Cullberg Ballet, Barbican, London

Weird, baffling, but gripping

Review,Nadine Meisner
Thursday 03 April 2014 05:04

There are two Mats Ek: the Swedish classical revisionist, dismantling ballets like Swan Lake into outrageously radical, but brilliant new versions; and the original choreographer, making pieces from scratch. The second is less familiar, and the triple bill brought by Sweden's Cullberg Ballet showed why. Weird, surreal, cartoon-like and baffling are all adjectives that could be applied.

Baffling, but also gripping. You might not know what's going on, but Ek draws you into a twilight, Nordic world, a parallel universe that plugs into your brain's intuitive half, helped by folk music and composers like Gorecki and Arvo Pärt. Pointless Pastures features animal noises, rustic characters, a movable fence replaced by a grassy square. A male trio carry one man horizontally, so he can graze on the grass. The finale has the whole cast "swimming" on the floor.

Solo for Two was first made as a film with Sylvie Guillem and Ek's brother, Niklas. A couple (Talia Paz and Boaz Cohen) come together in the journey of a man and a woman remembering each other. The process has an almost Beckettian spareness, stripping their lives to the core. They discover each other delightedly, they love, they fight, at one point he becomes a child, howling. But ultimately each fades away, as memories do.

A Sort Of is a dream ­ or maybe not, since we're not sure whether the man snoring at the end was asleep all along or dozed off from exhaustion. The action has the flickering logic of a mind in freefall. Balloons become one woman's pregnant belly and another's embonpoint, both eventually pricked and deflated. Dancing couples enjoy themselves until a dead man appears swinging from a building and bells toll.

What saves all this from boring incomprehension is Ek's sensational theatricality. Using only sparse, cut-out architectural features, he transforms space into dramatic wedges of emptiness, divided by emphatic effects. A steady stream of visual surprises stimulate the attention. He treats the stage like a crucible, distilling human truths through characters who are flat, yet timelessly real. Above all, his hyper-articulate dance language is always fascinating, engaging the whole body in movement that can be graceful or awkward because the body is like that. This is dance that goes straight to the essence and shows the dancers for what they are: people of extraordinary power and complexity; performers of mesmerising commitment and energy.

To 17 June (020-7638 8891)

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