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.

As a prelude, a man in a business suit − the cow − bumbles onto the stage on all fours, his bottom pushed up high, his eyes blank and unengaged. He (Christian Bauch) tells us emphatically to expect the unexpected when the curtain opens. Soon enough, a cantankerous couple descends from the heights in a 'cage', both of them leveling stinging accusations at the other. Once down, however, their acid turns to honey. “I’ll love you forever,” they parry back and forth as the cage goes up again. Is this a ballet about the ups and downs of that marriage, then? Upstage, another dancer repeatedly catapults into a brick wall, slamming into the blockade again and again. While the detail is absurd, it stands for something we human beings often do: we blast against life’s obstacles one way or another.

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.

Mikael Karlsson’s original score peaked the senses and ran a whole gamut of expression, even bringing sustained energy and humor to the choir of distorted “moos”. My only reservation about the music was that there wasn’t more of it; some segments had only the barest of accompaniment. The Steve Reich influence and Romantic quotations were palpable, but even more pervasive were the stardust and muscular beats of Karlsson’s own personal hand.

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.