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The young Mats Ek did not particularly want to be a dancer. Instead, he took drama classes at Marieborg College in Norrkoping, Sweden, in 1965. He went on to produce plays and even worked with the legendary film and theatre director Ingmar Bergman during this time. However, his childhood ballet classes weren't completely lost on him.
Ek was born in Malmo, Sweden. As the son of acclaimed choreographer Birgit Cullberg, dance was part of his life from the beginning. In his youth, Ek trained with Russian émigré Lilian Karina and later with Donya Feuer. After his foray into theatre, he joined the Cullberg Ballet in 1973 as a dancer, where he learned choreography from Maurice Béjart and Jirí Kylián.
Ek choreographed several works over the next few years, including Saint George and the Dragon (1976) and Antigone (1979). In 1982, he reinterpreted the classic ballet Giselle and presented the public with a radically different work. Although other choreographers had revisited this classic, no one had ever altered the form and text upon which the ballet was founded. Ek's Giselle was a contemporary version that used almost nothing of the old ballet's structure, technique or style. Critics called it the beginning of a new epoch in dance.
Ek became artistic director of the Cullberg Ballet in 1985. He produced more revisionist versions of classics, including Swan Lake (1987) and Carmen (1992). As well, he created his own works, which typically involve the use of parallel narratives and humour. In 1993, Ek resigned his post, but continued to create new works that are performed worldwide. Ek has created for the Hamburg Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Paris Opera and Les Grands Ballet Canadien de Montréal. His ballets have been adapted for television.