Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman (pictured above) is just 32 but he’s already become one of the most distinctive choreographic voices in contemporary dance. He’s quickly become well known for the way he integrates humour into what can often be a very serious art form to entertain and ask big questions of his audience.
But his voice is just as strong off the stage, and he’s very willing to share his opinions on the state of contemporary dance.
“I’m often asking myself ‘why is the dance world so small?'” he says. “Why don’t we say ‘I’m going to see a dance show’ in the same way that we say ‘I’m going to the cinema’, or ‘I’m going to the opera’? And the reason is that people don’t care. It’s just not captivating enough very often. To choreograph is extremely difficult — a good dance piece is like a rare jewel in a sea.”
In April, Ekman is giving a TED Talk which he says will focus on art and entertainment, and the relationship between the two. But for now he’s remounting his 2010 work Cacti with Sydney Dance Company.
The work is vibrant and fast-paced, and takes a humorous look at the act of arts criticism and how critics can “define” what a particular work means. It centres around one mysterious object: the cactus.
“It’s just an object that caught my attention and works,” Ekman says. “It’s a weird thing — it’s a strange flower. It’s threatening and at the same time, it’s beautiful. There’s a mystery to that thing.”
SDC first performed the work (which premiered in the Netherlands in 2010) back in 2013 to rave reviews, and it’s being staged this time in a double bill with a new work by SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela. It’s since been performed by many companies around the world and has become Ekman’s flagship piece.
“I’ve asked myself why Cacti is so successful, and I think it’s partly that we had a long time making it, so I think it’s very well-crafted. But there’s also that subject — it’s important that we can laugh and discuss and debate about how we have invented this ‘critic’ thing.”
But it’s now six years since Ekman created the work, and although he’s still travelling around the world mounting productions of Cacti, he’s created many since (including a spectacular surrealist Swan Lake, featuring water on stage) and is in the process of establishing his own company.
“I created [Cacti] at a time in my life when I was really struggling. I cared a lot about what critics wrote and who was there. Now, I don’t give a shit, honestly,” he says.
At the centre of all of Ekman’s work is a desire to entertain, but he wants to make it clear what he means by “entertainment”.
“It’s just to hold someone’s attention. Throughout the years there’s become this genre of entertainment, and when we say that word, we think of something lighter.”
According to Ekman, “entertainment” can be considered a form of meditation — if a piece of art can hold your attention and focus your mind on a single idea or stream of thought, it’s essentially meditative.
“I get annoyed that so few pieces do that,” he says. “The dance world needs to change and I’m surprised very often that it still keeps going, because it doesn’t reach out to people.”
He also wonders if dance companies need to start classifying their works in the way that films are classified as drama, comedy or action.
“In dance, you’re left to chance and 80% of the time you’re left to something that doesn’t entertain you, I would say.”
You might think that’s a pretty dim assessment of the dance world today, but Ekman is full of praise for SDC and its artistic director. He’s taught the choreography of Cacti to dancers from all varieties of companies throughout the world and says that there’s an advantage to SDC’s modern approach, which makes the movement more forceful than when it’s performed by a classical company.
“Rafael is a very good leader,” he says. “I’ve been to many dance companies, and you can sense it immediately if it’s a positive working atmosphere or a negative one with lots of fear, and here it’s a great positive feeling.”
And he’s also very optimistic about just how much a great dance piece can really do.
“A great piece can change lives — it can really change where people are, change their direction and give them inspiration and hope, and move the borders for what is possible. When art is like that, it’s extremely important.”
CounterMove, which features Alexander Ekman’s Cacti and Rafael Bonachela’s Lux Tenebris begins performances at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney on February 26, before touring to the Canberra Theatre Centre, Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, and then on regional tour through New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.