THE ECHO DRIFT – Prototype Festival 2018

“If a hackneyed plot hobbled Travelers, a startling science fiction conceit kickstarted the gripping one-act The Echo Drift. In this world premiere work, an inmate in a futuristic prison gets a visit from a talking moth that tries to persuade her than she can escape by rejecting her conventional sense of time and space.

Everything about this presentation was virtuoso, from the psychedelic snarls and slithers in composer Mikael Karlsson’s orchestra writing to the sly, ironic whispers of actor John Kelly as the Moth. But the heart of the piece was the bravura singing of Blythe Gaissert as the panicky prisoner, her smoky mezzo biting into the wide-ranging and relentless vocal part with the violent abandon of a starving shark.”

  • James Jorden, The Observer January 17 2018

– The Observer

SO WE WILL VANISH – Anne Sofie von Otter and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra 2021


How can Anne Sofie von Otter be this good? She is 65 years old, but her voice is still so strong – beautiful, expressive, nuanced, masterfully controlled. And she continues to seek out artistic challenges.
The commissioned work “So we will vanish” is tailored for her – she had clear instructions to the composer Mikael Karlsson about what she liked and disliked with his previous works, they agreed on a theme for the songs together, and when she had difficulty with one of the songs as the lyricist Royce Vavrek wrote for the project, all he had to do was scrap it and write a new one. This commitment has paid off, because when von Otter sings the three epic songs, she does so with total devotion, she wraps herself in the music.
Karlsson is best known for his vital and inventive ballet music for Alexander Ekman’s acclaimed dance performances. He is a composer with an outward-looking, film music-like style that distinguishes him from many contemporary Swedish composers, and he has a fine sense of detail and zero tolerance for empty clichés. Von Otter wanted songs about the climate, but Karlsson insisted that it not be a self-important piece full of moral lessons or messages, so therefore “So we will vanish” is not about human environmental destruction but about nature’s own self-destructiveness.
The three songs tell the stories of three trees: a tree on the bottom of the sea, in the area soaked by the North Sea 8,000 years ago (“Doggerland”), a tree attacked by fire-bearing birds of prey (“Firehawks”) and a tree that was the last of its kind and who refused all attempts at rescue, like a depressed old diva (“Saint Helena Olive”). An actually quite brilliant song cycle – think Björk with more resilient singing and more luxurious orchestration – which will hopefully have a long life.

  • Nicholas Ringskog Ferrada-Noli, Dagens Nyheter, February 19 2021

– Dagens Nyheter

SO WE WILL VANISH – Anne Sofie von Otter and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra 2021


  • Hanna Höglund, Expressen February 19 2021

– Expressen

THE ECHO DRIFT – Prototype Festival 2018 – AOP online video presentation of the piece


American Opera Project TV, The Echo Drift: One of the big hits of Beth Morrison Projects and HERE’s 2018 Prototype Festival, this incredible 78-minute jazz/rock influenced opera is about prison and how your own mind can turn against you when you’re in solitary confinement. Commissioned and developed by BMP, HERE, and American Opera Project, out of a workshop production at the Swedish Embassy in D.C., it’s a brilliant wedding of words and music, tightly staged by director Mallory Catlett and powered by a leave-it-all-out-there performance by Blythe Gaissert. You may not have heard of composer Mikael Karlsson before, but look him up after you see the show. There’s a lot of good music out there with his name on it.”

  • Michael Zwiebach, San Francisco Classical Voice May 12 2020

– San Francisco Classical Voice

THE ECHO DRIFT – Prototype Festival 2018

“Every year, the Prototype Festival presents several groundbreaking new operatic works in small but lively productions. The festival is one of the great things about being in New York City in January. One of the most exciting events of the 2018 festival was the world premiere of The Echo Drift (seen Jan. 10), a one-act opera by composer Mikael Karlsson and librettists Elle Kunnos de Voss and Kathryn Walat at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. The Echo Drift is a truly moving, dynamic piece of music theater that deserves a great deal of attention.

Set in an isolation cell within a women’s prison, the opera centers on Walker Loats, a woman from hard circumstances, who is serving a life sentence for murdering a man. Deprived of all outside stimuli, Loats spends her time writing to the Governor, requesting a pardon. One day, she finds a cocoon in her soup. Rather than eating or destroying it, she allows the cocoon to survive. Eventually a moth bursts forth, and it begins to speak with Loats. Ultimately, the moth succeeds in getting Loats to consent to journey to the Echo Drift, a place in which time and being—past, present and future—contract into a singularity.

