Age on Stage

Nancy Westman*

Age on Stage started in Sweden in 2015, in order to allow mature professional dance artists to carry on their careers for as long as they wish. Charlotta Öfverholm is the woman behind the project. She and Age on Stage are now joining forces, in Sweden as well as in other parts of the world, with dance artists sharing her credo: age is an asset, not a stumbling block, for dancers. The dance world as well as audiences around the globe are all winners because of this changing mindset.  
Keywords: Charlotta Öfverholm, Age on Stage, Mats Ek, Sonia York-Pryce, Cullberg Ballet

When the project Age on Stage was launched in Stockholm in 2015, its focus and scope attracted much interest from the global dance field. Started by Swedish dancer and choreographer Charlotta Öfverholm, its aim was to enable professional dancers over 45 to carry on their careers—and encourage people over 65 to start dancing. The success of the project was immediate and is continuing. Both in Sweden and on a wider international level, mature dancers are much more visible, talked about and popular than perhaps ever before. 

Stockholm, August 22, 2019:

“More movement on the floor”—Charlotta Öfverholm keeps a sharp eye on the group of people huddled in front of her. Only a couple of weeks remain before Stories will be presented at one of the most venerable arts institutions in Sweden, The Royal Dramatic Theatre, Dramaten, in Stockholm. In 2016, these women and men had signed up for the first Age on Stage workshop for people aged 65 and over. Most of them lacked experience as dancers.

At Dramaten, the evening starts off with a film, called Just Dance. It serves as an introduction to the performers, their reasons for joining this adventure, their gratitude to Charlotta Öfverholm for her way of getting them together, helping them find a new path in life. The film was made by Anders J Larsson, who followed them for a year and a half, until their first performance at Dansens Hus 2018.

When we meet them again, live on stage instead of on a screen, dressed in festive clothes, it is obvious that “the storytellers” are now more accomplished and confident, seemingly at ease in their bodies—and in their lives—than when they first came to the workshop. At ages ranging from 68 to 87, they also appear to be younger and stronger than previously.

Video 1
Lucky, Charlotta Öfverholm

Charlotta Öfverholm choreographed Stories, blending movement with spoken testimonies from the performers. Physical limitations and psychological inhibitions may still be there—if so, they are handled in an expert way. The movements are not too demanding—they are even basic—but they work well, finding space also for sensual tango and happy tap dancing. They can serve as illustrations to a particular story; sometimes, they are just expressing joy at being alive, being able to move the way they do. A sense of sadness and loss, of happy memories and painful ones, forms part of the full picture. A drum here, a guitar there, and an accordion too, they all mix in with solos, duets and bigger groups. The nature of human life, the way that bodies are harboring the young child as well as the mature person, is on show here. Stories is a generous life cabaret.

Prosthesis with Charlotta Öfverholm. Photo: Anders Larsson

At the Age on Stage International Meeting Point 2019 at Dansens Hus, “subtitled” Gränslös (Boundless), the programme started with a new piece, called Prosthesis, again by Charlotta Öfverholm. The focus for this edition of the project was the physical side to dancers’ ageing, including the pioneering medical and rehab expertise therapists employed to enable Charlotta Öfverholm to go on dancing. The title refers to the hip and ankle replacements which are now parts of Öfverholm’s body. On stage with her were Elena Fokina, Tobias Hallgren, Magnus Krepper, Lauri Antila and James Friedman, as well as five performers over the age of 70.

Charlotta Öfverholm in Lucky. Photo: Anders Larsson

Prosthesis was also performed during the Age on Stage weekend at Dramaten, showing the scope of the project. The piece spans multiple meanings; its “boundlessness” is quite overwhelming, and to decipher the piece is not an easy task. The stage is dimly lit: it seems to be a hotel lobby but with a religious twist. A man checks in and learns that he can check out but never leave. As the piece unfolds, it becomes a maze of happenings and moods that change in the blink of an eye. The overall sensation is one of danger—not even the crazy bacchanal at the end delivers comfort. However, the performers, a mix of professional dancers and musicians and “storytellers” of a certain age, seem totally comfortable in this dream play world where no boundaries exist. Is there a lesson to be learned in this?

