March 12, 2016
by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2016 by Ilona Landgraf
“COW” is the Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman’s new creation for the Semperoper Ballet Dresden. As the title suggests, cows – sculptures, not living cattle – are the common thread of this otherwise plotless piece, albeit not dancing but sometimes merely watching what is going on.
The piece is a result of intense teamwork by four artists: composer Mikael Karlsson, costume designer Henrik Vibskov, and multimedia expert T.M.Rives working with Ekman who kept things firmly in hand. Karlsson, who has collaborated with Ekman for several years, contributed the music. He first recorded the basic sounds with Germany’s National Youth Orchestra; then the material was electronically alienated and remixed. It involves a sequence of cowlike “mooing” lasting several minutes. Ekman used the music to generate atmosphere and as a signal for the dancers when to start or which rhythm to keep. One pas de deux, “Silence”, except for single tones, is done without music. The dancers add to the acoustics by speaking, shouting and screaming. One of them, Skyler Maxey-Wert, even sings a song “Nothing Moves a Cow” at the end.
The Scandinavian Vibskov has his own fashion label and is on the show list of the Paris Fashion Week. His outfits, from bizarre to trendy and elegant, defined certain scenes: wide white skirts, black ladies’ and men’s suits, the latter hinting at traditional posh peasant attire; extravagant hats, bright red wigs and – very pure – skin-colored pants with additional tops for the women.
The third in the collaborative quartet, T.M.Rives, is an American author and photographer. He documented the making of “COW” with eight videos. An extra b/w-video became a core scene of the ballet itself. This video shows the dancers either crawling like cows along the corridors between the studios and in the Semperoper or running around in Dresden’s city center. Moreover on it, the dancer Christian Bauch, seen on all fours with a sagging back and dull-witted facial expression, talks about his transformation process as he assimilates the spirit of a cow. Together with Ekman he explored out on the fields how to get most naturally down on hands and knees.
Apart from the video, moving projections of surreal b/w-photos by Rives’s act as background for some dance. The Semperoper Ballet’s in-house photographer, also familiar with multimedia, wasn’t involved this time. Ekman brought along his own team. He was also in charge of the lighting and the set design which includes white, full-sized plastic cows and plenty of household goods – lamps, candles, blankets, desks and tables, a picnic basket, cellotape and so on – carried onstage for a crowded picnic scene impaired by gnats. Real ruminants do not appear on stage. One of Rives’s videos reveals Ekman’s disappointment when he was denied the use of live cows inside the opera. Unlike horses, cows are uncontrollable on stage and at risk to run wild, not to mention the cow pies which inevitably would have garnished the stage. Creating something wild (and crazy and touching) was one of Ekman’s aspirations.
According to the program booklet he also wanted to establish new perspectives, shake off old patterns and inspire people to free themselves from “bullshit”. Surprisingly he has worked with nearly the same team for quite some time, risking accusations that he is wearing blinders himself.
One of the creative team’s credo was “have fun”. Art has to entertain. Classical story ballets are no longer up-to-date, Ekman stated in the program booklet. Rather, they are almost museum pieces. The Semperoper, with Ekman’s “Cacti” already in its repertory, knew what it had gotten itself into with him. Flexibility was necessary as Ekman decided almost at the last minute to change his initial plan from assembling three short pieces into “Three by Ekman” to instead tackling the full-evening “COW”. Although “full-evening” is a bit of an exaggeration. “COW” is a one-act piece lasting ninety minutes, of which around ten are given to Karlsson’s video. Years ago including video in a ballet was innovative. These days it conveys the impression of being a filler for a choreographer who has run out of ideas.
“COW” is composed of eleven scenes, of which the video is number seven. Some of them would have benefited by being slightly shortened. Ekman alternates solos with pas de deux and group dances. Group instinct, herd instinct, and peer pressure are topics.
In “Bulls” a few dancers pet and lean towards the white plastic cows. In “Hooves” a row of dancers gives a sportive rendition of hooves clopping in tango style. Blocks of wood applied to the soles of their shoes generate popping sounds. Yet more than half of the scenes have no thematically direct connection to cattle but are merely observed by a white cow hanging high up in the ceiling. “Fnerf”, for example, is a solo for Courtney Richardson. Although helmeted with deer horns she moves more like a long-legged conceited spider searching for prey than like a doe.
