In a Paris season so far dominated by revivals, the Mats Ek double bill at the Palais Garnier is by far one of the most vital. Both La maison de Bernarda Alba and Une sorte de … were new to the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire in 2008, and these rarities showcase the Swedish choreographer’s theatrical gusto.
Thirty-three years after its creation, Ek’s take on Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba remains a gripping piece of dance theatre. A mourning widow, Bernarda, coerces her black-clad daughters into complete isolation. The oldest is the only one set to get married but one of her sisters makes a bid for freedom by seducing her fiancé – only to be abandoned by him. On stage, the work’s overall clarity of purpose is dizzying, with expressionistic storytelling reminiscent of Kurt Jooss, all the way to the gruesome last scene in which Bernarda tries to shove the youngest sister’s hanged body under the floor covering.
Few choreographic styles would be better suited to this tale of Catholic guilt than Ek’s. As the five daughters crouch and hunch in fear and shame to Bach and traditional Spanish music, their repressed bodies are both grotesque and all too human. Ek’s plunging pliés and extensions epitomise their plea for freedom – and yet they scream their prayers along with Bernarda, crawling under the table or fleeing like panicked insects before their mother.
With only a table, a shrine and a few props on stage, this Bernarda Alba belongs to the performers. The first cast has worked hard to capture the style, with the luminous Charlotte Ranson and a strikingly precise Ludmila Pagliero among the standouts. As Bernarda, played here by a man in drag, Spanish étoile José Martinez cuts a touching figure, gangly and solitary rather than malevolent.
Une sorte de … is a different beast altogether and the right counterpoint to Alba’s heavy-duty drama. This delightfully nonsensical work, created in 1997 for the Nederlands Dans Theater, reads like a slightly unsettling surrealist dream. A man leads the way, squeezing his partner into a suitcase to protect her as they go through an imaginary door. Behind it, 14 dancers let it rip to a score by Górecki, hinting at every dream mechanism in Freud’s book: a balloon becomes a pregnant belly ready to be burst, the suitcase multiplies, and free association drives on everything and everyone.
The ensemble’s antics are ultimately lightweight but Ek has devised some unexpectedly tender pas de deux for the two main couples. Miteki Kudo, an unsung Paris Opéra hero, brings gentle grace to her encounter with Benjamin Pech. As the “dreamer”, Nicolas Le Riche confirms he has no equal in the company in terms of stagecraft – he holds the stage on his own in a woman’s coat, and he and Nolwenn Daniel make theatrical magic out of a shoe. It’s luxury casting and an excellent reason to see this compelling evening.