Cullberg Ballet performs ethereal, electric ‘Figure a Sea’

Figure a Sea Deborah HayCullbergbalettenDansare : Unn Faleide, Eleanor Campbell, Samuel Draper
Urban Joren/Courtesy

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There’s a vision set in traditional dance performances: lithe bodies in costumes, moving to melodious music, conveying some overarching message or plot line. We anticipate a certain kind of graceful carriage, glittering tutus and sumptuous sets, with a story that will be visually performed through the emotions on the faces of the dancers.

But what happens when these assumptions are completely overturned, when dance becomes not just an emotional but also a cerebral exercise, one that provokes questions and self-reflections rather than fulfilling linear expectations? On Oct. 23, the Cullberg Ballet’s performance of Deborah Hay’s “Figure a Sea” provided a possible answer.

Founded in Sweden in 1967 by choreographer Birgit Cullberg, the Cullberg Ballet has since become one of the world’s leading innovators in contemporary dance. The ballet worked with American dancer, choreographer and author Deborah Hay for the production of “Figure a Sea” in doing so, it became the first European dance company to commission a work from the renowned artist.

Hay describes “Figure a Sea” as a “meditation on seeing” and a space “for self-reflection: for seeing oneself seeing,” building upon her recently proposed directive to “turn your f**cking head”. She explained these enigmatic concepts in an introductory talk entitled “a continuity of discontinuity.”

In her lecture, Hay described the three phrases from which she drew inspiration for her creative process —  the “continuity of continuity,” “discontinuity of continuity” and “continuity of discontinuity” — and how exploring the meaning behind each led her to understand her own limitations and to embrace risk taking.

Much of Hay’s current creative process developed during her time spent in a Vermont “hippie commune,” an experience that Hay claimed changed the “chemistry of her mind” and caused her to realize the sensuality of her “cellular body.” She recalled one moment when, after looking at the horizon, she asked herself why the space all around her was not also considered “sky.” Moving away from what she thought about her own body, Hay strove to enlarge the experience of perception.

Hay’s particular cellular consciousness was readily apparent in the dynamic, morphing formations of the dancers in the 60 minute-long “Figure a Sea.” During the changeover from Hay’s talk to the piece itself, all 20 dancers emerged onstage, clad in varying shades of navy blue, periwinkle and gray, and engaged in a sequence of angular yet gentle motions and twists. Slowly, the house lights went dim as a rectangular, fluorescent light onstage began to radiate and the transition was complete.

The score for the piece, composed by Laurie Anderson, was minimalistic and, at times, eerily ethereal, providing an ideal backdrop for the performers that did not distract from their movements, but rather enhanced and expanded the creative possibilities for each lunge or leap.

The choreography was intensely stimulating on a visual level, hovering somewhere between organic improvisation and defined choreography, especially in moments of frantic gesture or of acute stillness. Hay’s aim to show a “multiplicity of experiences” — that there is not a singular, coherent being that dances — was manifest in the dancers’ frenzied bouncing and reverberations.

They mirrored and mimicked one another’s steps, gaze and expressions, pressing and clinging desperately to each others’ bodies. In instances of total silence, they fluttered and flurried. Arabesques or pirouettes reminiscent of classical ballet were quickly subverted and metamorphosed into introspective isolations or bold contractions.

Others moved alone in the corners or wings of the stage, curtains removed to enlarge the space for the performers and invite the audience’s gaze beyond the center of the floor.

It was nearly impossible to know what to pay attention to; that was, perhaps, precisely Hay’s point. This was dance at its most self aware, dance that contemplated its existence, recognized the passage of time and reimagined space, while brazenly engaging the viewer to do the same — and the effect was purely electrifying.

Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected].