Juliet and Romeo by Mats Ek

Post-coital pas de deux: Juliet and Romeo / Pic: Gert Weigelt
© Gert Weigelt

Juliet and Romeo – Ballet in 2 Acts

choreography by Mats Ek
on music by Tchaikovsky
performed by Royal Swedish Ballet and Royal Swedish Orchestra
staging design by Magdalena Agberg
recorded in 2014 at the Royal Opera House in London
Juliet: Mariko Kida
Romeo: Anthony Lomuljo
Mercutio: Jérôme Marchand
Nurse: Ana Laguna

I just watched Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo. Genius, genius, genius. It took me some time to get what he was doing, but when I got it, I was awed by his accomplishment. .

Movements in his choreography are sometimes very easy to recognize, at first you think it’s mime, they look like everyday gestures we use – but with them come others, that look odd, out of place, quirky. The kind of movement changes fast, alternates to completely different ideas, or moods or feelings. In the beginning I was confused, in fact so lost I gave up trying to understand, and just watched the dancers, it was real pleasure to look at them, they are excellent, these wonderful Swedish! Weird as some movements were, they performed them such with amazing clarity and easiness, their competence turning even the strangest one into beauty.

Of course I had seen many ballet versions of R&J, several movies and read the bard’s play itself, but at this point I had stopped analysing and comparing, I had emptied my mind, dropped all pre-existing notions, and was just enjoying the dancers’ work.. And then it was that it started to work: I realized I knew, I could clearly understand what the characters were feeling!

Mats Ek wasn’t telling a story. Or better said, he was, but not through facts, not in objective, external world. He did it through the feelings of the characters. And not through our socially deeply codified body-language, like when you wave your hand meaning “good bye”, but using a far more instinctive one, that makes you press a hand to your stomach when you receive a brutal emotional blow.

But there is more. His “text” is not prose, it is poetry, and again not a sonnet, but the most radical free verse poetry. You cannot apprehend by reading one word, and then the next, and the next, carefully chaining one to the other, following step by step the nexus inscribed in them by the poet. It’s the kind of poetry that you (must) read without searching for sense, you must read bypassing your analytical mind and just let the words – juxtaposed together without apparent sense – sink in. What the poet wants to impart is not reachable using logical reasoning, but taking in the rhythm, the sound, what each word fleetingly evokes – and somehow, as you read, the underlying sense starts to be unveiled, you will be told something without the need to “think” about. What will come out is not a story, or a precise idea, but something wider and less precise, and usually deeper: a notion, a mood, a feeling.

© Dave Morgan

Mats Ek choreographic text is like that. Even recognizable gestures are not the gestures themselves, or the few objects on stage: they represent related feelings. His talent for finding new expressive gestures is uncanny, as if he is creating new words for things left unsaid before for lack of a noun, but quite real. Or a sequence of gestures, you need their ensemble to understand. Attempt to “understand” each movement is pointless, we must just let impressions flow, absorb them without thinking – and suddenly we “know” what he wanted to impart!

A plot told through feelings! Forget about balconies and beds, flasks of poison and swords, genius dialogs and rituals. What we see is another level of reality, that happens inside people and will LEAD them to objective action, but this action is not shown on stage! Objects and factual social interaction are in another sphere of reality. We are given the psychological and affective dynamic of the characters, how they act and react emotionally, their motivations, their internal life. And-nothing-else. Can a story be told that way? Oh, yes, Mats Ek proves it can, and quite clearly!

But why odd movements, why surprising and contradictory messages? Because this is how we feel. Our emotions are not nicely behaved, some feelings are unexpected, some contradictory, even embarrassing. We often have feelings we can’t even put a name on. We feel many things at the same time, what we feel is not linear, has many facets, doesn’t fit rational logic, we are, all the time, a cauldron where many ingredients boil in an emotional soup. Sounds too complex? It is, if you try to track down and rationally explain each element, but whatever is there has a defined taste, an internal sense, even if it looks bizarre from the outside.

Believe me or not, Mats Ek conveys all this in his choreography. There were moments where he lost me, but they were few, really very few. It is a radically subjective work, and needs to be apprehended through our subjectivity too, or will seem absurd. But once you see the play for what it is… yes! yes, yes, yes!

