Dance and Age

Margareta Sörenson*


Dancers “die” young. This is what most people think, and if the reference is classical ballet, it might be the case. Yet, the examples of Ohno, Manning, Ek, Fonteyn, Bausch show quite the opposite: that there is still life for a dancer who is no longer young. This article argues that the age, capacity and attraction of male and female bodies on stage vary from one tradition to another, in the extent to which they depend on the cultural and historcal context. To substantiate this point of view, the article focuses on the career of renowned Swedish dancer/choreographer Mats Ek.
Keywords: age, dance, jeunisme, Ek, Laguna, Birgit Cullberg

Frankie Manning dancing at the age of 84

Children, however clumsy, chubby, skinny or un-coordinated they may be, are allowed to dance as freely as they wish. For adults, however experienced, skilful or professional they may be, there are rules. And the guillotine comes down sharply when dancers are considered too old—with the aesthetics of classical ballet setting the bar. Modernism may have been the governing power for a century, and classical ballet a diminishing slice of the cake during the same period, yet the fairy-tale ideal for women and bold boyish style for men still form the law of dance.

Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010) performed after his 100th birthday. He passed away at 103, but for the last butoh dance pieces he was performing in public he was sitting on a chair. Sitting dancing? Is a butoh dancer actually dancing? In some of his late performances, he moved on hands and knees: butoh dance is a performing art, as much dance as theatre in its images and sound.

Video 1
Kazuo Ono, The Dead Sea (early1980s), from the documentary
Dance of Darkness by Edin Velez

Frank(ie) Manning (1914-2009), the ”inventor” of lindy hop, once a star at the Savoy Ballroom, was over seventy when he became the icon of a lindy hop camp―in Sweden. This legendary gentleman travelled every year to Herräng, some 150 km north of Stockholm, a coastal village that once every year is vibrant and packed with dancing people. And Fred Manning danced! Indeed―with a happy smile, an elegant style and, finally, with a cane. Frank Manning died in 2009, having assisted as a dance teacher at the camp for some 20 years.

Video 2
Swing Dance 1980’s (Frankie Manning and Norma Miller)

Margot Fonteyn (1919-92), one of the great ballerinas whose name is known beyond the world of dance, was famous for her style, her emotional expression and a special capacity to create an intimate atmosphere with the audience. Late in her dance life, in her mid 40s, she made a second career as a world artist, touring with the young Rudolf Nureyevas a partner. She could have been his mother, but they danced sequences and scenes from the most famous classics―such as Giselle, where she played the title role, a very young country girl. The audiences were enormous, and Fonteyn’s age was noted and discussed, but the two stars matched one another in success.

Video 3
Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in Giselle (from Act II)

These three examples show how in ”dance,” the traditions, the styles, the techniques live their lives very far from each other. They also show how the age, capacity and attraction of male and female bodies on stage can differ from one tradition to another, in the extent to which they depend on the cultural context. In Asia, a high age still is something to be respected; in the Western world, attitudes are more split. Future national presidents might be close to their 80s, yet jeunisme, the idea that being young is better and more ”contemporary,” is a frequent position both on political stages and in the arts.

The examples chosen prove how unproductive the notion ”dance” is. Ballroom dancing, vernacular dancing, academic ballet or contemporary dance are all called dance, even if the definitions are as diverse as their aesthetics.

Most contemporary choreographers began their career as dancers. Even if, today, choreography exists as a subject in some dance conservatoires, it is still rare that choreographers reach their position through theoretical studies. For centuries, the normal career for a dancer in the Western world began from very early years, even if the child education which is now frequent in opera houses did not exist until the nineteenth century. From the teens to the twenties was for long considered to be a suitable age for building up muscles and technical skills that would peak around 25 for women and closer to 30 for men. The importance of emotional maturity for some key characters in the classical ballet was of course considered, and it remains an open question to what extent ballet’s big audiences were attracted by the virtuosity of a ballerina or by the ”magic” of her interpretation.

