One very good thing about the decision to focus on the ballets of Mats Ek at this year's Festival is that it reminds everyone that Matthew Bourne wasn't the first person in the world to do witty or hard-hitting things with 19th-century ballet classics. Ek is Sweden's foremost choreographer, and his Giselle (1982) was the first of several radical reworkings of key classical repertory, none of which has been seen in Britain until now.
Ek keeps roughly to the 1841 script of a peasant girl betrayed by a nobleman, and keeps in the contrasts of rich and poor, of rough farming village against rarefied spirit world. But he gives the latter in a gruellingly altered form, with the "white act" played out in a mental hospital.
The original production was made by Cullberg Ballet - which was founded by Ek's mother, Birgit Cullberg - and draws on its dancers' strengths: a firm classical foundation allied to a reckless ability to hurl their bodies through space in long arcs of wheeling, back-arching, plunging steps. It leaves you breathless just watching. And Ek uses this extravagant muscularity to mark out character: the peasants are all elbows and low- slung gravity; the gentry are as if permanently in flight over hedges, crying "Tally-ho!"
Many of his ideas are starkly unpretty, and the emotion comes at you like a wall. When he wants to show that Giselle is happy, Ek has her race around with her arms stuck out like a plane. When her adored Albrecht lifts her, instead of letting her body drift upward like thistledown - classical ballet's metaphor for elation - she goes stick-rigid, her feet poking up like Charlie Chaplin's, and lets her face do all the ravishment. If she'd had a pillow to hand, she'd have bitten on it.
Ek also favours unusual props used in a symbolist manner. I mentioned the furry thing (which remains a bit of a mystery). There's also a mountaineer's safety-line, which Hilarion, the cuckold, repeatedly clips on to Giselle to stop her running off; and there are a number of giant hen's eggs, which the villagers laboriously roll onto the stage, and which the hunting party use for sitting on (the poor do the work; the rich get the benefits).
The more radical rethinking comes in Act II, where the moonlit ranks of vengeful wilis in white tulle are replaced by blank-eyed girls in hospital gowns, with Albrecht and Hilarion as hospital visitors. What's the most intimidating thing a bunch of women could do to a working-class man? Get stuck into the throes of childbirth, says Ek. And he has his betrayed maidens act out a third-stage-of-labour scenario before their quaking victim. And what's the most terrifying thing you can do to a two-timing aristo like Albrecht? Strip him of his dignity. Thus Albrecht gradually sheds the white tails that gave him such swagger in Act I. By the end he is naked, cowering but cleansed. The most touching final action of the ballet is when his one-time rival runs to fetch him a blanket.
There was more emphasis on body coverings in Meg Stuart's work Appetite, created in conjuction with the visual artist Ann Hamilton. Bulging, Michelin- man figures prove to have other garments stuffed inside their boiler suits, which gradually unravel, intestine-like. Another character sticks a circular loaf of bread over his face, and someone eats it off him. Stuart's programme note promised an exploration of "the experience of being a physical body - a body that inherits the simultaneous and opposite conditions of being always an interior and exterior ... " which had possibilities. But over the course of the evening, these miserably failed to materialise.
It's all very well proclaiming a distaste for the virtuosity of Eighties contemporary dance, but you have to provide something worth looking at if you expect an audience to stay put for 90 minutes. And Stuart's grim, touchy-feely theatre games don't do the business. As for Hamilton's "installation", this largely consisted of draping the performing space in a large sheet, then whipping it away to reveal a stage freshly covered in wet red clay, which slowly flaked into foot-snagging shards. She wanted us to watch a floor dry! Give me strength.
The liveliest exchange in the Festival Theatre that night was between a disgruntled individual in the dress circle who uttered the word "Rubbish!" with courageous persistence and clarity, and a scattering of tut-tutters telling her to "Just go home, then". I disagree. Protest is required. One more bomber like this, and the Festival will start losing its audience.Reuse content