There is a problem, however: it is hard to describe. THIS! This is one of dance’s specific values, a fundamental value, and one that Ek took to new heights: Dance can show what words cannot, dance tells of things our rational discourse, with all its beautiful words and complex concepts, can’t handle, and our social selves must ignore (or our lives would turn into chaotic Babel Towers). In dance the message reaches us directly, doesn’t need reason, doesn’t need most of our conventions and codes, including language. I don’t dare try describing what the characters felt, what I saw in them, but it couldn’t be different – there is a gap between dance and text – these two fundamentally different ways of expression.

Professional critics have a big problem. They must write wisely and with intelligence about art (or what should be art). They prepare themselves for that, I imagine. As soon as the curtain opens, they switch on their analytical minds, searching for things they can describe and state with competence – objectivity turned on at full power.
The “magic” of art, however, is hard to describe in words, and hard to understand if you were not there – maybe the reason why so few reviewers even try (and maybe the reason they are surprised that public reacted in quite a different way).  For a long time now I have been criticizing critics and their excessively analytic predisposition. They frequently see the elements and don’t see the whole. They frequently see some elements and other not. They frequently just look for flaws, so much easier to identify. They frequently see what they expected to see, and are blind to anything else. And when they are at a loss, they use labels applied by others before them, to just get it over!
Now, in a work like THIS, what can we expect of this kind of reviewer? Of course few were willing to switch off reason, and subjectively (and passively) wait for Ek’s sense to come to them.

So you will have them judging what they see at eye’s value: Juliet moves awkwardly because adolescents move awkwardly – good job, Ek!
“It’s in the person of Juliet that we see Ek’s choreography at its most subtle and tender. He doesn’t spare us the awkwardness and grotesqueries of adolescence. She pulls daft faces and throws weird shapes; at times she’s all twitching, puppyish impatience.”

Another one:
“The decision to ignore the sleeping potion twist speeds up the plot but denies Juliet her pivotal moment of choice, and diminishes the horror of the lovers’ deaths.”

Imho, Juliet’s choice is a crystal clear and powerful moment, in fact one of the best, but the writer didn’t notice…

This one is worse:
“It’s also, in my view, disappointingly dull. While much that I heard beforehand about the winner of the 2015 Olivier Award sounded enticing, the choreography comes across as puzzlingly clunky, as if awkward gestures were haphazardly strung together. I didn’t sense any flow to the dancing, and the storyline is difficult to follow. I waited in vain for a friar and a vial of poison.
I failed to connect emotionally to the dancing, but I do not fault the dancers for my lack of feeling. For that, I blame the choreography alone. The dancers looked lovely and appeared well-trained, it’s what they were doing that bored me. For example, there’s a lot of rolling on the floor, arms held close the body, like so many logs, as well as running in place, legs kicking up to one’s rear. Overall, the movement is unexciting, basic, and sometimes crude (more than once someone raises a middle finger or grabs a crotch). If you’re looking for pretty and/or intricate movement on pointe, you won’t find it here.”

No, you won’t find it here. Definitely not. Not because Mats Ek failed, but because he succeeded.

No wonder Ek became eventually so dismayed he decided to retire and forbade his ballets to be performed, end point!

He should instead explain what he’s doing, help people understand, prepare them for his play(s) – after all, it’s a deeply unconventional approach. I perceived what he intended by sheer luck, because I had put aside pre-existing notions, was watching with “innocence”. I’m not bragging, quite the opposite, I’m no art expert, ballet expert or in any other way better prepared to evaluate a performance. It only enhances Mats Ek feat, does it not?

I’m grateful and relieved: he recently changed his mind, and is working again!




The beauty (or not) of contemporary dance!

Evolution of Mankind
Evolution of Mankind 

 Edited one day after first publishing: it’s an awful long post, again. If you’re not patient enough, just go to the to examples in the end – they speak for themselves.

I have a problem with overuse of weird and ugly movements in contemporary dance.

I know it sounds unsophisticated and simple-minded, but am I just a traditional ballet lover with an idealized view of dancing? I believe not, I have a few arguments, and they may be not that naive (although I love this little figure, I stitched it together myself!).