Within the structure of today’s classical ballet, retirement age is usually in the early 40’s. Some professional dancers then open up a new career as physical therapists, as nurses and even medical doctors, more frequently as coaches of the company or as dance instructors. This second age also permits so-called dance de charactère on stage, as the witch Madge in La Sylphide or, in some countries, the worried mother in travesti in La Fille Mal gardée—and of course the many kings, queens and court dignitaries who create a background in several classical masterpieces. 

Or the dancer, if talented enough, might develop gradually as a choreographer, normally after a first career or period on stage, as did Birgit Cullberg, the founder of the Cullberg Ballet, Pina Bausch, Ohad Naharin or Mats Ek. They danced and, little by little, started to create pieces for the dancers of their company―Wuppertal Dance Theatre, Batsheva or the Cullberg Ballet. Other famous choreographers, such as Jiri Kylían, Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, first danced and then started to create pieces, at the invitation of a range of companies.

Video 4
In 2017, Cullbergbaletten celebrated 50 years of contemporary dance. For the anniversary, the company presented two works that were created for and with the company: Eurydice is Dead by Birgit Cullberg, restaged by Mats Ek and Ana Laguna, and Protagonist by Jefta van Dinther. Dansens Hus, Stockholm, April 27-29, 2017

Birgit Cullberg stopped dancing in her younger years but, after achieving international fame as a choreographer, went back to dance in works by Mats Ek at an advanced age. She was 70 when she danced the part of Mother Africa in Mats Ek’s Soweto, a comment on the riots in the South African ghetto. And she was 83 when she danced in Old and Door, a poetic piece about the dreams and memories of an old woman. The piece was produced for Swedish Television in 1991 but was not transmitted then, as it showed too obviously the sexuality in the thoughts of an old woman. Today, the censorship of the 1990s is difficult to understand.

Mats Ek’s sensitivity for questioning the traditional patterns of male and female is compass-like and tends to catch the points of reference that strike the contemporary audience the most. And when it comes to the physique and emotions of women, the biggest clash is to be seen between the ideals of classical ballet and the contemporary arts. In classical ballet, women are very young, girlish or ageless, and remote from any female bodily activities, such as physical love, pregnancy, giving birth, breastfeeding, periods or other qualities necessary for the survival of the species. Being a mother, or thinking of being a mother (as in La fille Mal Gardée) are the only biological hints of female bodily functions. For today’s groundbreakers in the arts, this is a frequent area to attack or give alternative imagery; in this, Mats Ek is typical of his time and generation.

Video 5
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ana Laguna in Mats Ek’s Place

In June 2019, Mats Ek premiered two new pieces at the Paris National Opera. One was a new version of the ”solos for two” that have become his laboratory for deeper exploration of relations between man and woman in their daily life, with the assumption of a long relationship as a bottom line. The new Another Place continues the choreographical work of Place, once danced by Ana Laguna and Mikhail Baryshnikov (2007). Ana Laguna, Mats Ek’s closest collaborator and wife, was the star dancer of his choreographies for decades, several of them created and designed for her muscular body and powerful female expressiveness. Through Mats Ek’s works, a line of duets, what he himself calls ”solos for two,” takes a special development from Old and Door (1991), Smoke (1995), and Axe (2016), as well as pas-de-deux forming an important element in several of his great classical re-readings, such as Giselle or Carmen.

Video 6
Ana Laguna and Mats Ek in Memory

In a number of duets, Mats Ek himself has taken up dancing on stage as necessary. First, in Memory (2004), together with Ana Laguna; two years later, the couple danced again in Potato, a drastic exercise in being two, where a bag of potatoes is the icon for everyday life.

On the Paris opera stage, the ”solo for two” was danced by members of the corps de ballet of the house, among them Aurélie Dupont, the artistic leader of the company. These dancers were of an age that Mats Ek calls ”mature,” forty plus, and, for the first time in Ek’s artistic life, he used Liszt’s Sonata for Piano in C minor―dramatic and lively and far from his frequent use of contemplative Pärt music.

