"Cheeky effervescence, irrepressible energy and beguiling wit" - there was nothing prickly about dance reviewer Bernadette Rae's description of Cacti, one of three dances that enchanted audiences during the Royal NZ Ballet's 2016 Speed of Light tour.

It's no wonder the RNZB wanted Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman back on its bill sooner rather than later. Describing his work as offering an antidote to everyday worries and a chance to laugh out loud, now the RNZB delivers Ekman times three.

His Cacti, Tuplet and Episode 31, accompanied by poetry, body percussion, intriguing rhythms and the NZ String Quartet playing live, form Three by Ekman. The RNZB is the first in the world to present the works together.

In addition, there's dramatic lighting, ever-changing costumes, over-sized cacti and even a dead cat (more on that later). RNZB artistic director Francesco Ventriglia describes them as ballet that everybody can enjoy. For dancer Georgia Powley, these works make her feel "fantastic".

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"Ekman is an amazing choreographer, very musical, very creative," Powley says.
"His movement is incredibly detailed and challenging but is a lot of fun to perform. It's not just the steps and the rhythms and all the tiny details, it's about the person you are while you are performing.

"You get to throw yourself totally into everything you do. You have to keep pushing yourself all the time but it feels fantastic. The rhythms and patterns are strong and you can feel them as you dance."

Episode 31 brings the big city energy of New York, where it was first created.
It's upbeat, unpredictable and, at times, zany yet also has dreamlike periods of calm.
Along with music and song, there are snatches of children's poems by the likes of Christina Rossetti, Eleanor Farjeon and Edward Lear.

Tuplet is a more intimate work with just six dancers. Only 20 minutes long, it asks what life would be without rhythm and where and how we find this. There's an astonishing array of dance moves, from solo to full group, sometimes set against a slowed-down, black-and-white silent movie of jazz musicians, sometimes in silhouette.

The dancers contribute body percussion and other live sounds, and respond in eccentric and sometimes bizarre ways to cues in an electronic score which incorporates Bart Howard's Fly Me to the Moon sung by Victor Feldman.

Cacti, the most popular and most performed of Ekman's 40 or so dances, is something of a contemporary classic, already in the repertoire of 18 international ballet companies and, as seen last year, a hit in New Zealand, too.

Sixteen dancers get their own one-metre-square floor tile and neatly potted over sized cactus. Wearing sleek, form-fitting costumes, they present an inventive array of the most extraordinarily detailed movements you're ever likely to see at the ballet. Along with gasps, shouts, percussive slaps and pounding of fists against the tiles, there also a duet accompanied by an amusing voiceover conversation.

And there's that dead cat. No cats were harmed during the making of the ballet, with a model serving as a metaphor for a relationship break-up.

The NZ String Quartet play live for Cacti, moving through the dancers while they perform a series of excerpts and fragments from Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven.

"Cacti is very theatrical and dramatic," says cellist Rolf Gjelsten. "It is a surreal drama that we are all involved in; some weird ritualistic pagan worship with very humorous moments and very banal moments, at once both playful and profound."

What: The Royal NZ Ballet present Three by Ekman (Cacti, Tuplet, Episode 31)
Where and when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, May 24-June 1