Mats Ek: Expression & Fluidity

When one says Mats Ek, one usually gets two opposite reactions from the dance world: people will either show their enthusiasm and undying admiration, or they will stick their tongues out. His choreography, like Marmite, is one of those topics that leave little room for middle ground. Plus Ek is one of the few choreographers whose works can engage ballet fans, contemporary dance fans and dancers alike.

Special guest blogger & contemporary dancer Lu Piquero looks at what the controversial Ek is made of, and we also have – at the bottom of this feature – an exclusive promotion to celebrate Mats Ek, Mikhail Baryshnikov & Ana Laguna on Kultur DVD:

Artists of the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Mats Ek's Giselle - Photo: © Wilfried Hösl / Bayerisches Staatsballett

Mats Ek in a Nutshell

Ek was born in Mälmo (Sweden) on the 18th of April 1945 to Birgit Cullberg, dancer, choreographer and founder of Cullberg Ballet, and Anders Ek (one of Ingmar Bergman’s favourite actors). As a young man, Ek initially trained in dance with Lilian Karina and Donya Feuer, but shifted to drama, which he studied at the Marieborg Folks College. He began his career in the theatre, directing the Marionett Theatre and the Royal Dramatic Theatre (Stockholm) between 1966 and 1973. In-between he decided to go back to dance, joining the Cullberg Ballet in 1972.

Ek’s work spans from ballet, theatre and “dance theatre” to TV and opera and he is a regular staple in the repertory of Northern and Central European companies.

Career highlights:

  • Danced with Cullberg Ballet, Düseldorf Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theatre (NDT)
  • Choreographed his first work for Cullberg Ballet in 1976
  • Became co-director of Cullberg Ballet (alongside his mother) from 1978 to 1985, and sole director from 1985 to 1993.
  • Left Cullberg Ballet in 1993 to become a freelance choreographer.
  • Has choreographed works for major companies like NDT, Hamburg Ballet, Cullberg Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet.
  • Won the Prix Benois de la Danse (2006) and has been awarded several Emmys for TV adaptations of his ballets

Gözde Özgür as Giselle and Lukás Slavicky as Hilarion - Photo: © Wilfried Hösl / Bayerisches Staatsballett

Ek’s Style

Choreographers that appeal to both the contemporary and classical worlds have one clear thing in common: their work tends to be “technical” or, shall we say, “balletic”. Ek’s movement style is characterised by several signature steps: flexed feet, grand pliés à la seconde, lunges, “wavy” backs, all designed with the same aim, expression.

As an example,  consider this clip of his reworking of Giselle. Apart from the “wavy” back, you can see his signature movements in this beautiful solo. As a bonus you also get the fantastic Ana Laguna, Ek’s wife, and muse:

As a second example, check out the first two minutes of the following clip of Carmen. Here you can spot the “wavy back” in the character of ‘M’. Notice how Ek hears his music in a very peculiar way and doesn’t choose the easy path to relate to the score. Musicality is a very important element to his choreography, along with his ability to build up emotions, only to break them dramatically when you least expect it. Here, after a beautiful and hopeful duet with ‘M’, José abruptly kills his superior, thus sealing his fate:

This emphasis on expression can hardly be a surprise in Ek, since he descends from an amazingly pure lineage of German dance expressionism (Birgit Cullberg studied with Kurt Jooss who – like Mary Wigman – was a disciple of Rudolf Laban).

Another important feature in Ek’s movement style is fluidity. The movement itself seems to never stop, even when it becomes a position. Of this, Ek says:

The prolongation, the extension of movements is very important to me. For instance, sometimes the foot or the head stays in a position while the body is already going into the next movement.

He is also fluid when it comes to the treatment of the storyline, aided by changes of perspective, of scene, developing of characters and his ability to keep us wanting to know more all the time.

