By Ek

Dance - Sarah Frater says classical ballet need not be an ornate cliche of prettiness

Forget everything you've been told about tutus and tiaras. Ballet is about sex, its lead-up and its fallout. Most classical choreography hides all this behind fairy tales and folklore, and uses pretty steps and tidy tears to sugar the pill (no one looks more fabulous than the betrayed Odette in Act III of Swan Lake).

The emotional litter is there if you look closely enough, but looking closely is something we have grown out of, at least when it comes to classical ballet. We watch Sleeping Beauty and we see a debutante's ball; the Nutcracker is a Christmas show; Giselle a rural frolic, even if it all ends rather badly. Ballet has become synonymous with beauty, an ornate entertainment for kiddies and romantics.

Not everyone buys this line, and especially not Mats Ek, the fiftysomething, Stockholm-based choreographer whose reputation rests on his radical rewriting of the classical canon. Long before Matthew Bourne grew rich and famous with his all-male version of Swan Lake, Ek was remaking the classics, mixing old tales with the new, imperial grandeur with the junkie gutter, and giving ballet back its bite.

"I was never interested in keeping to the classical traditions as such," says Ek. "What I want to explore are the under-lying fairy tales that convey fundamental human issues - love, deceit, pain, goodness. The classics have become cliches, and we have forgotten how they came to be and what they imply. We know them so well, they cease to have meaning for our time."

Ek has a point. Classical ballet refines fairy tales beyond recognition, but it still draws on the folklore that tamed the horrors of the primitive world. And if classical ballet can do it, why not contemporary choreography? Why shouldn't Ek call on the terrors that beset our age? What is so transgressive about a junkie Sleeping Beauty, when early versions of the tale had the Prince raping and impregnating the sleeping Princess?

The problem is that we still crave the sugar coating, and Ek delivers mostly the pill. His 1982 version of the romantic classic Giselle retains the music and the broad plot of the original, but he replaces its faded terrors with some all too gruelling new ones. Instead of a burial in unconsecrated ground, which holds few fears in our secular age, or decorously haunting the local woods, Giselle is confined to a lunatic asylum, deranged by the betrayal of her boyfriend and drugged up on sedatives. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and you're halfway to Ek's vision of Giselle.

His second major rewrite was Swan Lake (1987). As well as replacing the symbolic terrors (a prince bewitched by magic and sorcery) with explicit ones (a young man bewildered by his burgeoning sexuality and a domineering mother), he also redrew the old Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde division of the female lead. In Ek's version, the white swan is a fantasy female, while the black one is a real-life woman with whom the Prince has to learn to live.

In his most recent rewrite, The Sleeping Beauty (1996), Princess Aurora is a modern-day junkie and Carabosse her pusher. Ek was living in Zurich when he created the piece, and he comments of that time: "Every day, when I went to the theatre, I met the city's beggar girls, needle junkies who prostituted themselves. They pricked themselves, they slept."

If Ek wanted to alienate the traditional ballet-going public, he couldn't have done much more. But he went further. Although his choreography makes use of the classical vocabulary, it also includes intentionally grotesque elements - duck waddles, flexed feet, head-waggings, bottom-scratchings, manic expressions. And it is this that really draws ire. Matthew Bourne's gay take on Swan Lake was genuinely shocking, but his dancers stood in straight lines, pointed their toes, and were lovely to look at. Provincial grannies flocked to his show, which says more about male beauty than it does about a tolerant society.

"I think prettiness is rather ugly," says Ek. "It is connected to cliches and connected to lies. It says if you are pretty, you will be happy and that you have a future. But if you are not pretty, or are not with a pretty person, you have nothing."

Contemporary settings, discordant steps, unattractive gestures, it's little wonder that Ek's work was last seen in London in 1971, more than a generation ago. The Cullberg Ballet, created by his mother, Birgit Cullberg, and which Ek artistically directed until 1993, presents his Swan Lake at the Barbican this June, shortly before both the Kirov and Royal Ballet companies present their traditional stagings at the Royal Opera House.

This is a nice irony, and one that Ek appreciates. Nothing improves his ballets like sitting through a conventional production of the original, and watching his remakes sends you back to the old versions with renewed curiosity. Whether his old friend Ross Stretton, the new director of the Royal Ballet, can accommodate both approaches at the Opera House remains to be seen.

Either way, Ek demurs. "That's not for me to say. You will have to check with Ross. But we are in contact."

The Cullberg Ballet is at the Barbican Theatre, London EC1 (020 7638 8891), from 6-17 June, as part of BITE:01; Swan Lake is from 6-9 June and 16-17 June, and a special triple bill runs 13-14 June

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men