Edinburgh Festival '99: Sweden's lord of the dance

Mats Ek's radical reworkings of classical ballet are at last taking centre-stage in Britain. By John Percival
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Mats Ek is a name not much known here because he has had very little exposure until now on British stages. Starting next Monday the Edinburgh Festival will put that right with three programmes of his ballets. Meanwhile it may set him in perspective to mention that he is a choreographer whom Sylvie Guillem always said she wanted to work with, and she got him to make two highly unusual pieces for her on television: a solo Wet Woman and the duet Smoke.

Where to begin explaining this interesting and enigmatic man? Well, he comes from what must be Sweden's most distinguished theatrical family: father (Anders Ek) a noted actor on stage and screen; mother (Birgit Cullberg) an internationally acclaimed choreographer, a brother Niklas who is still a star dancer in his late fifties, and a sister Marin who is another actor.

At first it seemed that Mats was going to follow his father into straight theatre, as a director. Dance was an afterthought; there cannot be many choreographers who wait until they are nearing 30 before beginning their career in ballet. In fact I can only think of one other, and that is his mother, Birgit Cullberg. These two are also alike in bringing a strong dramatic flavour to their ballets, and in seizing on television's potential for showing dance to wider audiences. Apart from that, the only other thing they share in common is the fact that British audiences have seen so little of their work.

Birgit Cullberg studied literature at Stockholm University. She also took some dance classes but did not pursue them seriously until she was bowled over in the 1930s by seeing Kurt Jooss's anti-war ballet The Green Table. The depth and power of this was such a revelation that she gave up her career as a librarian to study in Britain between 1935 and 1939 at the school where Jooss had transferred to from Germany in order to avoid the Nazis.

Cullberg's return to Stockholm was followed by her first choreography, her first companies, marriage to Anders Ek (ending in divorce 10 years later) and the birth of their children, Niklas in 1943, the twins Mats and Marin two years after.

Cullberg's breakthrough came with Miss Julie in 1950, one of the earliest ballets to combine modern and classical dance. It was made for her own small company: they brought it to London in 1951 with Cullberg herself playing the cook Kristin and Elsa Marianne von Rosen (a real live countess, as the publicity jubilantly pointed out) in the title role. This and several of Cullberg's later works were mounted by companies all over the world, largely for the big roles they gave their leading dancers.

Mats Ek meanwhile began working in the Marionette Theatre (no, not kids' stuff - he directed Woyzeck at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (including Romeo and Juliet starring his father) and in opera The Magic Flute. During this period he contributed a dance with banners to his mother's one-act adaptation of the Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, so anyone who caught that at Sadler's Wells in 1971 saw choreography that he made before actually deciding to become a choreographer.

Joining the Cullberg Ballet as a dancer in 1973, Ek soon began making his own ballets, averaging more than one a year for the past 23 years. But he has never been only a choreographer. All through the 1980s he was also joint or sole director of the Cullberg Ballet, giving that up because he wanted to concentrate on his creative work. He has personally directed the filming of his ballets and his own dance videos and - more unusually - has written, staged and acted in his own dramatic productions, including an adaptation of Marlowe's Jew of Malta, and a play about Joan of Arc, commissioned by Stockholm for its year as European city of culture.

The mixture of ballet and theatre is more understandable, given his belief that "Movement is a language. It's not about aesthetics, nor decoration. No more an illustration of music, but a form of expression in itself." When he decides, therefore, to stage one of the classic ballets, the outcome is going to be different from anyone else's productions. So different that the Hamburg Ballet commissioned The Sleeping Beauty from him to be given side by side with the more standard version already in its repertoire, and the Paris Opera Ballet put on Ek's Giselle to run alternately with a traditional staging.

The fact that these major companies think his new interpretations worth giving side by side with more traditional ones should make it obvious that Ek is not just indulging in gimmickry. In fact the first of his reworked classics, Giselle in 1982, came about, he says, because when he first saw the old ballet "what fascinated me was the contrasts it presented: the contrast between the realism of the first act and the fantasy of the second act. There is also the contrast between the castle and the cottage, between the attitude of two people. Prince Albrecht mixes with the peasants while the fragile Giselle holds herself apart."

The complex social and spiritual relationships he found dormant in the story made him want to retell it "in my own words", preserving the original structure but giving its realism a more contemporary setting, and letting Giselle, instead of dying before the interval, live on but in a mental hospital, where the white-clad figures around her are not ghosts as in the original ballet but nurses and other patients. Among his other inspirations were the expressive qualities of his dancer-wife Ana Laguna in the title role, and the haunting memory of an old Polish photograph of a young girl's face, full of private terrors.

His reworkings of the old classics have so caught the public imagination that inevitably two of them are coming to Edinburgh. Besides Giselle there is his Sleeping Beauty, which he says he could not get into until the sight of a spaced-out young drug addict gave him the idea of a contemporary equivalent of the heroine's long sleep. But these rereadings of standard works are only part of a varied output, so it's good that a mixed bill of three shorter modern works will give a sense of his many personal creations. These were made separately between 1995 and 1997, but Ek often presents them as a trilogy showing the sad, cruelly destructive relationships of a man and a woman.

The centrepiece, Solo for Two, is the stage version of the videodance Smoke which Ek made for Sylvie Guillem with his brother Niklas. On film, it won no fewer than four international awards including an Emmy in New York. It also incorporated so many camera tricks that transfer to the stage might have seemed impossible, but not to Ek who planned that all along. Obviously he is not about to stop surprising people with his ballets just yet.