Video 2
https://jusdelavie.se/prosthesis/#video
Prosthesis was performed during the Age on Stage weekend at Dramaten, showing the scope of the project

Recently, Age on Stage co-produced Show to Be True with Dance On Ensemble Berlin, first shown in Piteå and Luleå, in the north of Sweden, in 2017, and then at Holland Dance Festival and Festival Hebbel Am Ufer, Berlin. Charlotta Öfverholm danced in that piece. Since the start of Age on Stage, most of her time has been dedicated to that project, but Öfverholm also performed in a dance theatre version of the iconic Ingmar Bergman movie The Seventh Seal, in 2018. Directors Hugo Hansén and Fredrik Benke Rydman cast Charlotta Öfverholm as Death in their production for Uppsala Stadsteater—it turned out to be very successful.

Scene from Prosthesis. Photo: Anders Larsson

Charlotta Öfverholm studied dance at Balettakademien Göteborg and then went to the U.S., studying at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York, as well as at UCLA (in Film/Video) and at Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in Los Angeles. She has been dancing with Bill T. Jones and Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York. In Europe, she has been part of DV8 Physical Theatre in London and created memorable roles and new choreographies on dance stages in Paris, Prague, Berlin, Barcelona and other European cities. In Sweden, she has choreographed commissioned works for GöteborgsOperans Dance Company, Norrdans, RTV Borås and Folkoperan. In all, she now has 30 productions in her portfolio, many of them under the umbrella of her own production company, Jus de la Vie.

Age on Stage started out primarily as a 20th anniversary celebration for Jus de la Vie. Her plan was to focus on mature professional dancers, to claim their right to continue dancing, even if their stipulated retirement age had passed. But her mission went beyond that: she wanted to show that dancers are no worse, but can in fact be better, when they are mature. Then, the celebration turned into something bigger—Age on Stage.

To make Age on Stage a viable project, it joined forces with a European Union project, Dance on, Pass on, Dream on, in Germany. A certain amount of social outreach was included in Öfverholm’s project, plus input from the academic world, et voilà, Age on Stage was born, “presenting maturity on stage, questioning the norms in the dance field through international productions with dancers over 45, workshops for people over 65, films, festivals and seminars,” as stated on their website at the time. It was co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.

At the time of Age on Stage’s birth, Charlotta Öfverholm’s own 50th birthday was lurking around the corner. Many dancers look back on their previous stage careers at that age. She looked forward instead, and refused to stop dancing, in spite of her age, in spite of first a hip and then a complete ankle replacement.  Another documentary by Anders J Larsson covers Öfverholm’s early start and ensuing career, injuries, wear and tear, healing processes and artistic experiences. It has a very apt title, showing this artist’s idea of what  her life is about: Dance or Die.

Video 3
https://jusdelavie.se/fucking-burn-it-2015/
The first edition of Age on Stage took place over ten days and had a provoking extra title: “Fucking Burn It!”

The first edition of Age on Stage took place over ten days and had a provoking extra title: “Fucking Burn It!” It was held at Dansmuseum in Stockholm, in October 2015. Three dance pieces were performed, all showing very clearly that maturity in a dancer is a plus.

One of them, the duet Antithesis, was created in 2012 by Dwight Rhoden, founder of Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York. He made it for Charlotta Öfverholm, then 47, and Jan-Erik Wikström, principal dancer about to retire at 43 from the Royal Ballet in Stockholm. Two dancers from, supposedly, opposite sides of the dance field, turned out to be totally compatible. The audience was sitting very closely around them at Dansmuseum. I have rarely experienced that kind of electric atmosphere at a dance performance. Rhoden knew what he was doing when he created the piece, taking the two dancers’ specific skills into account, allowing each of them to shine—on their own and together.

Öfverholm and Wikström briefly met again for Age on Stage three years later. At the main performance of Antithesis at the relocated Dansmuseum, though, Dragos Milhacea, principal dancer at The Royal Ballet, was Öfverholm’s male counterpart. His precise and powerful performance was excellent—though he was actually too young for the part, only 38 at that time. Pas de Deux Sans Toi (with Lindy Larsson and his accordion) and Lucky, both with Charlotta Öfverholm at the centre, were also on the programme. They all showed what an expressive, courageous, extraordinary dance artist and actress she is.