Ek is also interested in people; characters develop and are brought to the fore. He focuses on relationships between them. From the social issues which featured prominently in his firsts works, to smaller groups and personal, more intimate relationships (family, partners, etc.), all of Ek’s works have one thing in common: they put the focus on the disadvantaged, the ignored and those who are considered “weak” by society.

Tamara Rojo as Carmen and Bennet Gartside as Escamillo

Tamara Rojo as Carmen and Bennet Gartside as Escamillo - Photo: © Dee Conway / ROH

Reinventing classical ballet

Some of Ek’s most famous works are reworkings of classical ballets:

Giselle (1982)

Set in the countryside, Giselle is seen by her community as the “village idiot”. As in the ballet, she is betrayed by Albrecht, but similarities end here, as the second act takes place in a psychiatric ward of a hospital. Ek hints at the “wilis” being held here as a result of their challenging the structure and rules in their own social class. Albrecht is not exactly pardoned. Because of his meeting with Giselle, he questions his ideas and life, and in the end, he is left naked, back in the place where he first met Giselle, with Hilarion covering him with a blanket (a bit of class revenge?). Whatever happens to him afterwards, is left for us to decide.

Gözde Özgür as Giselle and Matej Urban as Albrecht - Photo: © Wilfried Hösl / Bayerisches Staatsballett

Swan Lake (1987)

A lonely, somewhat weaker than the-average-Prince-Siegfried, who questions his sexuality (think Oedipus complex) and his mother’s open issues in attempting to marry him to someone just like herself. The Prince encounters androgynous creatures, swans that waddle through the ground rather than the graceful water creatures that we know from Petipa/Ivanov.

Sleeping Beauty (1996)

The teenager Princess Aurora falls in love with “the wrong guy” and ends up in a drug-induced coma. Carabosse appears as a drug dealer and tempts Aurora into pricking her finger with the “needle”. At Aurora’s birth the fairies are maternity nurses and later they are pop culture characters out of a TV show, while the Prince is a spectator.

Other notable works

Bernarda’s House (1978)

Based on “The House of Bernarda Alba” by Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca. Ek not only introduces male characters to the story (they are spoken of but never seen on stage in the original play), he also casts a male dancer as Bernarda hinting at the character being a representation of masculine power over the “weaker” female gender at the time of the play.

Carmen (1992)

Ek’s Carmen was originally commissioned by the Spanish government. This version, based on Mérimée’s novella, is told from José’s point of view, starting with his death and going back to his first encounter with the fiery and lawless figure of Carmen.

Tamara Rojo in Mats Ek's Carmen

Tamara Rojo in Mats Ek's Carmen Photo: © Dee Conway / ROH

Appartement (2000)

Created for the Paris Opera Ballet, the piece is based on the idea of a house as the place where relationships unfold, or where we are by ourselves, but also hinting at the word “Appartement” in the sense of “separation”. It is a work that encapsulates the strong relationships between characters in Ek’s work.

Ek also created two very interesting trilogies: one dedicated specifically to his parents and their own relationship: Old Children (1989) to his mother, Light Beings (1991) to his father and culminating in Dance with a Fellow-Being, while the second one – more existentialist in scope – comprises Pointless Pastures (1993), Smoke (1995) and She Was Black (1995).

Other Works:

  • Kalfaktorn (1976)
  • Saint George and the Dragon (1976)
  • Soweto (1977)
  • The House of Bernarda (1978)
  • The Four Seasons (1978)
  • Antigone (1979)
  • Memories of Youth (1980)
  • Cain and Abel (1982)
  • Giselle (1982)
  • Rite of Spring (1984)
  • Pa Norrbotten (1985)
  • Gräs (1987)
  • Swan Lake (1987)
  • Like Antigone (1988)
  • Gamla Barn (1989)
  • Over There (1990)
  • Light Beings (1991)
  • Journey (1991)
  • Carmen (1992)
  • Pointless Pastures (1993)
  • Dans Med Nasten (1993)
  • She Was Black (1995)
  • Wet Woman (1995)
  • Smoke (1995)
  • Sleeping Beauty – for Hamburg Ballet (1996)
  • Solo for Two, stage version of Smoke (1996)
  • A Sort Of – for Nederlands Dans Theater (1997)
  • Pa Malta (1997)
  • Appartement – for the Paris Opera (2000)
  • Fluke (2002)
  • Place – for Mikhail Baryshnikov & Ana Laguna (2008)
  • Bye – for Sylvie Guillem (2010)
Lauren Cuthbertson as M