As Walker Loats, mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert gave a dramatically powerful, vocally stunning portrait of a woman growing increasingly desperate and delusional from lack of contact with the outer world. Gaissert’s development of Loats’s personality was utterly believable, and she gave a virtuoso performance of this very challenging music. Actor John Kelly was fully convincing as the Moth, who alternately begs, mocks, supports and cajoles Loats along the path to the Echo Drift. Kelly was equally impressive in the lesser role of the governor, beautifully modulating his vocal approach to each character.

Karlsson’s music is a haunting mixture of acoustic and electronic sound. The vocal line is through-composed and lyrical, effectively conveying the text. His colorful music covers the spectrum from the tonal through the very dissonant, all the way to pure noise. In all these varied utterances, the music is fully at the service of the drama. The libretto by de Voss and Walat is clever, ironic and at times disturbing. At first I was troubled by the loud, rather boxy sound-enhancement, but I came to realize that this was a deliberate and well-made choice to convey the brutal oppressiveness and sinister atmosphere of the piece. The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) played magnificently under the zealous direction of conductor Nicholas DeMaison. The set design, also by Kunnos de Voss, and the visual projections of Simon Harding expressed the claustrophobic aura of a life in solitary confinement.”

  • Arlo McKinnon – Opera News, April 2018

– Opera News

THE ECHO DRIFT – Prototype Festival 2018


Walker Loats’ day revolves around soup. The arrival of lunch is one of two ways she keeps track of time in solitary confinement. One bowl, however, contains an insect cocoon that hatches into a Moth offering Walker the chance to transcend her negative self. Can human nature change in isolation? Is a creature human without companionship? The Echo Driftopera rotated around these questions for seventy immersive minutes of six-channel surround sound and projected animations at the PROTOTYPE festival on January 12, 2018.

A cube within a cube sat center stage in front of a projection screen in Rose Nagelberg Theatre at Baruch College. Inside the cube’s scrim-covered outer frame was a grey prison cell furnished with a bed, desk, and chair. Eventually the set rotated, turned primarily by The Moth as it interrogates Walker and time loses its linear sequence. To its left sat conductor Nicholas DeMaison and The International Contemporary Ensemble, occupying nearly an equal third of the black box stage just as the acoustic music had equal footing with the digital elements. During the overture, drawings were projected onto the cube and screen and returned at crucial dramatic moments. We learned from The Moth that “The Echo Drift” is a point of space and time, or “state of things … where all is an event” that Walker can access if she relinquishes her obsession with control. Just as the creature offers new dimensions to Walker, the multidimensional elements enhanced the audience experience. In one of the most striking visuals of the show, white envelopes thrown in the air seemed like expanded versions of earlier 2D moth projections.

Mikael Karlsson’s music deftly avoided a sense of both meter and ambiguity, underscoring and propelling the stark plot without making it linear. The score was modest, absorbing, and lush; sweeping gestures including bassoon, bass and alto sax, and double bass were punctuated by surprisingly prickly harp and a cello that echoed Walker’s emotional peaks. A stronger meter emphasized her obsessive details about clock mechanics, she dribbled soup from her spoon to a downward electronic sloop, and the instruments surged upwards during an exciting moment of thunder and lights. Still, the snippets of text painting were woven into something wider and more liquid. Aaron Likness on piano anchored the ensemble without dominating it; ICE was well balanced with tasteful digital music, live sound manipulation, and tightly controlled dramatic silences.

For a story about a convicted murderer in solitary confinement, The Echo Drift is surprisingly accessible and apolitical. The program notes explained that the opera explores the extreme between “the true nature of a person versus her better intentions,” and Walker’s sensory deprivation only augments the deep human needs she has always had. In this state, she invents a companion to both explore and resist her better self. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert gave an intelligent, mercurial performance of the struggle, but it was The Moth, spoken by performance artist John Kelly, who became the opera’s most transfixing and human character with wisdom, self-acceptance, and zing wit. “Your resident moth,” it calls itself as it teases, advises, and confronts its way through the libretto by Elle Kunnos de Voss and Kathryn Walat.