A seminar added another kind of experience and knowledge, conveyed by people like Fay Nenander, Swedish-British dance consultant with a special focus on dance medicine, collaborating with Balettakademien, DOCH and other dance institutions. She called it a waste not to take advantage of mature dancers—and saluted a great exception to this mindset: Mats Ek and the many pieces he has created for brilliant dancers past regular retiring age.

Paul Bronkhorst from Omscholingsingsregeling Dansers, Career Transition Program for Dancers in Holland, talked about how to cater for those unable to keep dancing. To be a dancer may be an identity, not just a profession, but dancers’ careers are often too short. They often need help to find other careers.

Madeline Ritter, director at Dance On, Pass on, Dream On in Germany, informed about their main aim: to ensure that professional dancers past 40 years of age got first class choreographies to work with if they chose to continue dancing. Ritter also introduced the audience to the remarkable Eileen Kramer. At age 100, she appeared in a video from her native Australia where she has had a very long career in the dance field. In April 2019, Eileen Kramer took part in a television talk show, telling about her brand new dance piece. Asked about whether she was still dancing, at 104 +, she replied, “Well, I have a little problem with my balance – but I’m working on that.”

Video 4
At the age of 99, Australian dancer Eileen Kramer improvises in remembrance of Gertrud Bodenwieser’s teachings. Filmed by Marion Ives at Rozelle School of Visual Arts, in April 2014. Music by J.S Bach

Age on Stage has changed the general view of mature dancers in many ways. In a sense, Sweden provided fertile ground for this project. We have had some exceptional forerunners when it comes to old age in the dance field. Birgit Cullberg, founder of the Cullberg Ballet in 1967, set an example: she created choreographies and kept performing until late in life. She was 83 years old when her son, Mats Ek, created a TV piece directly for her, called Gammal och Dörr (Old and Door). It was produced for Swedish Television in 1991, but, for various reasons, it took until 2013 before it went public. Attitudes towards age on stage appear to have changed somewhat by that point.

Even so, in 2015, Mats Ek announced his retirement from the world of dance. No new pieces were to be created, none of his works would be produced anywhere in the world. International media picked up on this, deploring his decision. He was 70 years old and had already proven his excellence as a choreographer, not least for mature dancers: for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ana Laguna he created Place, in 2007; two years later, The Other for Baryshnikov and Niklas Ek; in 2010, he did Bye for Sylvie Guillem; Ax (2015) was made for Ana Laguna and Yvan Auzely; and Potato for Ana Laguna and Mats Ek himself. Small wonder then, if he felt a bit tired? And yet, he was on stage the following year, at Skånes Dansteater, to dance with his wife and muse, Ana Laguna, who, by the way, is ten years younger than her husband. But that was an exception.

It took until the middle of summer 2019 before Mats Ek was back again, now in grand style with a new and highly praised Boléro, plus the new piece Another Place, for the Paris Opera. His brother Niklas Ek performed in Boléro—a truly mature dancer at 76.

Video 5
Mats Ek’s Boléro

A new choreography for The Royal Ballet in Stockholm, the first one since his lovely Juliet and Romeo in 2013, will have its première in February 2020. Mats Ek turns 75 that year. His Woman and Water will share the evening with two other mature contemporary dance icons, Jiří Kylián and Ohad Naharin, What a treat!

In 2017, Age on Stage/Survival Kit took place at Dansens Hus and consisted of two duets, with Charlotta Öfverholm and Rafi Sady. Light House by Sharon Fridman and Beauty and the Beast by Martin Harriague got rave reviews in the main newspapers in Sweden: “Charlotta Öfverholm and Rafi Sady meet in two different duets highlighting their specific and versatile expressions. Age on Stage is a renaissance for mature dancers,” wrote Svenska Dagbladet. While Dagens Nyheter commented, “Survival Kit is a perfectly composed duo of duets with two exquisite full-blooded dancers, who take on the stage with half a life’s natural authority and sublime simplicity.”

Internationally, Survival Kit has been equally well received.

