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

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture