Small stage, Dansenshus (Dance House), Stockholm; May 23, 2015
As Mats Ek announced his farewell as a choreographer on the main stage at Dansenshus, in the studio theatre, a new programme was in preparation from Cullberg Ballet, the company founded by Ek’s mother, Birgit Cullberg and directed by him from 1985 to 1993. Under current director Gabriel Smeets the company has seen a change of direction and seems to be retreating to an ivory tower of conceptual isolation.
The two works, both commissions for the company, were The Return of the Modern Dance from Trajal Harrell and Eszter Salamon’s Reproductions. Guidance can be useful in understanding new works but between the programme notes, Smeets’ introductory talk and the representations of stage there were mixed messages and much gender confusion. He gave a potted history, stating that modern dance was invented in American by a group of women. This gave dancers, for the first time, the freedom to express their individuality while espousing the values of freedom, democracy and liberation of women – good to know if not entirely accurate. However the performance was an all-male affair excluding women.
Smeets made a plea that audiences should accept conceptual dance with the same enthusiasm that galleries have embraced conceptual art. Of course, in a gallery, you have the choice to walk on by when the concept has no appeal for you, whereas dance as performance art constrains the audience in neat rows for the duration, no matter how unappealing the subject matter.
Smeets states that he admired Cullberg’s desire to be relevant and also her radical thinking but it was difficult to locate these values in the performance. By contrast much conceptual art does make a powerful social comment. For example, the installation project ID: Journey Through a Solid Sea (2002) from Italian collective, Multiplicity, highlighted the tragedy of migrants drowned off Lampedusa while Steve McQueen’s installation Western Deep underscored the exploitation of labour on the South African goldmines. Dance rarely makes such a positive statement.
Salamon’s work, a very long 70 minutes, merely showed the banality of commercialised sex. Played mostly in silence eight fashionably bearded, fully dressed men clung together in pairs doing approximations of positions from the Kama Sutra. They returned in drag in a stereotyped parody of women. Bewigged, wearing extreme heels and heavy make-up they splayed their legs, licked their lips and leered at the audience for the last half hour.
There are various possible responses. ‘Reader-response criticism’ popular in early feminist theory suggests any valid meaning must arises from the experience of the viewer. Salamon’s work could also be analysed from a symptomatic interpretation which accepts the triviality of the representation on stage but searches for a sub-text of deeper, hidden importance. Neither approach persuaded me that it was anything other than irritating and self-indulgent.
In both works the auditorium lights were raised some of the time so the spectator’s gaze is compounded by the object of that gaze: the dancers, who returns the scrutiny. All very esoteric. Trajal Harrell’s The Return of Modern Dance, opens with a dancer repeating the ‘dance history’ before the dancers get down to some action and, taking turns on a designated mat, shuffle round undulating arms in warm sensual movements. Martha Graham was briefly referenced by a man sitting with a shawl draped over his head and striking the iconic pose from Lamentation. In the final scene the men return wearing skirts and now walk on demi-point which could be interpreted as liberation from technical restrictions and a move towards
self-expression, or maybe not.
On leaving, the grumpy man behind me commented that Cullberg’s subsidy would be better given to a deserving charity. I was inclined to agree. We live in perilous times as politicians are all too keen to cut subsidies for the arts even in wealthy countries like Sweden. Cullberg, always a touring company, had a proud reputation for taking dance that was innovative and engaging out to the Swedish and international public. But now, Cullberg seem to speaking more and more to an elite intelligentsia, an enclosed order unconnected with the real world while ignoring the ordinary intelligent public and, dare I say it, dance lovers.