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Cullberg Ballet - 'Out of Breath,' 'Solo for Two,' 'A Sort Of'

With baited breath

by Mary Ellen Hunt

October 14, 2004 -- San Francisco Performances, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Last Wednesday, Sweden's Cullberg Ballet was wondering what they could do without the sets and costumes for their mixed repertory program, scheduled to open at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Thursday night as part of the San Francisco Performances season. Like the Lyon Opera Ballet, who had to rig a couple of last-minute program changes when some of their sets were lost on the first leg of their US tour, Cullberg was forced by circumstance to weigh their options.

As the dancers waited to hear whether or not everything would arrive in time, they explained that, unlike the Lyon Opera Ballet, they could not replace any of the pieces on the program. Nor -- as would be abundantly clear on seeing the show -- was there any conceivable way to perform without their sets. In the Cullberg's program, dance, costumes, props and sets are inextricably, beautifully integrated with the concept and execution.

Under the direction of founder Birgit Cullberg and then later her son, Mats Ek, this innovative company is one of only a handful that has been able to meld theater and dance in such a satisfying way. With Johann Inger at the helm since last year, the company remains one of the most innovative and freshest of modern troupes, showing us how good dancing can be and how deep choreography can go.

Ek's stamp on this company of twenty remarkable performers can be clearly seen in all three of the works on the program. His ballets require a degree of physical honesty and emotional nakedness that can be more than people on either side of the proscenium can deal with, and in the 1996 "Solo for Two" the thirty seconds of total nudity is nothing compared to the twenty three minutes of emotional exposure for company veterans Gunilla Hammar and Boaz Cohen.

Appearing and disappearing in the square doorway punched out in the long grey wall of a set, they evince new emotional states from moment to moment. Like a caged monkey in blue pajamas- hanging from the doorway, springing across the stage, cowering in a corner -- Cohen paints his character with broad, assured strokes. Hammar, in a loose grey dress, peeks above the wall, and then onstage, she seems softer -- perhaps a little less insane, but no less effective -- and their duet, tentative at first, has the visceral fascination of two animals encountering one another for the first time.

They strip naked facing each other while the wall shivers and pounds behind them. It's a deeply affecting moment, and when they dress -- this time in each others' clothing, an internal shift of tectonic proportions has obviously taken place. Cohen writhes on a black slug- shaped mound downstage, Hammar dances a solo -- and we wonder, have they changed personalities, or is it we, the audience, who have changed in our perceptions?

Ek created the duet, originally titled "Smoke," for Sylvia Guillem's video project, "Evidentia" (available, unfortunately, only in Europe) but in revamping it, he has transferred it to the stage seamlessly. Hammar and Cohen give a spine-tingling performance that reveals the parts of ourselves which we all try so hard to keep hidden and tamed under manners and civility. They are curious, vulgar, ashamed, sensual, frightened -- filled with peripatetic internal monologues, like all of us.

The internal is also on display in Ek's "A Sort Of," of which Ek says, "A man wakes up - or does he fall asleep? He enters a journey into a deepending space where various actions appear. Into "A Sort Of reality" -or is it a dream? Afterwards he is different."

Describing the Magritte-like, multi-layered surrealist scene, played out to Henryk Gorecki's music, would be nigh-on impossible. Elements are destined to remain parked in a dark corner of my brain forevermore - Mats Jansson, in a pink princess coat and Mary Jane flats, folding Johanna Lindh into a suitcase and taking her through the slim doorway in a yellow wall; a line of a dozen or so heads and one balloon poking above a segmented blue fence; a tender duet for Carl Inger and Vanessa de Ligniere; a violent, disturbing chase for the whole company. In the end Jansson curls up on the floor, snoring peacefully, and I couldn't help thinking, "Oh, sure, but the REST of us aren't going to get any sleep tonight."

An undercurrent of menace also runs through Inger's stark "Out of Breath," which opens the program. Set to music by Jacob ter Veldhuis, as well as Hungarian folk tunes, "Out of Breath" admirably shows off the wide, rangy and yet fast and specific movement of the six dancers. The men-- Christopher Akrill, Eytan Sivak and an elegantly bold Shintaro O-ue -- have a distinctive sharp percussive attack, but the women - Carolina Armenta, Yamit Kalef and Izumi Shuto -- move with the startling, grounded fearlessness that has always set this company apart from others.

Struggles and encounters sprout all around the large grey wedge which dominates the centerstage, culminating in a beautiful last picture of Armenta perched atop the wedge, glancing back at Sivak with a mix of emotions on her face that seem to perfectly encapsulate the feelings I had upon the end of the show - immense satisfaction at the range of experiences we'd all just been though, a kind of wrung out exhaustion, but ultimately, regret that it was over and what we were leaving behind us in the theater. t

Edited by Jeff.

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