Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman, has a very eclectic theatrical output. His works have names like Hubbub; Elvis, Posh and Me; Ekman's Tap Dance; A Swan Lake; Nude; A Fountain Group, for example, and his newest work, which premiered in Dresden, Germany, in March is called Cow. The vocabulary he uses in his choreography is equally diverse and ranges from full-on classical ballet steps to moves that recall cheerleading routines. Moreover, this diversity of vocabulary is not just across his different works but is even noticeable within a single piece. He also likes to have his dancers jumping on and off platforms, usually moveable, of various shapes and sizes, and he occasionally uses surfaces or venues that challenge the dancers. A Fountain Group was a pop-up installation in a fountain in his home city of Stockholm and, a little in the manner of Pina Bausch and Meryl Tankard perhaps, he flooded the stage with water in A Swan Lake - and added a few rubber duckies as well.
As for Ekman's Cacti, which Canberra audiences will see when Sydney Dance Company makes its annual visit to the national capital in May, it makes use of a bevy of low, white platforms, a little like individual stages, on which the dancers cavort in various ways, and which they lovingly arrange and rearrange throughout the piece. It is, by Ekman's own admission, "a large group piece with a lot of synchronised movement". Stunningly lit by Tom Visser, whose design constantly changes the audience's perception of the stage space, it is danced to a selection of music played by an onstage string quartet.
But Cacti? Why Cacti? "Oh, a cactus is a plant with attitude," Ekman explains in his charmingly disarming way. And indeed Ekman's Cacti is a work about attitudes, the attitudes and opinions of arts critics in particular.
"I had what I thought were unfair experiences with critics in some of the world's big cities - London and New York for example. Cacti was my way of dealing with those experiences. I decided to poke fun at those critics who decide what art is about when in fact we all experience art in different ways."
Ekman says that when working on the piece that eventually became Cacti, he was looking for an object that lent itself to being used metaphorically. "A cactus is prickly and beautiful at the same time," he says. "You don't mess with a cactus." In Cacti the dancers engage with a variety of potted cacti, which they treat as a work of art, and over which they constantly obsess. Spoken text, written by dancer Spenser Theberge, plays a role too. As the work unfolds the audience hears the voice of the critic reviewing what we are seeing on stage. The spoken words sound extraordinarily pretentious and they are ultimately hilarious in their affectation. Ekman says he modelled the critic on a character, Anton Ego, in the Disney Pixar film, Ratatouille. Ego, a food critic, caused something of a disaster with a scathing review of the restaurant that is at the heart of the film. Ekman simply transformed the movie situation to suit a different context.
But Ekman also suggests he no longer worries about the critics and says all he wants to do is give people a good time in the theatre. "I think my strength lies in creating situations," he says. "I get my inspiration from the weirdness of what we do and I try to create situations that the majority of people can relate to." And he paraphrases Andy Warhol who famously said: "Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art."
Watching Ekman take rehearsal in the Sydney Dance Company studios at Walsh Bay, it is easy to see that the dancers are totally engaged with Ekman and the work. There is a lot of laughter in the studio, along with extraordinary physical input. Former Canberran Sam Young-Wright danced in Cacti when it had a brief showing as part of Sydney Dance Company's De Novo season in 2013. Young-Wright was seconded from his tertiary course at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts when a dancer fell sick and Sydney Dance Company needed an extra person. For Young-Wright it was an almost unbelievable situation. "There I was working in my dream company. It was the start of my career," he says. Now as a fully-fledged member of Sydney Dance, Young-Wright can look back on working with Ekman in 2013 and compare the experience with the present.
"He is a very charismatic person. You can't help wanting to work with him; to go along on the journey with him. Ekman told us that now that we knew the work from 2013, now that the muscle memory was all there, he would work on us as actors. So he focused on intention, what each move we made actually meant. So while Cacti might seem like a light piece, there is no easy mental preparation for us."
Young-Wright says audiences just love the work. "The reaction is palpable," he says. "We, the dancers, can feel the audience. We also are able to control what we give them and it is different every night. I am so excited to see whether we get different reactions in each state as we tour the work around Australia this year." And Ekman himself loves the reaction Cacti gets in Australia. "People just go crazy. It's like a comedy show they laugh so much." And he puts that reaction down to what he sees as similarities between Australian and Scandinavian societies. "I think we are both quite practical," he says, "and the sense of humour is a little the same."
But as for me, I remain curious about the eclecticism of Ekman's work. Such wide-ranging themes, situations, contexts, not to mention such a range of movement styles, seem to be quite unusual when they are the work of just one choreographer. Where does this diversity come from? "It's a mystery," he tells me with a grin. "I always try to take new roads. I don't like to repeat myself." But he does admit that there is a lot of choreography out there that he thinks doesn't communicate and Cacti also takes a swipe at the kind of contemporary choreography that perhaps takes itself too seriously. "My aim is to surprise. If art doesn't touch us, I can't see the need for it."
Nevertheless, his background as a performer himself explains a lot. With the support of his family he started at dance school when very young and began doing what he calls "show numbers," which he says had a huge influence on him and nourished an interest in dance as entertainment. Despite being subjected to occasional bullying as a young, male dance student, which he countered by "wearing platform boots and being cool", he completed his training at the Royal Swedish Ballet School. He began his professional career in the Royal Swedish Ballet but stayed for just one year before moving on to Netherlands Dance Theatre in The Hague where he spent three years. Then, back in Stockholm he worked with Cullberg Ballet renowned for its cutting edge approach to dance in the contemporary world. His career as a performer brought him into contact with some of the twentieth and twenty-first century's most admired contemporary choreographers — Jiri Kylian, Mats Ek, Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin for example. It is partly as a result of this diverse training and performing background that Cacti, and Ekman's many other unusual works, have emerged.
Cacti has become an international hit. It is really Ekman's signature piece even though, by his own admission, his more recent work is less about group movement and more about the individual. But now he is looking forward to starting up his own company in Stockholm, rather than freelancing with companies around the world.
"I have learnt such a lot from stepping into the frameworks of other companies," he says. "But you are so fragile when you are choreographing, so I am really looking forward to being able to decide how I and my dancers will collaborate in the future."
Wherever he works, however, we can be sure that he will continue to surprise and that, in all likelihood, Cacti will remain a signature item in his career.
CounterMove: Cacti (Alexander Ekman) and Lux Tenebris (Rafael Bonachela). Sydney Dance Company, Canberra Theatre Centre, May 19-21 and Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, May 25-June 4. Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700, or sydneydancecompany.com.