One scene, “Sail”, has no dancers. There are only movements of a huge white canvas in the wind. In other scenes as well the focus is shifted away from moving dancers to moving objects. In “Stampede” dry leaves are whirled up by a large group of dancers. Stampedes are usually uncontrolled, resembling panic-like movements of crowds or herds. But here a more ordered version is displayed. Dancers move vigorously, turn like whirlwinds and stamp their feet but don’t panic.
Another scene, “Deux”, again plays with fabric in motion. It is a classically tinged pas de deux danced by Svetlana Gileva and Denis Veginy. At first Gileva chats and chuckles behind a white backcloth. Only the rippling fabric and her voice give an idea of what she is doing. Much action is generated by the stage machinery of which Ekman makes plenty of use. Platforms rise up or sink into the floor; sometimes the back of the stage is raised to a ramp or the whole stage is lifted with the dancers on top. Also the orchestra pit is raised or lowered.
“Silence”, a long pas de deux for Sangeun Lee and Christian Bauch, offers interesting impressions of how people establish connections across the dividing space between them. Here Ekman gives priority to the visual effect of the single body’s movement eschewing any distracting decor. Other scenes highlight the dynamics of a compact group. The second scene, “Gamut”, is by contrast a rag-tag of insular activities: A quarreling couple moves up and down on an elevator-like platform; a boat carries various passengers from left to right and vice versa; a woman puts her head on the copy machine and copies it; three celebrities are monopolized by shrieking admirers; a man is taking a shower; another perpetually runs against a rubber mat from which he always ricochets, like a knocked-out fly.
A connecting figure through the scenes is Christian Bauch miming a cow in a dark suit. In the opening scene after having clumsily crawled on stage he lethargically gapes at the audience then gives instructive rules. We learn that in a theater we are expected to clap at the end (a preventive measure against “Boos”?). Mobile phones have to be switched off. Etc. In the program booklet Bauch thanked Ekman for being given that role. He felt nothing can be more beautiful than to grow through one’s tasks. He’s grateful that Ekman had given him the opportunity to gain a bit more self-awareness. But I assume these comments are ironical. In an interview printed in the same booklet Ekman confessed to having felt “absolutely stupid” crawling on all fours through the Semperoper himself. It would have been better if he had obeyed his feeling. Trying to imitate cows looks ridiculously witless.
Ekman also explained that “COW” is about discovering the cow in oneself, meaning a state of more inner calmness and peace. I’m doubtful whether this Buddha-like felicity can be achieved by making a fool of oneself. But maybe Ekman’s perspective has to be taken into account here. In the interview he also claimed that an average person of his age – Ekman is thirty-one – wouldn’t watch a ballet on a Friday evening. That’s how things are. Some wouldn’t even know about the existence of this art form. But if a rather ordinary person should, after all, happen to see a ballet, it should be an incredible and fascinating piece. Well, regarding his audience as “run-of-the-mill”, which is close to saying a bit dim, explains Ekman’s lowbrow approach. He is talked about as an enfant terrible in the dance world which gives him a free ticket to stage nonsense and call it art.
At the curtain calls quite a few dancers seemed to wish themselves hidden back in the second or third row or, at best, entirely away from this stage on this evening. Yet the audience’s herd instinct worked perfectly. The moment the first person stood up the others followed. A standing ovation for “COW”! Brightly smiling, Ekman acknowledged the applause in a white lab coat bringing along a crate of Radeberger beer. That was hard to top.
Aaron S.Watkin, the Semperoper Ballet’s artistic director, termed “COW” an iconic work tailored made on the company. To what depths does he wish to lead the troupe? He has fine, talented dancers who definitely deserve better.
|Links:||Homepage of Semperoper Ballet|
|Photos:||1.||Christian Bauch, “COW” by Alexander Ekman, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2016|
|2.||Alice Mariani, Gareth Haw and Johannes Schmidt, “COW” by Alexander Ekman, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2016|
|3.||Ensemble, “COW” by Alexander Ekman, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2016|
|4.||Ensemble, “COW” by Alexander Ekman, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2016|
|5.||Svetlana Gileva and ensemble, “COW” by Alexander Ekman, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2016|
|6.||Ensemble, “COW” by Alexander Ekman, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2016|
|7.||Christian Bauch and Sangeun Lee, “COW” by Alexander Ekman, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2016|
|8.||Ensemble, “COW” by Alexander Ekman, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2016|
|9.||Svetlana Gileva, “COW” by Alexander Ekman, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2016|
|10.||Jenny Laudadio, Chiara Scarone, Clement Haenen, Ayaha Tsunaki and Zarina Stahnke, “COW” by Alexander Ekman, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2016|
|all photos © T.M.Rives 2016|