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The word “entertainment” is arguably one of the arts’ most loaded descriptors. With a raised eyebrow and a hint of a sneer, there is often a barbed note of derision aimed at works that seem to merely entertain: it might be enough for the average Joe, but true connoisseurs of the arts demand a higher pedigree of expression.
On the other hand, Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman is an entertainer and proud. “It’s important that we bring back the value of that word in the arts,” he shares. “I’m creating my work for everyone. I’m not interested in making something that is only for dance-knowers. It’s very important to me that everyone can relate to and enjoy what I create.”
Ekman working in the SDC studios in Walsh Bay
With a whip-smart finesse and a flair for comedy, “entertaining” is an appropriate adjective to describe Ekman’s work, but it is also highly sophisticated dance-theatre, both technically and philosophically. Exploding onto the international dance scene at the age of 21, Ekman’s irreverent yet highly polished style was an immediate hit with audiences. Now, at the age of just 32, this brilliant young dance-maker is already regarded as one of the world’s most inventive and respected choreographers, with 46 large scale works in his impressive portfolio.
Currently in the process of establishing his own company, in addition to his numerous international engagements to create new work and almost perpetual tours of existing pieces, Ekman is using his high-profile status to champion the art of entertainment and cleanse it of its lowbrow stigma. “The most successful choreographers – the ones that are most respected like Pina Bausch or William Forsythe – everything they make is what I would call entertainment. You’re never bored in any of their work,” he observes. “It’s something we need to go back to in the dance world and I hope that in the future more choreographers will understand the value of entertainment. It’s not until then that the industry can grow and become bigger so that it can reach out and touch more people.”
Dancers of the SDC rehearsing Cacti
Whether or not the contemporary dance establishment is ready to admit a newfound respect for the genre, one of Ekman’s most widely performed pieces, Cacti, is a prime example of this pro-entertainment ethos. This brilliantly witty commentary on the intellectual pretensions of contemporary dance was created in 2010, as a response to the inherent pomposity of arts criticism. It’s a rigorous and wry study, using cactus plants as a tongue-in-cheek anti-metaphor.
As an object, the cactus is a surreal thing: spined, phallic, brutal yet beautiful. The cactus could be used to communicate any number subtexts, such as vulnerability, resilience or sexual tension – or maybe a cactus is just a cactus? Once divorced from any subliminal meaning, the image of an ensemble of dancers holding the prickly plants is hilariously ridiculous, and yet somehow still holds an air of refreshing elegance. It’s through this cheeky yet entirely affable humour that Ekman holds a mirror up to the rigid stereotypes of contemporary dance and allows this sometimes severe artform to laugh at itself. It’s subversive but without being crass: elite-level choreography with a mischievous smile.
Creating comedy was never Ekman’s intention, he claims, but rather a side-effect of his playful choreographic process. “I always try to have fun when I’m making. When you enjoy the creative process, that’s when the good stuff actually comes out,” he explains. “For me, Cacti wasn’t so much about making a joke as it was about creating an element of surprise, because when we’re shocked in that way we go to a neutral place that allows us to step out of our lives. That’s what I want to have when I go to the theatre; I want to be taken out of my life, my own shit and problems and just be present in that moment. That’s when I think art is doing its job, so that’s what I really strive to do.”
Australian audiences will be familiar with Cacti, which was first staged by Sydney Dance Company in 2013, before headlining its regional touring programme last year. For its revival in 2016, SDC is pairing this tried and tested audience favourite with, Lux Tenebris, a world premiere by Artistic Director, Rafael Bonachela.
Rafael Bonachela in the SDC studios during the creation of Lux Tenebris
Following a season of award-winning success and unanimous critical acclaim in 2015, expectations are high for the Spanish choreographer’s latest work. However, with foreign tours, regional performances and a full-to-bursting calendar for his company last year, Bonachela has spent a restless eight months thinking his way through the conceptual foundation for Lux Tenebris. Exploring the relationship and innate conflict between darkness and light, Bonachela was limited to working with composer and long-term collaborator, Nick Wales, on the piece’s score until his dancers returned in January from their Christmas break. “Even before I knew anything about this work, I had a real sense of this music, and this gave me a real instinct for this space and the kind of movement that should inhabit it,” Bonchela tells me, as we chat during a short break in rehearsals. There’s a sense of intensity about the choreographer, cut through with a subtle hint of anxiety. “We're not quite done yet. It’s been a big challenge: at times we’ve found some walls and we’ve had to climb them, but we’re getting to a place now where I’m really happy,” he confides.
While this new piece has been made in an intense burst of creativity, Bonchela has learned to trust his instincts, particularly since the Helpmann-Award winning success of his last major work, Frame of Mind. “You can drive yourself crazy when you’re trying to decide what the right approach should be, but I've become more trusting of myself. When I have an idea, I go for it, and if it turns out to be wrong, I can always change it later,” he explains. “I've trained myself to be as efficient with my thinking as possible. It can be quite scary because once you’ve committed to an idea, you can begin to question if there’s a better one just around the corner. But you have to trust in your abilities.”
Members of SDC rehearse Bonchela's Lux Tenebris
Crucially, in spite of the pressure that has been a necessity of Lux Tenebris’ creation, Bonchela has two major advantages: a deep understanding of his dancer's capabilities and an intimate rapport that has yielded an abundantly fruitful collaboration. “With some of these dancers, we have been working together for seven years, and yet they still surprise me and take me to places I hadn’t thought of,” he says. “It’s so vital that the space we work in is one where people are allowed to feel safe and to give as much of themselves as they want.” There is a wonderful sense of generosity and, perhaps most importantly, an absence of ego about this approach. Bonchela’s primary concern is the power and honesty of the dance, he tells me. “I could go in front of them and make a very nice dance piece, but if you want to create something that moves beyond just “nice” then you’ve got to be open to using all your resources. That’s where you find something unique and truthful.”
Sydney Dance Company presents CounterMove, featuring Alexander Ekman's Cacti and the world premiere of Rafael Bonachela's Lux Tenebris.
Limelight has two double passes to giveaway to CounterMove. But hurry, entries close Thursday March 25, 12pm.