In their program notes, the co-creators write that opposing extremes such as physicality versus psychological, space versus place, and limitation versus eternity make multidimensional media necessary. What emerged from these intentions was an emphasized human nature and its need for companionship.  Walker has no stimuli for change, both denies and imposes limitations, and is an ambivalent murderer; The Echo Drift allowed her the complexity of unresolved extremes while suggesting that self-reliance is a destructive choice and change cannot happen in isolation. “That’s your choice,” rebukes The Moth. “That’s not survival.” Gaissert and Kelly fully embraced the sophisticated score and meta set, and The Echo Drift balanced an immersive multidimensional experience with a refreshing affirmation of human solidarity.

  • Lana Norris, I Care If You Listen January 26 2018

– I Care If You Listen

ESCAPIST (by Alexander Ekman) – Royal Swedish Ballet, 2019


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.

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.

  • Maggie Foyer, Seeing Dance April 11 2019

– Seeing Dance

ESCAPIST (by Alexander Ekman) – Royal Swedish Ballet, 2019


Play is a state in which the inner reality prevails over the outer. We play to learn about ourselves and the world around us – and at the same time forget about it for a while. To process pain and understand what it is to be human. The game is strongly linked to knowledge and creativity, and also requires construction, rules and roles, creative cooperation. Just like the performing arts.

Just like what Alexander Ekman does. Just play is a pronounced key word for this Swedish choreographer, raised in ballet and now a free artist with the world as his workplace. And as he plays. He can fill the stage floor with 8,000 liters of water as in “A swan lake” at the Oslo Opera 2014, with swirling hay as in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Stockholm Opera 2015, or with a sea of ​​40,000 green balls as in “Play” at the Paris Opera 2017. Above all he can fill it with a very large ensemble and make everyone play together, harmoniously and disobediently.

In this world premiere, he has 38 sharpened dancers in the Royal Ballet who together build multiple worlds and shape inner realities on the Royal Opera stage. In the commute between crowded mass scenes, neat duets and individual outbursts, “Escapist” captures a theme that was also seen in, for example, “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Is it possible to step out of context and stand next to the collective? Just being inside for a while? In “Escapist”, Ekman goes completely into the game and the dream. It looks like he, in the same way that David Lynch seems to be able to do on film, has taken screenshots of his own dreams and recreated them on stage.

To help with that, he mainly has two playmates. Permanent co-creator Mikael Karlsson, the Swedish New York-based composer who moves freely between art music, collaborations with artists such as Lykke Li and Anna von Hausswolff and the music for the computer game “Battlefield: Bad company”, opens secret doors with elusive sound mats, muscular beats, nightmare-like creaking and fine-tuned cello.

Danish fashion designer Henrik Vibskov, also cross-border in terms of fields of work and who collaborated with Ekman in, for example, “Cow” at Semperoper Dresden 2016, supports the commute between collective and individual. Black and white stripes form a strong graphic effect in the mass scenes and are broken by surrealistic surprises such as green swamp monsters or a gravity-contemptuous dress of red velvet sausages.
Some are recognizable from previous works in the Alexander Ekman universe. He has his tools and his signature, a powerful tone that fears neither entertainment nor intellectual pretensions. He uses his cinematic skill for strangely imperceptible scene changes, through movements, light and scenography – with a dynamic stage floor that is raised and lowered in parts.

Oscar Salomonsson has a perfectly dreamy expression in the title role as The Escapist, who thinks it is so nice with “the time between the times”, the moment when the inner reality takes over. In an efficiency- and measurability-fixed contemporary, “Escapist” is a fun, grand and beautiful defense of standing next to and thinking for yourself, of play, imagination and dream.

  • Maina Arvas, Dagens Nyheter, April 6 2019

– Dagens Nyheter

ESKAPIST & MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (by Alexander Ekman – online streaming videos of the two ballets on Marquee TV


Two dance works by the Swedish choreographer are visually stunning, meshing movement, theatre, design and music.

Alexander Ekman’s Eskapist (★★★★★) is a ballet that dives into the illusions conjured by one man’s imagination – nominally the eponymous Eskapist (Oscar Salomonsson), but really we’re looking at the fertile, roving mind of Ekman himself.

