Marvellous mayhem: Alexander Ekman’s COW

Semperoper Ballett, Dresden
March 12, 2016
Maggie Foyer

After a watery Swan Lake, and an intoxicated Midsummer Night’s Dream, Alexander Ekman, in ruminating mood, turns to a philosophical COW. It’s a snappy title for a 90-minute mixed bag of mayhem.

This production has discovered new talents in Semperoper Ballett, one of these in Christian Bauch who embodies the cow. Not only does he offer a fascinating insight into the creative process in the video which forms part of the show but he has accurately captured elements of the animal’s physicality. He crawls on stage dressed in a business suit moving with a swayback swing in his hips, a pause and slowly turns his head, fixing his gaze at the audience. The gaze is enigmatic: it could hold the secret to life itself, or just pleasant thoughts of the next mouthful of grass – who knows; but he captures it so perfectly that the audience were enchanted.

Christian Bauch in COWPhoto T.M. Rives
Christian Bauch in COW
Photo T.M. Rives

The opening scene swarms with traffic as boats and people mill around. Sangeun Lee insists on photocopying her face and distributing copies to the audience; a man runs incessantly into a brick wall while another takes a leisurely shower. Gangs of fashionistas flaunt their excessive outfits. This is Henrik Vibskov’s breakout moment as later costuming is more austere and he is one of Denmark’s top fashion names.

Ekman, possibly anticipating criticism for insufficient dance content, neatly returns the ball to our court, with a little ballet. Julian Amir Lacey and István Simon launch into high flying leaps, while Svetlana Gileva bourrées nonchalantly in and out. In the background cheeky messages are posted, ‘Is this better?’ and ‘Is this expressive enough?’

Gileva gets another ballet moment, partnered by Denis Veginy in a neo-classical pas de deux. The costuming – both in wide black trousers, she adding a tutu skirt, gives an intriguing shape to the more traditional positions. Gileva also has probably the best entrance of the evening as the huge white cloth which was covering the stage becomes her cloak giving her possession of the entire space.

Svetlana Gileva and ensemble in COWPhoto T.M. Rives
Svetlana Gileva and ensemble in COW
Photo T.M. Rives

Ekman talents extend to the lighting and stage design and his eye for structuring an environment is unerring. There is no set as such, excepting the plaster cow which dangles overhead, but the stage surface has its share of movement as little island-blocks rise up and pits sink down. The extreme tilting of the stage at one point causes unfortunate Bauch to roll, cow-like, almost into the pit.

COW has its iconic Ekman moment in the scene that opens on a stage full of swirling dancers in white skirts set in a magical silvery mist. Mikael Karlsson, whose music partners the piece provides a subtle and evocative soundscape. He offers a hint of percussive rhythm picked up by the dancers who launch into an ecstatic dance: a stage full of whirling dervishes, until they collapse exhausted.

Semperoper Ballett in Alexander Ekman's  COWPhoto T.M. Rives
Semperoper Ballett in Alexander Ekman’s COW
Photo T.M. Rives

Ekman takes delight in playing with large numbers of dancers and there are blissful moments when the stage is filled with dancers swarming like bees. Patterns shape then quickly morph into something new and strange. Separated from the melee, Lee and Bauch have a duet of gentle gestures before they are swept back into the ensemble.

The video takes us outdoors as dancers give bovine imitations in the studio and around town. Courtney Richardson, now a horned creature, is spotted paddling in the River Elbe, before leaping powerfully across the stage. Meantime in the pit the ensemble, in underwear and red wigs, stomp around on strangely shod feet sounding weirdly like Flamenco dancers. Spain – bullfight – cow: it’s a challenge to sort the logic in Ekman’s brain and probably best not to go there!

Two more surprise talents close the show as Skyler Maxey-Wert accompanied by Caroline Beach on ukulele, sings Karlson’s gentle song, ‘Nothing Moves a Cow’. Ekman can be relied on to excite, annoy and delight in varying proportions. He is never less than fully engaging and COW is no exception.