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There is appealing madness in Alexander Ekman’s choreography. Engaging and accessible, it has been warmly and immediately embraced by both the public and critics. The young Swede introduces fun and play to the often-staid atmosphere of grand opera houses. Living between Stockholm and New York, Ekman is in constant demand and the flow of madcap ideas continues unabated.


ICONS: COVID –19, what was your survival strategy?


Alexander Ekman: Well, personally I was able to have my first real break in fifteen years. Weird as it was, I think it was also what I needed. In March and April, I was at home doing nothing – just like everyone, I guess. The whole thing was extremely bizarre. Then, of course, I started to miss working. With restrictions on travel, companies needed local choreographers. I was getting a lot of ideas, so basically, I wanted to make my services available again.


ICONS: Was your latest work, SHIFT, already in the pipeline, or was it a product of COVID?


AE: SHIFT was definitely a product of Covid. I was in Stockholm, and I walked into the opera house where the theatre was empty with no performances on offer. The dancers had continued with classes, as Sweden kept going a bit longer than the rest of Europe, although some people were scared and stayed at home. The dancers were allowed to make their own choice and take responsibility for themselves, but no one knew what was going to happen. Everyone was feeling depressed, as we felt we’d kind of lost our purpose. So, I went in and said, “Hey, we must be able to do something. I’m here in the city and I’d love to create a ballet for the company.”


ICONS: To go back to the beginning, was dance a part of your cultural upbringing?


AE: My parents are both very interested and curious about anything cultural, and education was important to them. As a child, I was already dancing around the house. Fortunately, my mother noticed this, and she sent me off to the Swedish Ballet School.


ICONS: That is the feeder school for the Royal Swedish Ballet. How did you cope with the formal training?


AE: I struggled with the everydayness, the routine. I love change, and for me, it was tough to have to do the same thing every morning as we did in the ballet class. Later, when I worked in companies, repeating the same thing in rehearsals and performances was also very challenging for me. I was so bored with the school that I decided to leave. I arranged a meeting with the Director, Petter Jacobsson, at the Opera House, and he offered me a contract. So, I was able to leave school two years early and join the company.


ICONS: Was there a moment when you decided you were going to be a choreographer?


AE: I think it was when I experienced the reaction of an audience for the first time. The excitement of having an idea, seeing it become a reality, then watching how people respond and enjoy the moment. It’s when I see my idea communicated to the audience and they get it. When I felt that connection for the first time, I was hooked and I couldn’t stop. I got this audience reaction from the very first workshop I did in Stockholm, but the big moment came when I did a workshop at Nederlands Dans Theatre (NDT). I did a piece, Swingle Sisters, with three female dancers coughing in rhythm. That was fun and it was such a good memory.


ICONS: Who were the choreographers who influenced you?


AE: I grew up with Cullberg Ballet, at the time when the company was very strong, both technically and choreographically. They were doing Mats Ek’s works and also bringing in other choreographers. Of course, that was a very strong influence. Then in NDT, we did works by Jiří Kylián and William Forsythe, the masters of the 1980s and 1990s.


ICONS: What goes on in your head? Where do all your brilliant ideas come from?


AE: I have no idea—it’s a mystery—but, yes, I do get a lot of ideas! I try to develop my mental health; I meditate a lot and I do yoga, which works for me. I feel very fortunate that I have a place where I can release all these ideas and exploit them. I guess I’m lucky that I ended up in the theatre because in my mind, I am an escapist. That could really be my job description. I am able to create visions and fantasies and the theatre is the perfect space to present them.


ICONS: You’ve been very inventive in exploiting all the technical devices theatre has to offer. Where does SHIFT fit in along this trajectory?


AE: SHIFT is, for me, a very special moment in my development. I think it is the first piece I’ve created that is almost only choreography. I kind of stepped away from the technical elements. I’ve done many shows that contain so many props, so many lights, and so many show effects. And that’s one way to choreograph. Now with SHIFT, I was very curious to try and create effects only through the movement itself. I have tried to maintain the audience’s attention just through the choreography. And I’m very happy with this piece and with my decision to take this step.



ICONS: Can you talk us through your creation process – getting the ideas in your head onto the stage?


AE: We all get a great many ideas, but then we have to make space for them. The really tricky part is to know which ideas will reach out and also which ideas will go well together. Simply having ideas is not such a big part of it. Of course, you need a great idea, but you also need to craft it in the right way. In this way, I try to compartmentalize my creation.


At the outset, I start to generate ideas. I sit down, sometimes with my dramaturg, Carina Nildalen, and we start talking and spitting out ideas. Absolutely anything goes, I just churn them out. Then I come to the next stage where certain ideas stay. When I get a really great idea, it stays, and it won’t leave me. All the great ideas that I’ve had over the years just stick there by themselves, and I don’t even have to try. The great idea is one that everybody understands.