The Swedish choreographer is best known in the UK for a couple of clever, witty short works made for small companies around a decade ago (Cacti, Tuplet). But since then he’s been scaling up, choreographing for major European ballet companies, including two epic works for Royal Swedish Ballet: Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015) and Eskapist (2019). The latter especially capitalises on the scale and versatility of company and venue, a vast stage extended over the front stalls, on which Ekman offers a bombardment of fantastical images, realised with the help of Danish fashion designer Henrik Vibskov, who does a Mad Hatter’s couture party of eccentrically structured silhouettes. There are cone-headed women with plants growing out of their scalps, two men covered in grass, a stage full of Pharrell hats. There’s a man taking a shower in the middle of the stage, random vocal expulsions, curtains opening and closing, stages rising and falling. (This is a post-Pina Bausch, post-William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar world.)

Following someone else’s dreamlike tangent doesn’t always make for fulfilling viewing, but Ekman is engaging in his unpredictability. It helps that it’s so visually striking, but the randomness is at the service of a bigger idea. Ekman drops hints and motifs and meaning untangles then coalesces, with a short film channelling the mood of a Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman movie, a wide-eyed Salomonsson seeking to escape a mundane life by submitting completely to his own imaginary world.

And the dancing? It drifts from classical-ish ballet to a step that looks like the running man; bare feet to pointe shoes to crazy platforms. Ekman is less interested in establishing a choreographic style than the right atmosphere at each moment, in a total meshing of movement, design and music (by Mikael Karlsson).

Ekman also finds hypnotic pleasure in the company moving as one, creating a morphing momentum that’s seen to great effect in the opening of Midsummer Night’s Dream (★★★★☆), as the curtain rises on the dancers thrashing rhythmically in a golden wheat field. This midsummer night is not Shakespeare’s – although it shares some themes of intoxication, confusion and desire – but the annual Swedish festival where Ekman’s countrymen go all-out with the boozy celebrations (and the rolls in the hay are literal and metaphorical).

One Swedish tradition has it that if you put seven flowers under your pillow that night, you’ll dream of your future spouse. Dragoș Mihalcea’s central character, The Dreamer (another one!) does just that, and we find ourselves in his unconscious in the wee hours, a place of off-kilter senses, secrets and intimacies, and a flock of women wearing only pointe shoes, boyfriend shirts and just-got-out-of-bed hair. More than Mihalcea, though, the person around whom this show orbits is goth-art-pop singer Anna von Hausswolff, wandering through the scenes. She has a voice that sees your soul: rich, pure and soaring in Kate Bush swoops over another haunting score from Karlsson.

Both works are beautifully filmed with cinematic scope by director (and former dancer) Tommy Pascal, giving us grand sweep and fine detail and doing justice to Ekman’s audacious and compelling spectacle. There’s no one else in ballet making work quite like this.

These ballets are available to watch on Marquee TV, part of a series of five works by Ekman.”

  • Lyndsay Winship, The Guardian April 27 2020

– The Guardian

COW – Semperoper Dresden 2016


COW, a bombastic ballet by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman which premiered at Dresden’s extraordinary Semperoper, features twelve successive scenes that tickled our senses, rattled our funny bones, but challenged our perception of ourselves and our society.

As a prelude, a man in a business suit − the cow − bumbles onto the stage on all fours, his bottom pushed up high, his eyes blank and unengaged. He (Christian Bauch) tells us emphatically to expect the unexpected when the curtain opens. Soon enough, a cantankerous couple descends from the heights in a ‘cage’, both of them leveling stinging accusations at the other. Once down, however, their acid turns to honey. “I’ll love you forever,” they parry back and forth as the cage goes up again. Is this a ballet about the ups and downs of that marriage, then? Upstage, another dancer repeatedly catapults into a brick wall, slamming into the blockade again and again. While the detail is absurd, it stands for something we human beings often do: we blast against life’s obstacles one way or another.

What the program notes hail as “undiscovered creative ways” of approach to dance allude to the humour and slapstick prevalent in Ekman’s work. Admittedly, the work verges far from classical ballet seriousness. Yet the clowning points to various human attributes and sensitivities, whether tolerance, our approach to the arts, our reactions to conflict or perception of terror. The ‘stampede’ scene whose 30 dancers begin from the floor, rise in a frenzy and gyrate like dervishes as the amplified music escalates, is truly spectacular. It is at once utter joy, confusion, and visual delight. But we in the audience don’t get off lightly. Instead, we are asked to confront our own reactions, asked even to place judgment on what’s transpiring on stage. “Does this appeal to you?” is flashed on a screen. “Is his expressive enough?” The chance to assess a performance mid-stream is new to me, but makes me take part in the performance.

