Subtext in Movement, Reality in Relationships (Academic Essay)

It is true that Swedish choreographer Mats Ek creates complex work that errs on the abstract side. However, what stands out as an integral part of his process, and what seems to drive his work, is his interest in relationships and how people relate to each other. And his focus on relationships is vast, as he explores many angles, stages, and development of the psychoanalytical effect that they can have on individuals.

Mats Ek works within a very specific movement vocabulary that is used throughout all his work. His style is technical based, and he uses dancers with strong ballet backgrounds. However, his movements have a contemporary twist, seen in the way Ek plays with his dancer’s lines and shapes, often using flexed feet and bent legs. Mannerisms such as these bridges the gap between ballet and contemporary, bringing the two worlds together in an off kilter sense of harmony. Ek is also one of the few artists that successfully work with both technical movement and pedestrian movement, and he is not afraid to switch suddenly from one form of expression to the other. He has broken the rules of conventional classical ballet to create a style that is all his own.

Mats Ek creates pieces around his characters, and just as every line of a play is scripted around what the author thinks that character would actually say, Ek uses movement to express how and what a character is feeling and experiencing. By investigating Ek’s use of duets in his ballets Appartement and Smoke will show the level of complexity in which he uses movement to show character development and the depth in which he explores different relationships between his characters. Appartement represents the beginning, or bud, of a relationship. This piece is intriguing because the characters are not black and white in a good or bad sense. While the viewer is lulled into a sense of comfort by the elegant and flowing movement of Ek’s choreography it is unclear if this relationship is necessarily a healthy one. This is questioned because the female seems to rely on the male almost too much, and it is uncertain whether a relationship that starts out unequal will be a long lasting one. However, Ek shows us only a moment of their romance and the viewer does not see how it progresses. This is why a more in-depth look will be given to Mats Ek’s Smoke. In this ballet Ek shows us not only the beginning, but also the middle and the aftermath of a relationship. It is split into three parts, and each section will be considered in relation to each other because it shows not only a happily ever after, but also continues to show the darker reality of what domestic life can do to love after the curtains would usually go down.


Mats Ek’s Appartement (Paris Opera House, 2004), provides an almost too intimate look behind closed doors. Intimacy in the way that watching it feels like peeping through the dancers windows, experiencing the raw and relatable experiences that usually happen within the four walls of a home instead the openness of a proscenium stage. Appartement consists of eleven mini sections that show the everyday lives of people living in an apartment building. The sections are seemingly unrelated, meaning that the ballet focusses on momentary bursts of domestic lives as opposed to following a specific story line. The characters are what pull the ballet along.

What differentiates Appartement from other dance work is the seamless rollercoaster of high and low emotions that Ek takes his audience on. One minute the audience is lulled into a state of relaxation by a solo from a couch potato (no pun intended). He slithers lazily down his IKEA style sofa with eyes that never leave the flickering light of a pretend television. This piece uses the low energy of minimalistic movement to show his complacency. He ignores his wife as she walks around him, unsure of how to attain his attention, using the space on stage to physically show how distant they are in real life. Farther into the ballet there is a massive shift in energy as hoover wielding housewives take over the stage. They perform a contemporary styled river dance exposing pent up frustrations that they feel in their home lives.

Ek’s also shows a dark reality as he whisks his viewers into a scene of domestic unhappiness between two individuals. Hearts break as the woman pulls a charred smoking baby out of the oven, hands it to her man and determinedly stalks off stage. The man is left holding the blackened child tight to his chest as a trap door slowly lowers him under the stage.

It is hard to stumble across a ballet that successfully explores such a range of emotions. This is surely the product of Ek’s exploring not only the intimacy in developing each relationship, but also the separateness that comes from living in an apartment building. Every room homes separate lives that are lived cut off from each other, physically shown by the replicated Paris Opera House curtains placed at different depths of the stage, veiling and unveiling different spaces to the audience throughout the ballet.

