Swedish choreographer Mats Ek shocked the dance world when he announced in January that he would be retiring his repertoire of works from the world stage. The news means Southern California audiences' rare chance to see Ek's choreography in motion will be all that much more special when the Royal Swedish Ballet visits Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa this weekend with the West Coast debut of "Juliet and Romeo."
That's not a typo. Ek's unconventional interpretation of Shakespeare puts Juliet's story in the forefront.
The tragedy still pivots on the star-crossed lovers' ill-fated affair, but the contemporary ballet emphasizes Juliet, says Royal Swedish Ballet Artistic Director Johannes Öhman.
"She's sweet, but she's also very, very strong," Öhman says of this Juliet, describing her as a "teenage force" caught between her passion for Romeo and her family's expectation for her to marry Paris.
Ek believes that his dramatization of Juliet's conflict with her father, Lord Capulet, over her refusal to marry Paris is more along the lines of what Shakespeare had in mind when he first penned the play.
"If you read the text you will see that he threatens her life," Ek says. "He says, 'I wish you were never born. And if you don't obey, don't ever show yourself here. I will consider you not my daughter.' So that is a death sentence already."
And a reason to rebel. Choreographing "Juliet and Romeo" in the wake of the Arab Spring, Ek also drew parallels between the lovers' fervor for each other and the fearlessness of Arab youth, such as the self-immolation of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death in a Tunisian square set waves of political protests into motion across the Middle East and North Africa.
"So I made the connection with this young love of Romeo and Juliet, but also to the price of its own extinction," says Ek, who chose to use an industrial set design and gangs of dancers patrolling the stage on Segways to delve into the Capulets' and Montagues' strife.
Ek made an even more unorthodox choice in music, trading Prokofiev for Tchaikovsky. Prokofiev's score, the traditional accompaniment for many ballets, was almost too familiar for Ek. It described the "the story step by step, scene by scene," he says. "To find my own way into it, I needed another music. … It was easier for me to start from scratch."
"Juliet and Romeo" not only marks the return of the Royal Swedish Ballet to the Orange County performing arts center after 17 years, but also a singular opportunity for Southern California audiences to see Ek's work, which is often performed in Europe but rarely presented in the U.S., Segerstrom Executive Vice President Judy Morr says. The rarity of the upcoming run has been heightened by Ek's decision, announced in January, to create no more new works and to withdraw existing ones from the world stage as their licenses with dance companies expire.
"My only regret is that it's the first time," Morr says of Ek's work at Segerstrom.
Ek, 71, says the retirement of his repertoire is not a definitive end to his choreographic career — more of a pause that leaves him open to taking on life as it unfolds.
"It's not said in my head that I will never come back. If the urge is too strong, I will hopefully have the chance to do things again," he says.
But for now, he likes the idea of not being tied down to a schedule. It's similar to the philosophy he applies to dance, likening the art form's ephemeral quality to "writing in water."
"You can't put it into the library and take out the book and read it again, two years later or five or 10 or a hundred years later," Ek says. "When the curtain's closed, it's vanished."
Yet lingering in the choreographer's mind is one image from "Juliet and Romeo," inspired by Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Landscape With the Fall of Icarus." In the right-hand corner of the painting, Icarus, just fallen from the sky, kicks up his legs out of the sea. Doomed to drown in the ocean's depths, he frantically fights to survive. Meanwhile, the world goes on spinning, as a peasant plows a field, a fisherman angles for his daily catch and a ship sails on. From the artwork's illustration of a young life cut short, Ek created the ballet's final scenes.
"I'm using this image at the end of 'Juliet and Romeo,' as a picture of death, yes, but something maybe still can come out of it," Ek says. "Life goes on. And the Earth still exists. It's a wonderful irony and something beautiful, hopeful about it."
"Juliet and Romeo"
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Info: (714) 556-2787, www.scfta.org