ICONS: Do you have strategies for when ideas seem to take a wrong turn?


AE: Yes, and it’s about spotting when things are not developing as expected. Sometimes a mistake can be the very best thing, but then I have to let go of the ideas I planned to use and go in another direction. That means I will have to explain this new plan to all the people around me. They need to understand and go with me. It’s exciting but I need to keep my cool.


ICONS: You enjoy spontaneity. How does this align with the logistics of production in an opera house?


AE: These things are always different. What makes the whole creative process, so unsettling is all the unknowns. I work with so many production managers, producers, and project leaders who work with timetables and budgets. They are looking for something concrete, some certainty, and are always trying to make sense of the process. They keep asking, “How does it work?”, “Where are we going to start?” They want to understand how it works, but that is simply not how it works! When you are truly on a creative roll it’s scary, it’s annoying, it’s stressful, and it’s definitely not an easy job. If a person wants a comfortable job, that person shouldn’t try anything creative.


ICONS: Your ballets always include moments where the stage is full of people. Do you enjoy the sociability of having a lot of dancers in the studio?


AE: Sometimes — it depends on the day. Creating dance requires so much collaboration from everyone. It’s my job to work with people, but there are times when it’s tough. It’s the same for all of us; when you’re not in a good place with yourself it’s difficult to walk into the studio, stand in front of people, and allow yourself to be vulnerable. I think also this has changed for me as I grow older in the role. It’s interesting what happens in the shift, what happens as you move from the boyish type of person to become a man, the leader of the team, and having power.


ICONS: You became very successful very quickly. Has fame become something of a burden?


AE: Yes, it can be, and I needed to find some sort of psychological construct to deal with the success. I have to do this to continue. Otherwise, it will hold me back and I will be doomed to a life of pressure and expectation.


ICONS: You work a lot with commissioned scores, particularly with the composer Mikael Karlsson.


AE: Actually, he was a friend of my sister a long time ago; then we met up again in New York. We were partying and had fun and only later we did start making music. It came out of play. We have similar likes, I guess, so you might say it was an artistic click. But now, I’m starting to learn the value of long-term creative relationships. It takes a lot of time to get to know another person, and when you are creating together, there is so much fear, uncertainty, and ego. All these are obstacles that can hinder creativity. But Mikael and I have created around ten pieces together, and now I feel we have a good understanding and can throw ideas back and forth. I know how much to say for him to blossom, when I should pull back, and when he needs more feedback. Of course, we all have emotions to deal with, but it’s just very valuable not to have to go through all the social layers each time we work together because that takes a lot of time and energy.


ICONS: You have done a lot of work with the Royal Swedish Ballet, but you also work with leading companies across the world. What are the challenges between the familiar and the new, and what does each bring to the table?


AE: I love coming back to the opera house in Stockholm, but every company is a new culture and always a new constellation of people. It really depends on the people who are there, their ideology and their creativity, all of that. But it’s been fascinating going around, seeing so many different companies and working with different dancers, and learning from them.


ICONS: What part do the dancers play? Do you expect them to create many different roles?


AE: I think dancers are just fascinating people. But also when I work with strong characters, like with Oscar [Salomonsson, The Escapist], he needs his part, and I must create the space for that so his soul and spirit can breathe. Those special sorts of artists need to be free on stage. So, if I try to cage or control them, it won’t work, and it’ll be awkward and difficult. It’s also about giving dancers opportunities and your trust. I think this is maybe the case with all dancers—that you must help them understand how important it is to be yourself.



ICONS: Many of your works include short film sequences. Have you always been interested in film?


AE: Yeah, I think so. Also, in film, one can get very close to the character. But actually, I don’t really have any rules about what I do. I like anything that is interesting. What I don’t like is how we are always expected to brand ourselves: ‘I am a choreographer’ or whatever. It’s more fun if we can just mix the aspects and roles.




ICONS: When you do take on the role of film director, what does this add to the creative process? For instance, in COW you were filming in the streets of Dresden and in the River Elbe.


AE: When the dancers turn up on the streets, people get surprised, and I think it’s great. I think we need more moments like that in our cities, that kind of spark. We need to surprise people and remind them to play. So, it’s always fun to be out of the studio, although it can be a bit nerve-wracking. I think the dancers also enjoy going outside, but that will also depend on the temperature!


ICONS: When you wrote Episode 17 for the Gothenburg Opera Ballet, you created an introductory film of the dancers running through the town, down the hill, and up to the stage entrance. There was a spontaneous audience reaction as they burst onto the stage. Was that an ‘off the cuff’ addition?


AE: Yes, that was part of the Bolero triple bill. There was a pause in the program that needed filling. It was thinking: “We need a bit of film, let’s go.’ I love those moments when you just do it! I’m really an impulsive doer. I get so frustrated with theatre management and with people when they must plan everything in such detail that it brings things to a standstill. I think it’s a real problem in today’s theatres. There’s too much organization and too many meetings. It is not good when we are so organized. It also brings fear, and sometimes you just must throw yourself out there.


ICONS: There is a lot of fear in the world at present. What part can art play?


AE: I think artists, in general, are really needed now to shake the structures and to shake the system. Managers want to organize, fix a plan, and prepare everything so that the mystery of it all kind of disappears. But I think, yeah … artists are here to disturb the peace, to shake it up. There’s the preoccupation with safety - safety versus creation. When we get too safe, I think we can also become quite depressed, and we sort of die inside. When we rely too much on being safe and secure in our lives, then we kind of give up. I think the theatres should function as a place where you can take risks, so when theatres become too safe, they kind of lose their purpose. Like when the audience sits quietly and they don’t boo. You know you are not in a democracy anymore if no one dares to boo. I guess the theatre is a good measurement of the culture of the city.


ICONS: You seem to like shaking things up. Is this what drives you to create?


AE: I think my motivation is to make people happy, so in that case, yes. I think we get too serious. We need to be reminded to play, to dance, and to maybe not take life too seriously. So, that’s what needs to happen in all the theatres and all the dance companies, we need to remind people to dance and to enjoy!


ICONS: How would you describe your choreographic signature?


AE: Oh! Artistic entertainment? But the word, ‘entertainment’ is kind of destroyed by association with tricks or expensive displays. For me, entertainment is something that holds people’s attention. A good piece of entertainment is gold; it’s very important and something that we need. Also, what is constant in my work is that there is always something different. I need something different; otherwise, I get bored.


ICONS: What advice would you give to your young self, starting out?


AE: I would say, don’t take it so seriously. Keep up the good work. Work hard because hard work pays off. When you’re watching the video of the rehearsal, taking notes, or giving corrections, it’s all hard work. It’s about good ideas, but then it’s how much time you spend on them. It’s really that. So that’s a good question too. Nothing comes about without hard work.


ICONS: Will SHIFT come to the US?


AE: I hope so. I’d like to share the work with other companies. It’s Covid choreography with the dancers at a distance from each other. It’s a piece that fits the moment. So, I want to talk to Nicolas [Le Riche, Artistic Director, Royal Swedish Ballet], and see if he wants to help me share it with the world. But we’ll see.


VIDEO SAMPLE OF PLAY, (2017), by Alexander Ekman, Paris Opera Ballet:




More About Alexander Ekman:


Alexander Ekman (Sweden, 1984) had a traditional ballet education and transition to the Royal Swedish Ballet, before spreading his wings. From 2002-2005 he danced with NDT2, one of the most innovative and exciting youth companies. He tried his hand at choreography, with a prize-winning entry Swingle Sisters at the prestigious International Choreography Competition of Hannover in 2005. Then, during his subsequent engagement with Cullberg Ballet, he made the shift from a performer to a creator.


Cacti (2010), created for NDT2, brought him to world attention and remains his best known and most performed work. Now Ekman’s ballets feature in the repertoire of over 45 companies across the globe, from the grandest of opera houses to the most innovative of contemporary theatres. Ekman’s talents go beyond choreography. He often collaborates in the design elements and has proved himself a talented film director. His credits include the dance film 40 Meters Under (Cullberg Ballet, 2009), he features as choreographer and performer in Ingmar Bergman through the Choreographer’s Eye (2016), and he designed video projections for Mats Ek's play Håll Plats, (2009).


Ekman is the recipient of the prestigious German Faust Award, (COW, 2016) and The Swedish Media Award: Inventor of the Year (Midsummer Night's Dream (2015). He has received nominations for the Dutch Zwaan Award 2012 and the London Olivier Awards, 2013 both for Cacti. His mercurial temperament and fertile imagination thrive on creation and innovation. His major collaborations make extravagant use of theatrical devices to create surreal worlds, and central to his work is the desire to delight an audience and hold its attention.





 Alexander Ekman, Photo portrait © Peter Greig

A Swan Lake, by Alexander Ekman, Norwegian National Ballet, Photo © Erik Berg

A Swan Lake, by Alexander Ekman, Norwegian National Ballet, Photo © Erik Berg

Cacti, by Alexander Ekman, Sydney Dance Company, Photo © Peter Greig

Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Alexander Ekman, Royal Swedish Ballet, Photo © Hans Nilsson

Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Alexander Ekman, Royal Swedish Ballet, Photo © Hans Nilsson

Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Alexander Ekman, Royal Swedish Ballet, Photo © Hans Nilsson


Interviewer: Maggie Foyer

Editor in Chief: Camilla Acquista

Dance ICONS, Inc, All Right Reserved © December 2021