Perhaps the most dynamic relationship seen in Mats Ek Appartement is the Grande Pas de Deux, performed by Paris Opera dancers Celine Talon and Nicolas Le Riche. The piece opens with Talon, a visitor at the door. However, Mats Ek takes the commonality of this action and examines it under a new lens. Immediately he cuts to the core of the piece and exposes Talon’s desire for the man behind the door. This yearning is noticed in the way she first paces as though unsure, but then knocks urgently. However, the door never opens, and it is not clear whether it acts as a gateway or a barrier for Talon’s character. Rather, Le Riche’s hand reaches around the frame and brushes down the contours of Talon’s face and a breath, like an awakening, ripples through her body. From that instant the liquid movement of these two dancers continues straight to the end. Talon’s magnetic longing for Le Riche threads their movements together, pulling them close, then a sense of pain as the stiches are slowly torn apart as they separate.

The vulnerability of Talon is striking in this piece. It is as though she can’t exist in her own space. The instant she is away from Le Riche her quality becomes sharper and more disembodied as she moves around the stage in an ape like canter, accentuating her desperation to be with Le Riche. Talon melts, becoming putty in his arms, showing the trust she feels towards him by allowing him to move her through space. There is a moment of suspense before she collapses into him, giving just enough time to wonder if the character Le Riche portrays will actually be there to catch her. At this point it is still unclear how committed he feels to Talon. If she truly felt secure in their relationship she wouldn’t move with the level of desperation that she does.

A certain sadness underlines this piece, braided within the effortless articulations and enticing shapes Talon and Le Riche make with their bodies. There is something not equal between them, seen in the way her knees wobble at his touch. Talon becomes a ragdoll as he lifts her, clinging to him like a small child. Ek expresses a clear image of weakness in the way Talon needs Le Riche more than he needs her.

Mats Ek shows that he is an intellectual artist in the way he choreographed Appartement. He doesn’t take sides with any character. It also doesn’t feel like he is trying to promote his own political views on feminism, or domestic violence. Rather, it feels like Ek is using dance to show everyday occurrences that are felt by families in the modern household. In Appartement there is no evil character, and there are no princesses. It stands as a testament to life, and the different ways people choose to live and experience it. This ballet captures loss, regret, love and hate. It is an example of art that pays homage to the people who are watching it, the everyday people of the world. Appartement is a rare ballet that leaves room to be experienced and interpreted differently by each person who views it. And in turn it makes the viewer look at themselves, leaving room to take a closer look their own relationships in their lives. Mats Ek created living and breathing art with Appartement.


            Mats Ek’s 1995 dance video Smoke, performed by Sylvie Guillem and Niklas Ek, captures in three parts the twists and turns of an entire relationship in twenty minutes. Immediately the title Smoke is intriguing. The image of smoke comes pre-attached with natural connotations. Its characteristics can include a grey substance that dissipates quickly, absorbs into its surroundings, you can’t physically hold on to it, or necessarily feel it. It can bring forth the idea of something that is unattainable. So what is Mats Ek trying to express with this mist like substance? He juxtaposes this basically toxic vapor with intriguing camera shots as the smoke seductively caresses Niklas Ek and Sylvie Guillem’s skin as they explore in each others embrace. The presentation of this poison in such an elegant manner can actually be thought of as foreshadowing this couple’s future, because their happiness turns out to be as fleeting as the smokes presence.

It is the appearance of a woman who first turns Niklas Ek’s world upside down. After Ek and Guillem’s eyes first meet across the oversized table top Ek is sent reeling as he slides down the table leg. This mysterious woman has such a powerful effect on Ek that his journey down the table leg seems endless, as it is shown through 14 different camera shots, occasionally with Ek upside down. Finally, Ek lands on the ground, and he allows himself to lie back. There is a notable shift in his character at this point. As he lies back his face relaxes for the first time into an expression of relief.

