Örjan Andersson has risen to become on the most distinctive voices on the Swedish dance scene, lately also conquering straight drama. He confesses to loving the romantic era, and, using Beethoven’s last piano concert, the Emperor Concerto (1811) as his canvas, Andersson misses no opportunity to explore the extremes of unbridled emotion with sweeping brushstrokes and delicate detail – using the darkly clad bodies of the dancers of the Swedish Royal Ballet as his tools. Labelled Exposition and the Body, this abstract piece holds a depth of narrative which aims to portray the complexity of human intimacy. For the opening movement, a row of proudly marching dancers expose the majestic main theme against the backdrop of bright red drapes. Crossing them from the opposite side of the stage, the sinewy, flowing movements of bodies interpret the keychanges of the development. The choreographer works with contrast between weight and lightness – it is sheer delight watching the dancers strike sculptural poses reminiscent of the game of hunting: a decorative profile with arms raised, slightly curved, like a watchful deer – alternating with the more explosive gestures of an archer.

Exposition and the body © Markus Gårder
Exposition and the body
© Markus Gårder

The pianist Terese Löf provides the dancers with a lavish interpretation of the solo part, firmly supported by the dedicated players of the Royal Orchestra and conductor David Björkman. Riding buoyantly on the rippling waves of piano sound, the female protagonist is carried by her male colleagues in a pose of sensuous abandonment. Here, the hunt becomes a metaphor for erotic conquest, which is explored further in the lyrical duet of the second movement. As the backdrop is torn down to reveal a luscious green, Rena Narumi and Anton Valdbauer revel in a meeting of sensuous beauty. The giant leaps in the solo piano part are reinterpreted as daring, expansive gestures, revelatory of the depth of emotion between them. Finally, in the third movement, the mood brightens and the entire ensemble dresses up in royal blue for an explosion of whirling extacy – couples jazzing away to bring out the energy of the runs in the piano part,  and using the trills in the solo cadenza as an excuse to suggest erotic touch, foot playfully placed against the chest of one’s partner.

Following this tribute to romantic emotion, Norwegian choreographer Jo Strömgren’s commentary on Swedish high society in Gaité Suédoise is a rude awakening. But an interesting one. The title departs from the name of the Offenbach suite, Gaité parisienne, which was arranged by Manuel Rosenthal in 1938 for Léonid Massine’s ballet. This slightly perfumed score provides the perfect backdrop for the decadent snapshots of high society exposed in Strömgren’s piece. Women in garish evening dress gossip and giggle while portraits of Swedish monarchs are paraded. Males in tails respond with sexual innuendo, shouts and – as the delicious waltzing and cancan progresses into a mating game – occasional fistfights with their rivals.

Gaîté Suédoise © Markus Gårder
Gaîté Suédoise
© Markus Gårder

A sudden hush, as the guests fall asleep in their seats, sets the stage for the servant couple to appear – as though Susanna and Figaro from Mozart’s opera took their chance to enjoy a swirl on the dance floor.  Accompanied by the melancholy of Offenbach’s cello duo (Cours méthodique, op. 54), Jenny Nilson and Oscar Salomonsson portray tender and honest love in their innocent meeting.  The calm is shattered as the crowd rushes in and tears the lovers apart. The men take turns in degrading the young woman as she is swung between them like a conquered bait, while the women deal equally contemptuously with the male servant - tying up his legs, and pulling the helpless victim across the stage by the feet. After this shocking image of rape and violence, the party resumes with the barcarole from the Tales of Hoffman providing an ironic concluding remark. When the royal couple finally appears, outlined in silhouette, they wave a distant greeting, unaware of the turmoil that has preceded their entrance.

Although initially swept away by the trappings of monarchy and high society in this fascinating double bill, at the end of the evening I find myself chocked by the contempt and raw sexism hidden beneath the surface.

Exposition and the body: Swedish Royal Ballet © Markus Gårder
Exposition and the body: Swedish Royal Ballet
© Markus Gårder