The ballet also made a case for the power of the crowd, a phenomenon not without its strong associations in Germany. If a single dancer set himself apart to begin a certain action − laughing loudly, popping the sound of an cork, stomping hard in wooden clogs on the stage floor − the others quickly picked up the action and magnified it 20-fold. While this was the herd of followers at its most innocent, the foreshadowing of group violence did not go unnoticed. Further, when ending the scenes, the dancers often just walked off stage casually, as if at a rehearsal. This casual approach to performance, the deflating of the theater’s pomp, implies these were just ordinary people who would be accountable for ordinary things.

Mikael Karlsson’s original score peaked the senses and ran a whole gamut of expression, even bringing sustained energy and humor to the choir of distorted “moos”. My only reservation about the music was that there wasn’t more of it; some segments had only the barest of accompaniment. The Steve Reich influence and Romantic quotations were palpable, but even more pervasive were the stardust and muscular beats of Karlsson’s own personal hand.

Highly commendable was Ekman’s staging, which derived terrific effects from the simplest of means. The reams of transparent white fabric raised above the stage to billow like clouds made a restful interlude. A video projection was also a key feature in the performance. Projected in the second half, the clip took us to the farm first, showing a real cow – “totally calm” and “completely natural”, no pretention, no mania, just “a cow among cows”. Then in one hilarious segment, the company’s dancers were seen herding on all fours through the labyrinth of corridors backstage in the opera house itself. Christian Bauch speaks of the herding instinct “that dancers know something about”. Witness the scene when the whole company – dressed in white, with skullcaps that cover wigs of acrylic neon orange hair – danced in one single line like the burlesque finale. There, the dancer is the master of compliance.

Not surprisingly, all the dancers − complete with their little black dresses and designer interiors − slowly fall into the belly of the stage and disappear at the end of the performance. The effect of Ekman’s COW, then, goes far beyond the parameters of dance; the ballet shows humankind for its incorrigible pettiness, contrariness, and nervous ineptitudes, an entity destined to go down. By contrast, it is the mindful cow that survives to look over the landscape, satisfied with little, and frontrunner all the same.

  • Sarah Batschelet, Bachtrack March 14 2016

– Bachtrack

THE ECHO DRIFT – Prototype Festival 2018


A one-act opera for two singers and small chamber ensemble, The Echo Drift did not need a large space to share its grand scale, and thrived at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. As with other productions at the fifth annual PROTOTYPE Festival, creative staging of small-scale operas and theater performances is part of the appeal, and this was no exception.

Blythe Gaissert robustly sang the part of Walker Loats, a female murderer in solitary confinement. Her cubicle was stunningly recreated by an open-sided, free standing cube that housed a bed, table, mechanical clock, and raised platform from which she sang out to the audience. The expanse of the prison itself was dramatically projected at various moments by black-and-white films of hand-drawn architectural renderings that flew by Loats’ cell, cleverly placing her three-dimensional environment into a two-dimensional perspective drawing. John Kelly performed the second role of Governor and Moth (as in, an insect), and also acted as stage hand. At times he turned Gaissert’s open cube to face different directions of the theater, fostering a visceral relationship between audience and performers.

The libretto, by Elle Kunnos de Voss and Kathryn Walat, evoked an unexpected blend of styles – think Ingmar Bergman meets The Matrix – while following a rather typical trope of how humans deal with isolation, the passage of time, and self-reflection. Though not groundbreaking in itself, the opportunity it provided for the score, composed by Mikael Karlsson, stole the show. Performed fluidly by the International Contemporary Ensemble under the baton of Nicholas DeMaison, The Echo Drift struck an admirable balance between evocative score and creative composition, and is easily worthy of a pure listen without the staging. Karlsson’s subtle but crucial electronic elements were particularly noteworthy, threading through the live performers with magnetic textures.

Much of the beautiful balance was due to DeMaison’s unwavering ability to connect singers, staging, film, and score. No one sound was either overbearing or too weak – singers and musicians alike made this small chamber opera a grand production.

  • Daniele Sahr, Seen and Heard International January 23 2018

– Seen and Heard International