Classical ballet and much more, all with a wide-eyed sense of fun: Alexander Ekman’s Escapist

The Royal Swedish Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Stockholm
April 5, 2019

Maggie Foyer

The programme for Alexander Ekman’s Escapist has a cover photo: Sarah Jane Medley in dark glasses and bright yellow puffer jacket is en pointe in a deep plié a lá seconde resting her chin on Jérôme Marchand’s upturned bottom. He’s in a headstand, naked back exposed, tattooed arms outstretched a frying pan gripped in one yellow gloved hand and a bunch of daffodils in the other. The picture encapsulates Escapist: superb dancers getting themselves into the most unlikely situations, some classical ballet, a lot of other stuff, super trendy outfits alternating with nude underwear. And it’s quite the best thing since sliced bread!

This is Ekman’s third work for the Royal Swedish Ballet and again he weaves together many threads. It’s a work where the concept is well grounded (as Ekman says, ‘escapist’ could be his job description) and lurking underneath is that undeniable logic that makes surrealism function. There are laugh-out-loud moments of sheer madness, moments of great beauty and glimpses of tender humanity.

Mikael Karlsson’s music underpins the evening, inspiring, supporting and having fun. Henrik Vibskov’s magnificent sculpted costumes shape the movement and when his clog-like shoes add to the musical rhythm, it becomes a wonderful tripart collaboration.

Joakim Aderberg (foreground) and Oscar Salomonssonin Alexander Ekman's EscapistPhoto Nils-Emil Nylander
Joakim Aderberg (foreground) and Oscar Salomonsson
in Alexander Ekman’s Escapist
Photo Nils-Emil Nylander

The Escapist is Oscar Salomonsson who alternates between a rather gormless everyday guy and the man of his dreams hosting candlelit dinner parties, leading a tap dancing chorus line and the male corps de ballet. However, the reality of his everyday life is captured in a short mid-way film where he brushes his teeth and spills his coffee like the rest of us.

The comedy is never far away as he takes a bath in the park alongside the Opera House, works in an office commandeered by pedigree pooches and steps out of bed to wiggle his toes in warm tropical beach sand. It’s a funny sensitive portrait of anyone who ever dreamt of a more exotic life. As the camera hovers a hair’s breadth from his soul, Salomonsson, proves what an exceptional artist he is, someone who can make the ordinary into great art.

Ekman makes the most of the dancers’ talents in the range of styles. There is a hard-core ballet section first for the men executing pristine arabesques and crisp batterie then countered by the women striding across the stage en pointe. Some of the most magical moments come when the cast of 37 take to the stage en masse. They do this early on in chunky structured black and white striped outfits punching out a sort of Eastern martial theme, similar to Ekman’s Cacti. The stage joins in at this point rising up as the lighting bars lowers down to sandwich the dancer between. Ekman taps into the versatility of the stage as the pit and various segments move up and down throughout the evening to create new and surprising levels.

Around half way there comes a moment of lyrical beauty as billowing white drapes flood the stage and in the final moment again on a stripped-down stage, the dances whirl in black and white striped skirts creating patterns of pinwheels. At this moment, they build their own triple rhythm within Karlsson’s atmospheric sound score and the moment is thrilling in its unity.

‘You and I’, danced by Emily Slawski and Anton Valdbauer is a no-frills affair, just two people dressed down and acting and reacting in gestural language in quiet communication. The ‘Classical Duet’, quiet and sensitive, featured Haruka Sassa and AdiLiJiang Abudureheman on fine form, the addition of wide soft cullottes under her tutu adding a layer of intriguing shapes to developpes and arabesques.

Escapist is a packed 90 minutes; a journey into a magic realm but one that is very human and inviting. It is absolutely Ekman, but more mature and cohesive but thankfully never losing its wide-eyed sense of fun.