To begin with – and this is important: my problem is NOT with ridiculous, weird, strange or ugly movements used to impart the wealth of negative emotions and ideas that are part of life – just when they are used for other reasons and in other contexts. Some of them:

# 1: “I want to shock, I want to push you out of your comfort zone!”

Reality is not a nice place to live, but classical ballet refused the notion and presented us with an idealized view of human being.  In this context, the use of ugly and weird movements in contemporary is a way to give a good push on ballet’s complacent audience, as a shocking device to make them again aware of the real facts of life. I subscribe to that! BUT…

… nowadays they became overused. It’s like these American B-films, where the characters use FUCK as their every fifth word. It should show how the character is bad, or messed up, but fails, nowadays, to have the desired effect. You see, I’m a clumsy person, and this puts me in frequent situations when swearing is needed…  and heartily done!!!  It would not be THAT satisfying, though, if I used swearing in every sentence. Overuse kills the effect of trespassing, of rebellion, of a striking-back reaction. It becomes just bad manners, and does not make us jump in our seats anymore, or even uncomfortable.

If ugly movements are used to shock us, or to remind us of the ugly side of reality, well… it’s not working anymore, they are, nowadays, just… boringly ugly!

# 2:  “Contemporary dance is not falsely prude, or falsely nice”.

And there comes bottoms facing audience, or held up high facing the sky, or the common lift where the female dancer is held high, back against her partner’s chest, horizontally not-fully extended, half-open legs, crotch facing the public.  I used to look for the sex act key of that movement, since a woman in that position, in all our minds, with legs tensed that way, is a powerful and beautiful image of sexual desire, very rarely seen in other contexts, if any – I would welcome that, by the way, sex is still taboo in ballet, even in contemporary, and many choreographers and dancers are still uncomfortable in acknowledging even that sex exists – as Theatre, for example, has been doing for a long time. But… no, it is mostly just a slightly out-of-tune movement that, more often than not, has nothing to do with sexual drive.  So what does it mean, this position that, taken out of its context, is not exactly graceful? The same applies, for example,  when dancers crawl on all their fours…  in my body-language lexicon, this is about very little children (the child inside us?), or about a very desperate, in sheer terror human being, that turns animal-like for lack of options. So I look for hints either way, but more often than not… they are not there! Made by an adult, and without the archaic corresponding meaning, this kind of movement is not graceful or makes sense anywhere in the world… So?!??

# 3: It is original!

In a world with too many people, ideas and images, originality is an important way to stand out. For the sake of originality, people go to any lengths, pushing boundaries of aesthetics to ultimate extremes. If it comes from a deep understanding of hidden possibilities we common people are not aware yet, I love it. But sometimes weird, ugly dancing does not seem to have any meaning, or belong to an intended aesthetic statement, they come and go in the dancing, and you can’t make any sense out them.

We, social beings as we are, live inside a symbolic universe, which allows us to communicate. We share words, concepts, tastes, ideas. Even if I see blue were you see green, even if Thai food feels so hot for me I have a hard time identifying the other ingredients  through my tears, even if my fragmented notion of time is different from my Arab neighbour’s flowing one… even so, we have more in common than we have differences.  Every social group shares a symbolic universe, deeply grounded on its language, and part of these diverse universes is common to all mankind. It is not different with body language. Different cultures have different conventions about the meaning of movements, and some of this meaning is common to all humankind.

The common aspects are rooted mostly in archaic fears and needs. So if you are standing up and stretch yourself completely,  as far as you can, your eyes not on someone else, but focused far away, or unfocused – what does it mean? Here? In China? In Iceland? You see what I mean? INSIDE a specific culture, it is even easier, because all body-language – partly deeply rooted, partly convention – is understandable, is a language like the spoken one.

Our ears, our eyes, our nose, our tongue, all our senses, are trained since early childhood, so we can share images and colours, flavours and smells, sounds… and concepts related to them, and ever more abstract ideas construed using these as ground-stones.

