The Cullberg Ballet celebrating 50 years
In 1967 a new dance company was founded in Sweden. For many in the arts world, it was clear right from the start that with the Cullberg Ballet Sweden had gained a new cultural ambassador about to dance off into the wider world.
The new company’s artistic director, choreographer and dancer, 59-year-old Birgit Cullberg, was after all, already a world-famous name. Not least because of her 1950 version of August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie that would be performed over 1,000 times in the following decades. These performances included the US premiere – that was given an incredibly enthusiastic reception – at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1958. One enchanted critic in the Daily News enthusiastically called it the most interesting ballet production he’d seen for years.
The international focus of the Cullberg Ballet was also clear from the start, with eight leading dancers from Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, the US and the then-Yugoslavia. Choreographers from all around the world were invited in and the ensemble’s innovative storytelling, epic dancing and fresh interpretations of classics quickly inspired many other companies.
One of the key characteristics of the Cullberg Ballet was its creative and original combination of classical ballet and contemporary dance. Pointe technique from traditional ballet was contrasted with more earthly steps, with the whole of the foot on the stage floor. Audiences also fell for the political elements in Birgit Cullberg’s productions. Similarly, her shows were often personal. She dissected her divorce on stage in Medea.
‘Dare to take risks, that was an important part of Birgit Cullberg’s philosophy’
Success after success came quickly. In 1969, just two years after launching, the Cullberg Ballet was awarded a gold medal as the leading foreign ballet company at the Paris Autumn Festival.
Then, in 1979, Cullberg’s 27-year-old son Mats Ek was recruited as a dancer. Although Ek himself described the appointment as nepotistic, the Ballet had been hit by resignations, and even though he was not the most skilled dancer, he performed several roles. It proved to be a pivotal appointment.
A couple of years later, Ek made his debut as a choreographer and in 1982 his staging of Giselle drew huge critical acclaim. It has since been danced in 28 countries worldwide. The New York Times wrote that at his best Mats Ek is absolutely outrageous.
Giselle was followed a few years later by another spectacular success, Ek’s pioneering interpretation of Swan Lake. As with many of his productions, its staging was controversial, verging on the objectionable, in terms of the gender roles and beauty and how it turned this classic ballet from 1841 on its head. “Classic ballet’s take on humans is putrid and petrified in its perception of social patterns and of what’s masculine and feminine,” Ek said in an interview after the opening night.
In the mid 1980s Ek took over the mantle of artistic director from his mother. He continued with her agenda of producing narrative dance dramas that combined political and social engagement and new interpretations of classics. Although his productions were unique, the fact that they were based on famous titles such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Carmen meant that it was easier to market the company abroad.
And traveling has become one of the hallmarks of the company. The group has visited over 40 countries and danced on stages in some 150 cities. They have been called Sweden’s foremost cultural export and been compared with giants such as Strindberg and Abba. The only continent they – remarkably enough – have not yet danced in is Africa.
Ek resigned as artistic director in 1993. Since then, a number of artistic directors, with different directions and degrees of popularity, have held the reins.
Some dissatisfied ballet lovers sometimes complain that the Cullberg Ballet is not what it used to be. Audiences miss the works of Cullberg and Ek and the narrative dance drama that has gradually been superseded by more conceptual dance. But the detractors are mostly in Sweden. Outside its home country, when the group tours with productions such as American choreographer Deborah Hay’s acclaimed Figure a Sea, this is far less the case.
When current artistic director Gabriel Smeets, from the Netherlands, was appointed in 2014, he promised that the Cullberg Ballet would retain its position as one of the most important companies on the international dance scene. For him, what’s most important about Birgit Cullberg’s heritage is not her choreography, which is never staged today, but her philosophy.
“I would never have accepted this job if it hadn’t been for her take on dance and her incredibly strong belief that dance is changing all the time and should be rooted in the time we live in,” Smeets says. “By doing this, we’re keeping Birgit’s heritage alive. Plus, it’s the only way for the company to survive.”
The biggest challenges facing the company moving forward, are, according to Smeets, about finding choreographers who have clear ideas as to what dance as an art form can do and who are hugely enthusiastic about the age we’re living in. “And who dare to take risks, that was also an important part of Birgit Cullberg’s philosophy.”
The Cullberg Ballet was clearly forward-looking from the very start and renewal has always been the guiding light and the very recipe for success. And even though the Cullberg Ballet has had its ups and downs over the half century of its existence, the company has managed to maintain its strong brand in both Sweden and internationally, while other companies have been forced to give up and close in the same period.
After the opening night of Swedish star choreographer Alexander Ekman’s production Ekman’s Triptych – A Study of Entertainment in 2010, a critic in the Swedish broadsheet Dagens Nyheter wrote (appreciatively): “It’s pretty much impossible today to recognize the company as it was in the 1980s and 90s. The Cullberg Ballet is dead. Long live the Cullberg Ballet.”
Text: Lina Kalmteg