COW, a bombastic ballet by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman which premiered at Dresden’s extraordinary Semperoper, features twelve successive scenes that tickled our senses, rattled our funny bones, but challenged our perception of ourselves and our society.
What the program notes hail as “undiscovered creative ways” of approach to dance allude to the humour and slapstick prevalent in Ekman’s work. Admittedly, the work verges far from classical ballet seriousness. Yet the clowning points to various human attributes and sensitivities, whether tolerance, our approach to the arts, our reactions to conflict or perception of terror. The 'stampede' scene whose 30 dancers begin from the floor, rise in a frenzy and gyrate like dervishes as the amplified music escalates, is truly spectacular. It is at once utter joy, confusion, and visual delight. But we in the audience don’t get off lightly. Instead, we are asked to confront our own reactions, asked even to place judgment on what’s transpiring on stage. “Does this appeal to you?” is flashed on a screen. “Is his expressive enough?” The chance to assess a performance mid-stream is new to me, but makes me take part in the performance.
The ballet also made a case for the power of the crowd, a phenomenon not without its strong associations in Germany. If a single dancer set himself apart to begin a certain action − laughing loudly, popping the sound of an cork, stomping hard in wooden clogs on the stage floor − the others quickly picked up the action and magnified it 20-fold. While this was the herd of followers at its most innocent, the foreshadowing of group violence did not go unnoticed. Further, when ending the scenes, the dancers often just walked off stage casually, as if at a rehearsal. This casual approach to performance, the deflating of the theater’s pomp, implies these were just ordinary people who would be accountable for ordinary things.
Highly commendable was Ekman's staging, which derived terrific effects from the simplest of means. The reams of transparent white fabric raised above the stage to billow like clouds made a restful interlude. A video projection was also a key feature in the performance. Projected in the second half, the clip took us to the farm first, showing a real cow – "totally calm" and “completely natural”, no pretention, no mania, just “a cow among cows”. Then in one hilarious segment, the company’s dancers were seen herding on all fours through the labyrinth of corridors backstage in the opera house itself. Christian Bauch speaks of the herding instinct “that dancers know something about”. Witness the scene when the whole company – dressed in white, with skullcaps that cover wigs of acrylic neon orange hair – danced in one single line like the burlesque finale. There, the dancer is the master of compliance.
Not surprisingly, all the dancers − complete with their little black dresses and designer interiors − slowly fall into the belly of the stage and disappear at the end of the performance. The effect of Ekman’s COW, then, goes far beyond the parameters of dance; the ballet shows humankind for its incorrigible pettiness, contrariness, and nervous ineptitudes, an entity destined to go down. By contrast, it is the mindful cow that survives to look over the landscape, satisfied with little, and frontrunner all the same.
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