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SWEDISH CROSS-DRESSING MOCKS CATHOLIC SPAIN

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 13 AUGUST 2008 — The Swedish choreographer, Mats Ek, achieved international recognition with his brilliant re-working of Giselle for his own company, the Cullberg Ballet, in 1982, a work staged at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1993. Such was its success that he was invited to create Appartement for the French company seven years later, a work bringing back memories of Marie-Agnès Gillot crawling round with her head down a lavatory and of José Martinez sprawled out on a sofa before deciding to eat it. Such a piece was not to the taste of everyone and reviews were mitigated. This time 'round no risks were taken and the French company has enriched its repertoire with two proven works, The House of Bernarda Alba, premiered by the Swedish troupe in 1978, and the more recent A Sort of..., created in 1997 for the Nederlands Dans Theater.

From the world of the theatre, where he studied up to the age of 22, Ek brought to contemporary dance the idea that anything can be transposed onto the stage; legends and myths, hope and despair, our own secret childhood, as well as, in the case of The House of Bernarda Alba, oppression in its most varied forms. The ballet deals with a bitter revolt against outdated family and religious traditions.


Mats Ek: The House of Bernarda Alba
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Anne Deniau

The House of Bernarda Alba, set to organ music by Bach interspersed with Spanish guitar pieces, is freely adapted from Federico Garcia Lorca's last play, La Casa de Bernada Alba, written in 1936 shortly before his execution by Franco's supporters. In a Spain on the verge of civil war, Bernada Alba, a proud and sanctimonious woman, condemns her five daughters to stay in mourning for their father and to live isolated from the rest of the world. They are forced to remain cloistered in their sinister house for 8 years and the tragedy reaches its climax when the frustrated youngest daughter throws herself at her eldest sister's suitor only to find herself pregnant and deserted.

In a stroke of genius, Ek cast a male dancer, the superb Kader Belarbi, in the role of the tyrannical widow, adding to the atmosphere an unpleasant and grotesque dimension. The daughters, dressed in black, are crushed by his terrifying cruelty, intensified in dance by harsh, angular gestures. Belarbi, in a black veil and long fluid skirts never shows the slightest sentiment, except in one of the highlights of the work where, chest bared, he interprets a shocking pas de deux with the statue of Christ, an object of desire he has detached from the wall. The wild violence of the images of two men erotically wrapped around each other profoundly shocked Catholic Spain at the work's premiere three years after Franco's death.


Mats Ek: The House of Bernarda Alba
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Anne Deniau

Besides drawing visual inspiration from engravings by Francisco de Goya, Ek developed his ballet by adding the spoken word together with shouts and screams. The mealtime scene, which seemed to come straight out of a Goya masterpiece, is nightmarish.

The profound jealousy between the sisters culminates in the sufferings of the pathetic eldest daughter, performed by étoile Agnès Letestu, whose only suitor is lured by her dowry alone, while her youngest sister, betrayed in turn, hangs herself in her despair.

Sickening and suffocating, the ballet was magnificently interpreted by all members of the company, from Belarbi himself in one of his greatest roles, to corps de ballet member, Laure Muret, both dancers appearing in one of their last performances before retirement. Alice Renavand as the servant, in the role made famous by Ana Laguna, was remarkable.

The atmosphere changed radically with the second work on the programme, A Sort of..., where the influence of Goya was exchanged for the world of Magritte. Light, airy, dreamy and colourful, but full of humour, verve and violence, this is a ballet which has neither rhyme nor reason. Set to a score by the Polish composer, Henryk Gorecki, it is pure dance, contemporary and classical, switching rapidly from burlesque to the absurd and is, by turns, tender and cruel.


Mats Ek: A Sort of….
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Anne Deniau

The work opens on a couple of lovers, Nolwenn Daniel and Nicolas Le Riche, the latter at the peak of his form and thoroughly in his element. Clad in a long coat and a pair of women's shoes, he gives a roguish grin, winning over his audience from the beginning. The spectators are ready to follow him anywhere, which is what they do as a large suitcase takes centre stage. Inside is a woman's body, Nolwenn Daniel clad in a man's costume, but it is unclear as to whether the case protects her or is intended to suffocate her. A superb pas de deux has Le Riche dressed as a woman and Nolwenn Daniel dressed as a man. This is a universe where anything is possible - multi-coloured balloons appear on all sides, buildings light up and heads and arms agitate behind a wall which itself breaks up into a thousand parts, and wave upon wave of dancers appear, disturbing and unconnected as in a dream.


Mats Ek: A Sort of...
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Anne Deniau

The choreographer has interwoven a series of highly unlikely love stories, domestic quarrels and sexuality included, which have taken on a surrealist dimension. It is the theatre of the absurd. A Sort of... was danced with sensuality and fugue by the whole company.

Title photo above: Nicolas Le Riche in Mats Ek: A Sort of...
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Anne Deniau

Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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