Now, coming back to Art. Art is part of our symbolic universe, both the specific one, and the general one.  I may have trouble understanding a Japanese Opera, or Indian music, when I’m seeing it for the first time and without preparing myself. But I can learn! I can learn its aesthetic criteria, the difficulties of performance, the concepts that are imbedded there, the culture where they came from, and then… THEN I will be exposed to the full power of that kind of Art. What I mean is: Art exists INSIDE a symbolic universe, and can only reach me if I share this universe.

There are artists that have an instinctive knowledge of our symbolic universe, but so a deep and great one, they are able to show us things we are not aware, that are in the boundaries of, or hidden from our “Weltanschauung”. And still, they share our symbolic universe, or they would be just psychopaths, living in a world of their own…  It is my belief that this kind of Art, even if you can’t understand it rationally, will get at you anyway. Provided it is Art, provided it comes from a knowledge that includes mine and exceeds it in some way, and brings me a new truth I will recognize once seen, and then not be able to dismiss again. Problem is, this is not the kind of artist we are discussing here. This kind of artist is Beethoven, is Isadora Duncan, is Van Gogh, they are rare, so, SO rare!  Most artists are not so far away from our everyday reality, and share our symbolic universe as it is. There is nothing less valuable about them, because Art must not throw our symbolic universe upside down, everytime, to be Art –in fact it rarely does, for it is, most of all, a way for us… just to live! Nietzsche said: “We have art in order not to die of the truth!”. We need Art in order to cope with what being human is, just IS!

Many artists strive, nowadays, to be boundary breakers, but if they resource to artificial means to become that, it is of no avail – this kind of issue should not even worry them – in fact, articialism gets in the way of creation! The points I enumerated above about the use of strange movements ARE artificial ways some choreographers are using, and do not convince me. At all.

To be original guarantees… originality, not that the work will be Art! To unveil hypocrisy and false moral values is always good, but does not guarantee the work will be Art (but a valuable socio-political statement, maybe?), and so on.

Our culture shares an immensurable knowledge on body-language and concepts of body beauty and body-movements beauty… and their corresponding ugliness.  This wealth of meaning is just beginning to be explored by Dance. I wonder why so many choreographers are dismissive about our shared language, and try to create something that is not really new, just weird – to create something that is just…  not understandable!

How many writers you know that use as much words they create from scratch as existing ones? How many perfumists do you know that create perfumes that smell like rotten eggs, or a car’s exhaustion?  What happens when you hear music  that uses not the kind of “hamony” your culture shares? even if it is Art, will it reach you?

I will a give an example, and a counter-example.

My example of weird, not understandable dancing is Ohad Naharin’s Passo. Passo is part of a larger work, and was presented, out of context, in Solo For Two, with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, where I saw it the first time. Despite being performed by outstanding and expressive dancers, it was a shot off the mark, if I, in the audience, was the intended target. Even seeing the whole work, I doubt I would get what was to be imparted through the choreography.  It was lost on me, I did not understand the body-language, and could not see, also, a possible internal coherence or consistency of Form, some aesthetic proposition I could recognize.  Was it necessary to know about Gaga-technique? Well… Naharin could not expect that from me, could he? I must say:  simple-minded me did not get it at all… I wonder if someone else did!
(The strange thing is, there are several choreographies of Naharin that I like  – and, I believe,  understand…  so what is the matter with THIS one?

Small excerpt of Passo by Ohad Naharin, performed by Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev

The counter-example is Mats Ek’s (he is Swedish) work, based on a play of Garcia Lorca (he is Spanish), using music from Bach (he is German), Villa-Lobos (he is Brazilian), Albeniz and Tarraga (they are Spanish): Bernardas Hus, or La Casa de Bernarda Alba. An extraordinary work, “readable” by anyone, despite the multicultural aspects… at least by any occidental one (due to Catholic religion references). But then,  Mats Ek is an extraordinary choreographer, I’m fascinated by his work!  Even if you do not know the original play (I did not), you get it, both emotion and plot, through the cleverest use of body-language in – and this is what I like the most – IN the dancing,  THROUGH the dancing!

bernardas hus
Small excerpt of Bernardas Hus by Mats Ek – link to complete work below

Link to complete work: << https://youtu.be/l2Sxi7USgzw>>.