Survival Kit is a perfectly composed duo of duets with two exquisite full-blooded dancers, who take on the stage with half a life’s natural authority and sublime simplicity,” Dagens Nyheter, at https://jusdelavie.se/survival-kit/

Other examples of changing attitudes in the Swedish dance world were noted when the Cullberg company (now without the “Ballet” part in its name) announced their collaboration with three house choreographers for the next three years. No negative reactions were heard about Deborah Hay being one of them. Hay was born in 1941 (in New York) and her latest piece for the company (then still called Cullberg Ballet) was Figure a Sea, in 2015. It has since toured around the world. In October 2019, two older pieces by Deborah Hay, The Match and The Man Who Grew Common in Wisdom, were performed by Cullberg dancers. Two new choreographies are to be created by Hay for Cullberg.

Video 6
Figure a Sea, Deborah Hay and Laurie Anderson/Cullberg Ballet
Yvonne Reiner. Photo: Wikipedia

In 2018, the Stockholm-based Weld company invited another iconic artist, Yvonne Rainer, to work with them, giving a lecture and creating a new piece for the company. Rainer was born in 1934 (in San Francisco; she moved to New York City in 1956). Margaret Jenkins, San Francisco based choreographer, has been performing in Stockholm and several other Swedish cities twice lately, in 2016 and 2018. Jenkins was born 1942. Age has not been an issue for any of them—it is easy enough to see that maturity informs their oeuvre.

Sonia York-Pryce, who started her dance career in London, has closely followed the Age on Stage project, which shares many aims and intentions with her own recent work. After migrating from her native England to Australia, she turned to the academic world, studied applied arts, film and photography. All her skills have gone into her PhD research at Queensland College of Art/Griffith University. The title of her dissertation is Ageism and the Mature Dancer/Inappropriate Behaviour.

Video 7
Utterly (in)appropriate by Sonia York-Pryc

Her research is basically done: it includes interviews as well as films delving deeper into the minds of nine mature dancers. The future of her dissertation has yet to be settled. She plans to make a book based on her thesis and judging by a recent e-mail conversation, her fighting spirit is unscathed: “I will continue being an advocate for older dancers, through dance films, conferences and the written word.”

Scanning the Internet for this article, I have come across several projects around the world intended to change the views when it comes to dance and mature dancers. It raises hopes for the future. Carolyn Carlson, Wendy Whelan, Alessandra Ferri, Carmen de Lavallade are all mature dance artists still active as either dancers or choreographers in the Western part of the world. In the Eastern part, there are so many more to get to know.

Age on Stage has been followed by two Swedish researchers, Ninnie Andersson and Cecilia Ferm Almqvist. At the beginning, they were funded by Luleå University of Technology; later on, by two other Swedish universities. Their research is not yet concluded.

Age on Stage appears to be a project with no end in sight. During the fall season 2019, Age on Stage and Charlotta Öfverholm had a busy schedule, going to New York City for workshops at Peridance and for the screening of Anders J Larssons’s Dance or Die, as well as showing the one woman show Lucky. Another Workshop 65+ at Dansens Hus, classes and a repertory workshop for professional dancers, at the same venue, were set to be her last engagements in 2019.

For 2020, a new edition of Age on Stage plus a new Öfverholm piece are in the pipeline. When she heard that other, more mature, dance artists would be included in this article—showing that the stage is still open for professionals past 70 in the dance field and hinting at the possibility for her to be continuing for at least 20 more years—her comment was: “Wonderful.”

For further information:

Links to Age on Stage videos and more: see here

Ageism and the Mature Dancer/Inappropriate Behaviour: see here

Age on Stage/Stories: see here 



 

*Nancy Westman is an arts journalist, with a focus on dance and the visual arts. She has a background in Swedish Public Radio and Swedish Public Television, Danstidningen and several other printed publications. Since 2019, she is a contributor to tanz, Zeitschrift für ballet, tanz und performance. Westman is the author of several books, on dance, architecture, theatre and other arts related topics. She served as Cultural Counselor at the Embassy of Sweden in Washington, DC, 1999-2003. A new career as translator of both fiction and non-fiction started at her return to Sweden. At the top of the list of her translations, she puts the last four novels published in Swedish, by world-renowned author Philip Roth. Westman now lives and works in Stockholm.

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