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Flash Review 2, 8-18: The Dancing Id
Mats Ek's "Don Juan"

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2000 Rosa Mei

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- Mats Ek paints with a very broad palette. In his choreography, he distills human emotion in its rawest form, thrusting it on stage, seemingly without regard for whether a certain gesture is too kitschy, another movement too banal. It's as if he administered a series of Rorschach tests and put the results on stage. Birdie, ticking clock, penis, running through fields of joy, sex, horse, sex, man, woman, man humping woman. His choreography thrives on emotion and connotation. After a 27-year hiatus from directing drama, Ek has returned to his theatrical roots, directing and choreographing Moliere's "Don Juan" for Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre. The results, seen this week at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, are simply stunning.

"He is not a seducer, he is a man on the run," Mats Ek explains in an interview with the Swedish newspaper Expressen. "There is but one theme in the play, and it is there from the first scene. Don Juan is on the run, and he is escaping from the only woman he has ever had a relationship with, Donna Elvira. On his way, he goes through two failed flirtations, and one botched abduction. Then he dies." Ek's directorial approach is, in essence, a distillation of plot and character.

His Don Juan takes the shape of an effete, barrel-chested, middle-aged bastard who dons a long dark-haired wig (Fabio, eat your heart out) when switching to cavalier mode. Consumed by ennui, he takes drugs, stares at the boob tube, flips through girlie magazines, all the while feigning the artistic carriage of a nobleman. "I feel just like a conqueror who is never satisfied with his victories." This Don Juan aspires to be the next Alexander the Great, yet has the guts of a jellyfish. His constant pursuit of women quickly becomes a series of mechanical conquests, leaving him a jaded hypocrite, a Don Juan cum politician of the 21st century.

In comparing "Don Juan," the theater piece, to Ek's dance works such as "Solo for Two" and "Carmen" (featured in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's 1999 fall season), certain similarities arise. Ek prefers bold percussive movements to subtle shifts of tone. Make a statement and say it strong. Follow the dancing id. Just say no to gestural censorship. His meticulous craft stems not from an abstract sense of movement architecture, but rather an innate understanding of how movement portrays one character's relation to another. The key is characterization in bold, expressionist strokes.

In Don Juan, Mats Ek uses movement primarily as transition, to shift the action from one locale to another or symbolize a change of emotional state -- this all done to a propulsive, '80s rock score. Think bad Van Halen. Ek mixes the animate (the actors and dancers) with the inanimate (the TV, a vacuum cleaner, the red retro armchair and the large moveable set pieces with a pastoral romantic landscape painted on one side -- flowers, waterfalls, sunbeams and all) so that all the elements become players on the stage. There are no static set pieces per se. Objects shift as the players move. People transform into doorstops, dancers double as footmen and horses.

The main actors themselves are extraordinary movers. Mikael Persbrandt, as Don Juan, flings himself on couches like a flamboyant rag doll, cuts the air with an imaginary sword and partners his spurned lover Elvira with spirited elan. Niklas Ek, as Sganerelle, Don Juan's superstitious valet, dives on the floor, cartwheels over armchairs and does a charming soft shoe routine -- he is part dope and part blithe spirit -- all in the character of an aged porter. The ensemble itself weaves about the stage seamlessly, unobtrusive and ubiquitous, whether playing the role of a person or prop or representing a tormented emotional state.

In his delectable rendition of Moliere's "Don Juan," Mats Ek breaks down the boundaries between theater and dance; movement plays a pivotal role in propelling the action of the drama forward. It's not about lovers straining to touch one another or arms waving in the wind. It's about bringing the id to the forefront, physicalizing the subconscious to such a degree that a game of seduction becomes a reflection of one's own hidden fantasies and nightmares.

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