This also acts as a relief for the viewer because up until now Mats Ek has shown this man in torment. It is unknown what tortures this poor man’s soul, but his movements are heavy as though burdened by an invisible weight. Niklas Ek dances in a minimalistic manner, as though he is passing the time as he searches for something. This is seen in the way every phrase seems to end in a reach that extends past his fingertips. He moves both with and against the melancholic music, which rhythmic nature further enforces this idea of time as it passes.

And then there is a caress, as a hand reaches from nowhere and wraps around Niklas Ek’s head. This sends a ripple that extends all through his body, and solidifies the idea that it was a woman, all along, that he was searching and waiting for. He was missing a companion, someone to spend his days with. Loneliness was the invisible burden that weighted down his previous movements, and yearning is what made him reach at the end of every phrase.

Now that he has found Guillem a duet ensues. This is a new chapter in the piece as Niklas Ek moves with a new sense of vivaciousness. This woman has breathed new life into him. This duet differs from the Grande Pas de Deux discussed in Appartement because it introduces a different type of woman. No longer is there a vulnerable and delicate flower comfortable only in the arms of her man. Smoke centers around a strong and powerful woman who stands on her own. This is seen in the very first movement Guillem performs. She goes straight from a tight ball into an arabesque, both arms extended above head, her chin raised proudly. This already striking opening is followed by Niklas Ek travelling underneath her raised arabesque leg and as he stands he looks to her with an expression that can only be described as awe. Guillem lifts out of the arabesque and turns as she steps away from Ek. She looks off into the distance with an expression of wistfulness, and it is realized that this is a woman in pursuit, someone who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants, and right now Niklas Ek is what she wants. Ek follows her and as they move together they explore how they can move together, each giving as well as receiving weight. Guillem remains this image of sexuality and playfulness as her linear body leaps and extends confidently through the space. This woman is leading the duet, and Ek seems willing to follow wherever she goes. In the end he lifts her and Guillem remains erect as though sitting on a chair, her own pedestal, and Ek carries her offstage.

An interesting aspect of Mats Ek’s Smoke is that where some pieces would only show the journey to the pique moment of happiness and then end, Ek also shows the bitter reality of what ensues the happily ever after. Part two of Smoke jumps into the future, and there is no longer the refreshing sense of a new romance. Rather, the movements are sharp and more aggressive. There is a sense of being trapped together as they run and squish themselves against the wall looking quite uncomfortable. Their audible laughter is forced and unnatural. Also, Niklas Ek no longer moves where Guillem wants to go. Now he holds her in place, physically grabbing her skirt as she reaches away from him. When he grabbed her skirt in the part one duet it was with this sense of curiosity and yearning, now it is aggressive and literal. They move together with a sense of familiarity and ritual as they step in a march like manner instead of the soft sweeping steps seen previously. There is a moment where Guillem plies in a deep second and Ek lies back over her legs. A close up captures Guillem looking closely at his face, and she shows no expression. No feeling at all.

It has already been expressed that Guillem is a woman who doesn’t settle, noticed in the way she demands attention with her strong gestures. It seems natural that because she is now unhappy she searches elsewhere for the lust that she craves, seen as she caresses the hand of another man. However, Niklas Ek aggressively pulls her back and throws her roughly against the wall. Dejected, Guillem begins slowly walking with her shoulder brushing against the wall. This distresses Ek as he barrel jumps to the floor in front of her. He tries to use his body as a physical barrier to prevent her from leaving. It seems that Ek realizes he is losing her as he plants kisses all over her face in one last effort to save the sinking ship that is their love. However, it is all for naught as Guillem physically casts him aside, ending the duet and their relationship.

