Located on the fancy Avenue Montaigne, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was meant to be provocative from the start. Back in 1913, the year it was inaugurated, the Parisian elite screamed at Nijinsky's Rite of Spring – too avant-garde. Mats Ek did well choosing the theatre for his farewell programme. “From Back to Blue” reads like a raw retrospective of Mats Ek's existential questions on life and love. And it's quite a disturbing journey for anyone to whom dance equates with delicate Apollonian beauty. Mats Ek pours his heart and soul in the most ungainly gestures. His work is anti-ballet; harmonious aesthetic his last priority. 

She was black, Solo for Two and Axe all depict in their own way the inner solitude of mankind. Although the first two pieces may have been daringly experimental in the 1990s, the triple bill proved uneven in 2015. Emotion, real and crude, mostly sparked through the perspective the farewell allows.

<i>She was Black</i> © Costin Radu
She was Black
© Costin Radu

She was black (1994) is a sour 40-minute piece that was inspired by a joke, which a Swedish actor made about a nonsensical dream. It derives from a question on the nature of God yet the piece is somewhat desperately nihilistic. From beginning to end, She was black feels like a mute Ionesco play that would have gone even more out of control, slightly oozing sado-masochism. The Semperoper Ballet vividly expressed modern feelings of alienation and debauchery. When performed by inhabited artists, Mats Ek's choreographic language and vocabulary are rather striking. Sadly, no matter how powerful the interpretation is, his signature steps (deep pliés à la seconde, jumps and flexed feet) are over-repeated. She was black ends up being a parody of contemporary dance. At one point, Mats Ek played the “naked man coming from nowhere” card, which resulted in a hackneyed effect.

Solo for Two (1996) tackles love's routine in an ordinary couple. A huge wall and staircase in the background symbolize on-and-off communication between men and women. The feeling of being alone together is one anyone can relate to that at some point. Surely, Dorothée Delabie (Ballet de l'Opéra de Lyon) and Oscar Salomonsson (Royal Swedish Ballet) invested the juxtaposed solos with meaningful colours. Their body language was deep. However, this piece lies in the wake of Mats Ek's traditional – not to say routine – works. To some extent, Solo for Two is also an unintended parody of Mats Ek's choreography. A hot topic – gender equality – was alluded to when the two lovers literally exchanged clothes. Unfortunately, the following steps lacked accurate phrasing and the final scene was too predictable.

Ana Laguna and Yvan Auzely in <i>Axe</i> © Leslie Spinks
Ana Laguna and Yvan Auzely in Axe
© Leslie Spinks
In such a dreary ensemble, Axe (2015) struck me as the only haunting part of the evening. The heart-wrenching notes of the Albinoni-attributed Adagio bathed me in shivers. The piece starts off as a humorous tribute to Swedish clichés. A man – Yvan Auzely, lumberjack style – is splitting logs in an industrial, dehumanized, hangar. There is something Sisyphean in the way he fiercely repeats the same task. The setting is staggeringly schizophrenic; both appealing to Emerson's quiet and simple life in the woods as well as Marx's "automatic factory". Ana Laguna, a dancer of astonishing thrust and Mats Ek's wife and muse, made this swansong her own. She jumped round the man in a repetitive pattern, in a forlorn attempt to draw him away from his mechanical movements. Ana Laguna instilled a unique life force to that worn-out and mature couple. The stage turned into a mirror in which one could assess harsh realities. Axe was effective and powerful to end the evening.

With Ana Laguna retiring, Mat's Ek artistic incarnation might soon evaporate. “From Black to Blue” is overall an inspiring meeting of generations and nationalities. Reuniting dancers from all over Europe sounded like a choreographic Esperanto. May this eclectic heritage live on.

***11