from performance. He was back in the Royal Opera House in June, along with his wife, Ana Laguna, to mount his duet, woman with water, created for the Royal Swedish Ballet in February last year. The Swedish company retains the media rights to the commissioned duet, so woman with water will not be included in the Royal Ballet’s livestream of its latest mixed bill on 9 July 2021.
The last time a work by Ek was danced by the Royal Ballet was his version of Bizet’s Carmen (1992), when the title role was memorably taken by Sylvie Guillem and Tamara Rojo in 2010. Other companies, including the Royal Swedish Ballet, have brought his creations to London over the years: full length ballets, often his reworkings of familiar classics such as Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty, as well as many shorter pieces. Guillem toured his last solo for her, Bye, in her farewell tour before her retirement from dancing. Nobody else has danced it since.
The rumour of Ek’s ‘retirement’ came about because he needed to take a break, aged 70, from working in the theatre after 50 years. “I’d been wanting for some time to take a step backwards because I’d been too deeply involved in too many things at the same time. And now with the pandemic, it came about by itself. I’ve been workless for one and a half years, more or less. But things are looking quite good now for the coming years. And it’s given me time for unexpected things.”
What has he been up to? “Ana and I spent a lot of time in our countryside house in the northern part of Sweden, with no travel abroad. The isolation and breadth around us was releasing for thoughts and impulses, as well as recreation”. He took plenty of exercise. “I have some sort of ‘hang up’ to keep my body in shape. It’s linked to my profession and my identity. I would not like to be doing nothing and just looking at birds flying around me – I would rather like to be one of them.”
“We made two small films, which involved much more than we intended. One solo I filmed with my wife, one she filmed with me – my choreography, of course – we had them edited and now they are done.” Presumptuously, I asked whether the solos featured his familiar themes of alienation and misunderstandings between couples, married or otherwise, made worse by the claustrophobia of lockdown. He assured me with a smile: “There is no threat to our marriage.”
He and Laguna have often performed in programmes celebrating the contribution of older artists, including Sadler’s Wells’ Elixir Festival in 2014 and 2017. “We are planning to perform again in November in Sweden and discussing other occasions as well. So retirement is not yet out of the question, though our activities have simply diminished from natural reasons. Less is more, let’s say, until less is less.”
He hasn’t withdrawn the rights to all his creations, though he insists on being in charge of their productions. He chose the casting for the Royal Ballet’s version of woman with water from auditions, giving the first night to Mayara Magri, newly promoted to principal, and later performances to Natalia Osipova, RB principal since 2013. “I’m no respecter of seniority. I had a great time and the company responded very generously to me. It was a very good experience.”
He is meticulous about the props used in his works, even though they tend to be everyday items of furniture: a table, a chair, a door, a piece of wood. “They are not just anything. For me, those everyday items are loaded with meaning, in the sense that we use them and treat them sometimes very good, sometimes very bad, but for me, once they are picked out of their context, they create a lot of ideas, of relationships, while still being what they are.” The bright green table in woman with water holds a magnetic attraction for the woman in an orange maxi dress. She clambers over and under it, craving the glass of water placed on it, refilled by a mysterious man in black. The solo/duet ends with the woman on the floor, surrounded by spilt water, cleared away by the man.
The piece was born out of a collaboration with Sylvie Guillem some 35 years ago as a short film called Wet Woman. Water appeared as a special effect, as did the unexpected presence of a man’s hand tugging the woman’s dress. The solo was expanded for the stage version, with a role for the man bringing her a glass of water. “Then I returned to it again last year, doubled the music [by his frequent collaborators, Fleshquartet] and gave the man a more definite role. So now it’s a duet, but it’s not a pas de deux.”
Frequently in his creations, the woman is foregrounded, with a man putting in a brief, enigmatic appearance: maybe he’s a memory, a nuisance, an intruder, an intermittent absence. “My imagination works through a female leading character. It gives a certain distance to place myself in a female body or situation. I have to transport myself to another place and release unexpected responses that are not immediate. But I’ve used gender crossover many times. I’ve always done it, but I don’t have any social/political reasons for it. No.”
In his early work, Bernarda’s House (1978), based on the play The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca, the role of the matriarch is danced by a man. In A sort of duet (1997), a male dancer is dressed as a woman, a female dancer as a man. The Paris Opera Ballet performed both in 2008, with étoiles cross dressing. The French company has – or had – a number of Ek works in its repertoire, including his Giselle, Carmen, Appartement and more recent Boléro, featuring his older brother Niklas.
If Ek cannot be available in future to oversee revival of his works, will they disappear? Some, though not many, have been filmed with his approval. “I have nothing against film, absolutely not. It has its own possibilities and limitations. But it must be professionally done. I put nothing online, absolutely not.” During the pandemic, theatres asked if they could screen their productions of his work and he gave a special dispensation, provided that the recordings were put on the companies’ home pages and not on YouTube. The Royal Swedish Ballet’s account of woman with water will be made available on their home page in August this year, so if you missed during the Royal Ballet’s run, you could see it there.