writers on dancing


Cullberg Ballet After Ek

Cullberg Ballet
Solos for Two, A Sort of, Out of Breath
San Francisco Performances
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
October 14, 2004

By Rita Felciano
copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano

If the “what” would have been as thrilling as the “how”, one would plead for a quick return engagement of the Cullberg Ballet. As it is, the company’s second local appearance, and the only one in the country this year, left one full of admiration for these extraordinary dancers and not a few questions about programming and the future of this well-established Swedish company. In 2002 the Cullberg debuted here with Mats Ek’s quick-witted but ultimately tedious “Swan Lake.”

In addition to two Ek pieces from the 90’s, “Solos for Two” (1996) and “A Sort of” (1997), Cullberg’s triple bill also included the 2002 “Out of Breath”. The company’s current Artistic Director Johan Inger choreographed the latter for Nederlands Dance Theater, the company he danced in during the 80’s. Mr. Ek, the son of company founder Birgit Cullberg and a choreographer with a strong international following, was Cullberg’s artistic director from 1985-1993. Given the fact that Mr. Inger’s vocabulary—fierce attacks, superclean execution and high velocity—seems in many way so similar to his predecessor’s at Cullberg, it might have been illustrative to have a more varied program. This set up seemed to speak of more-of-the-same rather than an injection of the kind of freshness that one would hope for in new, still fairly young artistic director.

Of the three works, the smallest in terms of casting, made the strongest impact. “Solo” is a very good exploration of the ever popular theme of relationships. This one is going nowhere despite their actors best efforts which include a willingness to exchange identities—wearing each other’s clothes—and stripping themselves bare, in a quasi-nude scene. The set includes a plain wall with a small door going into darkness and some, because of their height, practically unclimbable steps. Downstage lies a mysteriously glinting oval object not unlike a whale’s back barely emerged from the deep. At one point the two-would be partners try to balance themselves on it to stay afloat.

Gunilla Hammar and Boaz Cohen storm through their short-circuited encounters with unflappable commitment “to the process”, some real tenderness and, at times, a much welcome sense of humor. From the instan tMs. Hammar sticks her arm through the door like a teasing stripper and interrupts Mr. Cohen’s galumphing, you realize that these partners are up to each others game. She bangs her head against the wall in a tantrum; he mock-pees into a corner. He blusters up the steps, she let’s her fingers do the walking. They turn each other upside down; they try to shake something out the other’s well-shaped body. He grabs her face, she swims away. At one point, Cohen even imitates the violin in one of the three sentimental Arvo Part scores which provide such a deliciously ironic commentary to this in fact perfectly matched couple.

The conceit for Mr. Ek’s second work, “A Sort of,” is a dream into which Mats Jansson, in a woman’s bathrobe, steps when he grabs the business suited Johanna Lindh. She popped out of the orchestra pit like an apparition. Innocent as she looks, her tiny humpback, however, spells trouble. Mr. Jansson’s first reaction after their initial pas de deux is to pack her away in a suitcase. Not a good idea. Not only is it politically incorrect, you are also supposed to confront your dreams, not suppress them. So it comes as no surprise when havoc erupts into a topsy-turvy madcapness that at times, however, seems overly clever. The sixteen member, excitingly danced piece, is chokeful of gestures—Mr. Ek loves finger language--and movement ideas that impress their fierce playfulness on us. But some of its circus humor—the popping of balloon breasts, bellies and buttocks, the bobbing heads, the toppling domino gestures, the scaling and falling over the wall—wears quite rapidly.

The work’s most interesting aspect stems from its dark underbelly. There is something of a witches' Sabbath about “A Sort Of” which rises to full force with the introduction of Henryk Gorecki’s fiercely percussive Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra (though Lucinda Childs used that hellish score much more subtly in her “Concerto”). A clueless, but slugging prize fighter intrudes. A solemn, black clad preacher, straight out of a Bergman movie, walks across the back. The prim little hats of the wide-hipped churchgoing ladies give way to gapingly forced mouths. They look like souls crying for relief. A momentary aerie silence does not seem to be noticed by these self-absorbed Vitus dancers. “A Sort Of” is a sometimes absorbing work by a choreographer who has seen a lot of dance.

The opener, Mr. Inger’s sextet, “Out of Breath”, introduced to Bay Area audiences—as far as I know—this up-and-coming Jiri Kylian protégé, and now head of what is still Sweden’s best known modern dance company. The short, but much welcome program notes tell us that this is a piece “about people nervously searching for their place in life.” It’s a place, the piece seems to tells us that despite the fleeting connections people make with each other, is essentially a lonely one.

Some of the work’s most affecting moments arrive in stillness when dancers stop in their track. Running around a circle, or clawed fingers scratching an invisible wall are key motifs. But here they simply stand and look up, or away into the distance. There is something ineffably sad about the sparseness of these poses, even when they accumulate, suggesting something like commonality.

But Mr. Inger is wary of alienation. He much prefers to show his seekers, if this is what they are, involved in a robustly physical and even joyful exploration of themselves and each other. He has them precariously skate across thin ice. They balance themselves on a partner’s supine back as he turns like a clock. They sit on each others butt or trample through the air like an obstreperous kid. A woman pushes away from the proscenium arch to momentarily enter another’s path only to spin off into her own trajectory.

A curved wall, which at one point shifts position by the touch of one dancer’s finger, serves as a kind of hiding place and obstacle course. You can climb it, balance on it, jump from it and play hide and seek behind it much the way you play tag in front. Music by Felix Lajko and Jacob ter Veldhuis provided the sound for this pleasant but rather bland introduction of Mr. Inger.
Volume 2, No. 39
October 18, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano


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last updated on October 4, 2004