After performances of Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, artistic director Gabriel Smeets will often overhear audience members saying, “Is this dance? I didn’t see technique,” which he finds thrilling. The former Dutch journalist and former director of Amsterdam’s School for New Dance Development, Smeets’s goal is to stretch the boundaries of what dance can do. That means that he frequently confuses or surprises his audience, and that’s OK. “That’s what we do at Cullberg,” he said over the phone. “We always want to have new repertoire. We want to have work by living choreographers. A lot of companies have repertoire that was created long before. We want to have work that is created in the here and now. It is connected to the philosophy of our founder, Birgit Cullberg, that dance is changing all the time because it’s connected to the times we’re living in. Dance isn’t for me one dance technique or style but connected to what is happening. And I think the choreographers we are working with have a very specific physical practice and have a way to connect dance with what they have to say.”
Next month, Cullberg Ballet will present two very different programs during the Israel Festival. The first is Figure A Sea, by legendary American choreographer and performance artist Deborah Hay. The second, is Protagonist, by Dutch-Swedish choreographer Jefta Van Dinther. One artist is in her 70s, the other in his 30s.
“Figure A Sea by Deborah Hay is a piece for all of our dancers, so you have 17 dancers on stage. This is really coming from Deborah Hay’s practice, which is all about perception and change. You will see a huge group of dancers so you can focus on a forest or a tree where you can look at every leaf. This is perhaps more of an abstract work. It is danced to beautiful music by Laurie Anderson,” he explained.
Hay, 78, was one of the founders of the iconic Judson Dance Theater in New York City. Though she began her career among ensembles, she quickly broke off to create her own works, many of which have been solos. Her creations have won her prestigious awards around the globe, including a Bessie Award for her quartet The Match.
HAY WAS never wrapped into a large dance organization, and though she received funding to make her dances, had not experienced the type of grandeur that a company like Cullberg provides.
“It was amazing to see what Deborah could do with this range and these resources. She has been working all the time as an independent choreographer. Suddenly, she’s in this machinery with the lighting designer sitting with her from day one. She has amazing dancers with her. She has nine weeks. To see the artistic scale and what it can give to an artist. Like an artist that is working on a one-meter canvas that suddenly can work on a huge canvas. It was nice to see how good it is that there are companies that can share their resources with these artists. That’s what we should do. We do it not just for us but also for the art form,” said Smeets.
Protagonist will show off a wholly different side of the Cullberg cast.
Van Dinther is a staple in the elite European festival scene. His work is regularly presented at such prestigious theaters as London’s Sadler’s Wells, Vienna’s Tanzquartier and Paris’s George Pompidou Center. His works are cutting, physical and spirited.
“Protagonist is connected to the times were living in, to revolution and evolution. A group of people are looking for how they can be together. They don’t manage, so they have a revolution. And they go back to a way of being. Here we have more music that is electro, related to the Berlin club life, which is almost the opposite of what we have the day before,” explained Smeets.
Whether audience members choose to see Figure A Sea, Protagonist or both, they will observe a company that strives not to uphold historical works as much as it aims to sustain an old, yet revolutionary approach to the art form, one that puts innovation before categories and asks its audience to consider broadening its perception of the possibilities of dance.
“I think that dance can fight for more freedom and stretch the borders of what this art form is. We can go beyond the borders of technique and find what dance can say.”
Cullberg Ballet will perform Figure A Sea on June 5 and Protagonist on June 6 at the Jerusalem Theater. For more information, go to Israel-festival.org.