by Maggie Foyer

Dance companies founded by choreographer/directors often face succession issues: consider the Martha Graham Dance Company or Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Cullberg Ballet, founded by the iconic Swedish choreographer Birgit Cullberg, had an heir apparent in her son, Mats Ek, ready, willing and able, who led the company from 1985 to 1993. However, since then the company has had a bumpy ride. Despite a number of successful works, notably from Johan Inger, director from 2003 to 2008, Cullberg Ballet has struggled to carve a new identity.

Current director Gabriel Smeet, who took the helm last May, is an interesting choice. His academic education is in visual arts and journalism, while his most recent post was artistic director of the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam. We will have to wait until next season to see which direction he chooses for the company.

Meanwhile, the commission (by the former director Anna Grip) of a work from  Canadian Édouard Lock was warmly welcomed by Dansens Hus’ audience members in Stockholm last November, who were perhaps delighted to find that Cullberg dancers can still dance (as a friend enthused).

I imagine if Damon Runyon, the writer of racy New York tales, had chosen to be a choreographer, he would have created a work like Lock’s 11th Floor. It has the same rapid-fire repartee and sharp put-downs, and the characters are unequivocally guys or dolls and all are larger than life.

In the brief opening clips, Lock’s choreography adapts neatly to the film noir concept where speedy delivery counts. On the darkened stage, a spotlight reveals a dancer, her arms flickering like a hummingbird’s wings as she semaphores her message of desire before melting into the darkness as the spotlight picks out the next dancer. Their legs speak in the same rapid staccato tones, occasionally contrasted with a sensual move, but the bodies remain taut. The tension is maintained and the limited range of movement is amply compensated by Lock’s mastery of structure, although at 40 minutes, some editing down might have been beneficial.

The costumes by Ulrika van Gelder — men in suits and women in tight-fitting, little black dresses complemented by skinny heels — help deliver the look: the sassy pose and the strut. The dancers are tremendous, getting under the skin of the characters and revelling in the intense choreography. The storyline moves into duets and ensembles as men and women size up and pair off with an edgy trio of two men and a woman ringing the changes. The women en masse were particularly formidable, a fierce and volatile ensemble. And the work naturally culminates in the inevitable crime passionnel.

Gavin Bryars’ evocative score creates the smoky atmosphere, pungent with testosterone and cheap perfume. The lugubrious notes oil the movements and the four splendid onstage musicians become partners in the work. Bryars has written extensively for dance, including several works for Lock, but here he takes a less travelled route and heads for the jazz club, proving his equal mastery in this medium. 11th Floor proved a winning fusion of dance, music and concept.

Most dancers have an affinity with music and many would like to play to professional standards. In Tones & Bones, by Sweden’s Stina Nyberg, Cullberg Ballet took the plunge and became both orchestra and dancers. Sadly, this proved a mistake. In the press release, Nyberg states that she consciously questions “ideas about quality and professionalism.” The audience were likewise left questioning these issues.

The improvised movement of the dancers, who made a conscious choice to reject any flow or synchronisation, resulted in a crazy patchwork of jerks and thrusts accompanied by the banging of drums and whoops into the microphone. Nyberg’s concept of “hierarchies between music and dance” is not one I would subscribe to, but it may well have mileage for studio exploration. However, like all concepts, it needs rigorous and thorough inquiry before it is ready to claim the attention of an audience. Some things are more fun to do than to watch, and this was one of them.

Cullberg Ballet was founded as a platform for cutting-edge dance and new expression, and the need to challenge boundaries remains. Sweden is fortunate in having a comparatively comfortable level of arts subsidy, but the added dimension of the audience in performance art cannot be
ignored if dance is to flourish.

Alexandra Campbell of Cullberg Ballet in Édouard Lock’s 11th Floor Photo: Édouard Lock

DI Spring 2015