Thoroughly Thrilling Movement

"Figure a Sea" shows Oct. 22-23 at Zellerbach Hall.


"Figure a Sea" may look improvised, but it is highly choreographed.

© Urban Jörén

To team up the Swedish Cullberg Ballet with the American Deborah Hay may result in one of the most mesmerizing dance events this season. Hay, one of the leading lights of the Judson Dance Theater and most idiosyncratic thinkers and practitioners of contemporary dance, is choreographing Figure a Sea on Cullberg Ballet. It is about as unlikely and, therefore, thrilling match that one can think of.

Cullberg Ballet, founded by modern dancer Birgit Cullberg, shocked audiences with highly dramatic, sexually explicit works in the early 1970s; the company stayed a family enterprise—her son is choreographer Mats Ek—for many years.

But lately they have commissioned younger international choreographers, so their reaching out to one of the elders of 20th-century American dance and an instigator of postmodern dance must have been an unusual decision. Over the years, Hay seems to have become even more committed to offering dancers—and people—the ability to free themselves of ingrained habits of being. As she sees it, the body is the place where experiments can take place. That’s where you can ask questions that open a myriad unknown possibilities—whether that be in dance or in life. If this thinking sounds somewhat abstruse, her own practice has illustrated her ideas.

She is best known as performer of solos in which every moment is so crystalline that you can almost touch it, yet the whole piece remains as evanescent as air and can never be seen again. Cullberg dancer Samuel Draper describes Hay’s process: “We work at lot with suggestions and directions from Deborah. Those instructions actually throw you back into yourself. It’s almost like a ledge and jumping off the ledge; you jump back into yourself.”

Figure a Sea is the largest piece—60 minutes for 21 dancers—that Hay has choreographed in many years. It gets its title from Hay’s wanting everything on stage to be fluid—like waves—in terms of space, time, and the individual. It may look improvised, but nothing happens by chance. Joining the dancers is musician/performer Laurie Anderson.

Cullberg Ballet, Figure a Sea, Oct. 22-23; Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, $18-86, 510-642-9988,

This report was published in the October edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Oct. 18, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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