Alexander Ekman
Photo by Gustav Wiking

Alexander Ekman: “My view of success has changed”

Short Profile

Name: Karl Wilhelm Alexander Ekman
DOB: 12 January 1984
Place of birth: Stockholm, Sweden
Occupation: Dance choreographer, dancer

Mr. Ekman, in 2013, a journalist asked you where you hope to be in 10 years and you answered, “In 10 years, I’ll be 39 and hopefully calm…” How are you doing these days?

(Laughs) Oh my God, I said that when I was 29? Wow! I actually don’t know how calm I feel now that I’m 39… I mean, I’m really looking forward to my forties and seeing what will come out of my choreography. I think it's going to be really exciting to create with the things I’ve learned up to now. I feel like, in a way, life begins at 40. And I like seeing age in that way, thinking of age as a construct, and being at ease with it. So in that way, you could say I’m more at peace, I’m excited for the next decade, to see what the next step should be.

Your dance choreography definitely suggests that you have more energy than ever.

I guess so, and you’re right that my recent show LIB was high energy, but I’ve also done some very meaningful shows about topics like space, and the ego… Those shows are more about reflection and introspection.

“You’re always trying to think of the magic of the theater. For me, it is presence; when the whole audience is present together and no one’s thinking about their own life or their own problems. That’s magic.”

Regardless of the themes, though, is it a goal for you as a choreographer that your audience has fun?

I think you're always trying to think of the magic of the theater. I’ve always tried to create that: What is that magic? What does it mean when we say that? And I think for me, it is presence, this idea of when the whole audience is present together and no one's thinking about their own life or their own problems. That's magic, but it’s also entertainment. And entertainment is important! I think these days there’s a tendency to think that entertainment is cheap or flashy… But I think that the real meaning of the word is just to hold your attention. So that’s my goal, always. And it can be fun or it can be dark; I have no rules with that.

Does that stem from a reaction to something you’ve experienced in the past with traditional ballet or dance?

Well, opera and ballet are difficult. It's a very old art form. Historically, you would go to the opera house and sort of see it as a social gathering, the doors were open and people used to talk and hang out during the performance. And then it was Wagner who decided to close the doors. It changed the way we see these operas and ballets, you know? So yes, I do think that there are many shows out there that people do find quite difficult or challenging or boring, frankly. I don't know why that is! And I wish that sometimes there would be more pressure on these kinds of shows. For example, it's interesting to talk about booing! Booing is really a sign that you might be in a true democracy. These institutions are state funded, so people do actually have the right to boo and be active as an audience and say when it's not good enough, then there can be a dialogue.

Would people really boo at the ballet?

I guess this occurs more in certain cultures like in Paris, for example, I think it's more likely that someone boos. But it can be really fascinating, especially when you tour the works, to see the different reactions people have — in certain cultures, for example, they’re able to laugh like crazy, but in another country it will be totally quiet. Recently I showed a performance in Sydney and it got a really good reaction, good reviews. But then we came to Vienna Opera House, and there was two people that booed it! You know, they wanted something more classic. So the same piece received two very different reactions.

Apparently during a night of performances, you’ll try to show your weirder or non-traditional pieces towards the end so that the audience has been satisfied with classic dances first, and then they can let go a bit more…

Of course, when you’re sharing the night with other choreographers in an evening of programming, the reaction of the audience really depends on what they saw before. So if you've seen this very classical, conservative piece, then suddenly, they start talking on stage, of course, that will be seen as a surprise. So it's very interesting working in that way.

And what about adding costumes? That must surely be another element of surprise, especially when the costumes are made entirely of hair like for your recent show, LIB.

Of course, I love the element of surprise in my work, and I think if you're trying to make entertainment, that's a great ingredient to work with. When we get surprised for a moment, you wake people up somehow. But it’s also a puzzle or a balance somehow because, especially with costumes like the hair suits you mentioned, if it’s too much then it turns into an “effect.” So, I also like when I can make a piece with simplicity, when you manage to connect with the audience in simple ways. I respect that a lot, as well.

I can imagine it’s also a bit nerve-racking to make shows like Cacti or your Swan Lake re-interpretation, which are a bit more non-traditional.

Humor is very difficult! But I never go in the studio and try to make something funny. What we’re doing is work. And I think it's importan that we don’t try to be funny, because that can just be awkward, you know? It can be a problem because sometimes there’s this idea about my work that there are moments that are funny. The dancers have received a reaction from the audience in the beginning, and then they start to think, “Oh, it’s funny,” so they start to change the performance, to add comic movements. But once they do that, the audience stops laughing, and it’s not funny anymore. So that's the danger of humor, actually, it’s sort of a cycle. It’s very difficult to create choreography, I think it's a very difficult art form, because there's so much and there are so many people you have to handle. And it’s also very fragile.

“The reputation and the expectation can actually work against us because when you have expectations about something, you're often disappointed, right?”

I wonder if it’s also easier for you to push boundaries with your work because you’re Alexander Ekman, and you have such a great reputation in this field.

I think it’s actually quite the opposite! The reputation and the expectation can actually work against us because when you have expectations about something, you're often disappointed, right? So it's unfortunately quite the opposite in my experience, and I wish on some level that they did not know my work. But in any case, the work needs to be great. There is no way to success without a good experience. When I don't work hard, it's not going to be as good. And when the dancers don't perform well, it also goes down.

And what about your own expectations of yourself? You once talked about how you’d spend your whole career working towards making a piece for the Paris Opera, and when you finally did that, it left you feeling confused about where to turn next.

I think the trick as a creator is just to let go of what you've done and try to really feel in this moment. Because that’s the danger, when you've done things that have been successful and you want to try to hold on to them, to that certain recipe. Sometimes I find myself doing that, you know, where I'm just reproducing something or I’m playing it safe. That’s when I know I need to take a break. And that can also be exciting because if you want to create, if you want to be innovative as an artist, you need to stop sometimes because the pressure can definitely have an effect on your creativity. So, yeah, it's fascinating to age with your work and come to those realizations!

What other self-discoveries have you made as you’ve aged with your work? Has your view of success changed, for example, since you showed at the Paris Opera?

Oh, absolutely. My view of success has definitely changed. For me, success is having integrity and really staying true to my own voice. When I was younger, maybe it was more about the big spaces and getting awards. But now I’m prioritizing more this idea of having a beautiful process, really connecting with the dancers, going through a process without freaking out, having this calm energy in my creativity. That, to me, is success.