Lauren Cuthbertson as M in Mats Ek's Carmen Photo: © Dee Conway /ROH


Gözde Özgür and Matej Urban in Mats Ek's Giselle

Gözde Özgür and Matej Urban in Mats Ek's Giselle - Photo: © Wilfried Hösl / Bayerisches Staatsballett


Why does Mats Ek generate such strong reactions among members of the audience? The key might be in a different concept of beauty in dance. When choreographing Ek does not look for beauty as we generally understand it. In fact, he sometimes goes against it. Whichever moments of superficial beauty we encounter in his work, they tend to come up more by chance (and the amazing ability of his dancers) than by conception. He creates to express, and sometimes what he is expressing is cruel and ugly. If you are going to watch dance to witness beauty (a perfectly valid reason), Ek might not be for you after all.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Mats Ek and the Cullberg Ballet by G. Jensen. Dancing Times, volume 87, No. 1043 , 1997.
  2. Mats Ek: Appartement by Horst Koegler. DVD Booklet. Germany: TDK Marketing Europe GmbH
  3. Reworking Texts- Inverting Bodies. Mats Ek Radically Reconceives the Classics by V. Midgelow, 1999. Dance Theatre Journal, Volume 15 (Part 2), 4-7.
  4. Is Mats Ek a Great Choreographer? by Ann Nugent. Dance Theatre Journal, Volume 17 (Part 3), 32-35.
  5. Choreographers Today: Mats Ek by Giannandrea Poesio. Dancing Times, volume 94 (Issue 1118, October), 22-26. (2003)
  6. The Psychological Dimension of Classical Dance. The Works of Swedish Choreographer Mats Ek by Spangberg, M.  A Profile. Ballett International, Month 3, 40-45. (1996)

About Lu Piquero:

Lucía Piquero was born in Asturias, Spain where she got a 7-year Classical Ballet Diploma and a Bachelor’s Degree on Psychology. In 2006 she moved to London and completed a Certificate of Higher Education in Contemporary Dance at London Contemporary Dance School, and a MA on Choreography at Middlesex University, with a recent Distinction for her essay “If Duato’s Choreography Were a Text, Would it Be in Spanish?” and a Merit for her piece “Alba”. Lucía has performed with Neon Productions, SuperB Dance Theatre and mavinkhooDance and is currently collaborating with Cedar Dance Theatre Company in Wales. She is the co-founder of Diciembre Dance Group, where she dances and choreographs.

Mats Ek on Kultur DVD – Special Promo:

To celebrate the DVD release of Place – created and staged by Mats Ek, directed by Jonas Åkerlund  and especially developed to showcase the partnership of Mikhail Baryshnikov & Ana Laguna – Kultur is giving away 3 DVDs to our readers.

To enter the promotion, leave a comment or email us ( theballetbag [at] ) by 3 August 2012 and

Tell us about your favorite (or not!) piece by Mats Ek

Entries from all over the globe are welcome.


  • December 28, 2012

    Jamie Jewett

    I find Matt’s Eks’ dialogue between the remarkably fluid and the humanly awkward profoundly beautiful. He is one of my greatest inspirations as a choreographer. In particular I always love Smoke….

  • July 18, 2012

    La Darina

    For me Carmen because I thought Rojo was amazing in the role!

  • July 17, 2012

    Tara Kirkwood

    For me the favourite has to be Mats Ek Swan Lake