Part three of Smoke is a solo performed by Guillem expressing the aftermath of a failed relationship, and the utter sadness of finding herself alone once again. This sadness differs from the sadness seen in Niklas Ek during part one because there is no longer an underlining sense of hope or searching. Rather, it is a woman without hope, too late to try again. She views herself as a faded gem as she holds up an imaginary mirror and mimes putting on make-up, and in the way she picks and pulls at her own skin. She is writhed with age as she hunches her back and walks as she extends her skirt in front of her. It also seems as though Mats Ek pokes fun at the melodrama of his own choreography, as he has Guillem play an imaginary violin, orchestrating her own sadness.

As the piece progresses Guillem takes on a more pedestrian manner than seen in the previous two sections. It seems that the more reality sets in the more literal the actions become. She trips and stumbles, blows her nose on her dress, uses her finger as a fish hook to drag her out of the frame. These are interesting movement choices for Mats Ek to make, and these moments stand out against the technical outbursts that tie them together. An example being a stumble that turns into a leg extension touching her ear, then developpes in and pulls her into a pirouette in attitude. It is this interesting phrasing that provides a sense of reality to the piece. It helps to make the viewer realize that this is a piece about real people with real hardships. Mats Ek creates more than art that just passes the viewer’s time pleasurably, rather he brings up real life issues and situations that society faces. They are timeless in nature, as Smoke would be applicable and powerful not only today but also fifty years ago.

In the end, Mats Ek’s Smoke is about the American dream of a white picket fence and the pursuit of family. However, similar to smoke, this ideal life is generally unattainable and unrealistic. But when one has failed to achieve their version of the American dream it can cause absolute torment and the inability to be happy with what one has. This idea has been explored by many before, and in many different ways. For example, play writer Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf also takes a stand against the idea of an American dream, but with a very different approach. It centers on a couple that is unable to achieve their ideal life because they cannot conceive a child. Instead of having the characters face reality as Ek’s does in Smoke, Albee has his characters create a false reality where they pretend that they do have a child, and this game of pretend they play with each other acts as the glue holding their brittle relationship together. Here Albee shows the extent in which his characters pursue this unattainable dream. While Ek’s takes a different approach they amount to the same conclusion, the reality is never as glorious as the dream.


In conclusion, by investigating duets in Mats Ek Appartement and Smoke it is discovered how deeply that movement can be used to show the complexity of relationships. Ek’s pieces are not as simple as to just show people who are either happy or unhappy. Rather, he attempts to show the full range of emotions that comes from trying to be with someone, and how difficult it can be.

In Appartement Celine Talon’s care free movement seems to say that she is laying all her cards on the table, ready to jump head first into a relationship with Nicolas le Riche. However, Le Riche doesn’t seem as invested, seen in the way he will hold her but not actively pursue her in the dance. Mats Ek is able to express this using only the way these two individuals move in relation to each other.

In Smoke Mats Ek shows what can happen after the honey moon phase fades away and people grow bored of each other. It seemed that Niklas Ek had expectations for Sylvie Guillem. Perhaps he wanted a domestic wife, while Guillem wanted to be a modern woman, someone who is independent and strong in relation to her husband. It says something about Guillem’s character that she chose to be separate from Niklas Ek, even after he tried to win her back. That’s never an easy choice to make.

Mats Ek’s endless curiosity of the inner workings of everyday men and women provides a base for his work. In the end, he creates work that analyses people, and different complexities in how they interact with each other.


Albee, E. (1964), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? London: Jonathan Cape.

Appartement (2004). Choreographed by Mats Ek. Hamburg : Opera National de Paris.

Christopher, S.( 2002), A Critical Investigation of the Concept of ‘Meaning’ in Dance with Particular

            Reference to Smoke (Ek, 1995). Dancelines: University of Surrey.

Hemingway, E. (1933), A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, in Hemingway, E. and Oates, J. (eds) (1992),

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Poe, E. (1843),The Tell-Tale Heart, in Poe, E. and Oates, J. (eds) (1992), The Oxford Book of American

            Short Stories. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Smoke (1995), Choreographed by Mats Ek. Paris: RD Studio Productions.


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