For Bolero, so loved and so often listened to that it is almost a burden, Mats Ek worked with some twenty dancers. The part of one old man was ”danced” by his older brother Niklas, former star dancer of the Cullberg ballet. He walks across the stage once for every one of the 18 sequences of the music, carrying a bucket of water, which he empties into a big basin on the stage. In his white linen suit and summer hat, he is a perfect image of elderly male stubbornness―he comes on carrying his bucket, as he always has. The young dancers around him pay no attention, they tolerate him, but, by and by, there is irritation in the air. Finally, the old man is harassed, chased and throws himself into the water―“Maybe he drowns himself,” remarks Mats Ek.

This old man, it is difficult not to see him as a kind of self-portrait of yourself?

“Let me put it this way,” replies Mats Ek, 74 years of age: “That old man with his bucket . . . it was obvious and necessary to have Niklas Ek in this particular part. Of course, my own age is of some significance in creating this piece. But, if there should be a need for an understudy one evening, I would dance the part,” smiles Mats Ek, happily looking back at this recent success in Paris.”

Video 7
Interview with Mats Ek, before the premiere of Bolero at Palais Garnier (22/06/2019)

He says,

Young dancers are often tempted to expose their skill and equilibrium. Dancers of some age have limits, which you have to accept. But limits are also the mother of new inventions! When I dance myself, together with Ana, we are not dealing with our private memories. Every production must rely on a need to be created as such, and the performance is created in the moment. When the curtain falls, everything is gone. However, the audience might think, ’there goes a life,’ and feel that the dancer is marked by a long, professional life. If you use this well, there is nothing private hidden. But every art work is marked by the traces of a personality, something unique. ‘Private’ and ‘personal’ are two different categories, and, to the audience, the uniqueness is what counts. In the moment of performance, the private aspect is dissolved. The form shows a paradox: only what is unique has the capacity to communicate.

The dancers are often young, and, sometimes, it might be problematic to make them understand intellectually what I mean. And it is difficult to find dancers with a world of imagination of their own. Several of my duets are for very young dancers, like in Juliet and Romeo or Giselle.

Video 8
Juliet and Romeo, choreographed by Mats Ek, performed by the Royal Swedish Ballet

My reflection is that young persons just might have other worlds of imagination and other references. And Mats Ek agrees.

“But I am suspicious towards the global media landscape of today. Something is vanishing, vaporizing―but it is true that some things develop wider and deeper.”

Despite the energetic and almost diabolic repetitions of Ravel’s music, the piece in the hands of Mats Ek was rather calm, contemplative. The dancers dance duets, trios, group parts―their dance is an ongoing flow, while the old man comes back at his own pace, strutting somewhat with his bucket. An elderly person: the line of the back, the posture, the way of walking―all saying: I will do what I always did and nothing else!

Also, the place of dance in the mind and memory of the audience is a problem Mats Ek has reflected on.

Dance is an art that lives in the moment, gone as soon as the performance is over. Body language and acting must be combined and need to find a trustworthy instant dialogue. Texts, written dramas, live on for centuries, music is stored on the note sheets, both must and can be re-interpreted by artists and audiences. To even try to save or preserve dance is meaningless, whatever you say. There is a strong desire to do so, and many would argue that the choreographies are the same, exactly as they were from the beginning―but that is impossible. The necessity which once led to their creation is gone. What is left is classic highlights, ticket-selling ‘numbers.;

In 2015, Mats Ek passed 70 and stated in public that he would retire from the stage, as both choreographer and dancer. No wonder: his productivity was astonishing, with stage direction, new choreographies, restaging old choreographies and dancing in his ”solos for two.” ”It was a decision I made with the help of Ana. But a little more than a year later, I felt that I wanted to create new works.”

And he does. New pieces and old pieces re-staged and dancing on stage. The Paris opera, an autumn 2019 tour, plans for a film . . . Approaching 75, he seems to embrace his age and create his own niche for his creativity. 

*Margareta Sörenson, president of IATC, is a Swedish theatre and dance critic, a writer and researcher in dance history. She has written for the daily national paper Expressen since the early 1980s, and for the Swedish dance journal, Danstidningen, in addition to writing a number of books on the performing arts, the latest on Mats Ek, with photographer Lesley Leslie-Spinks. Her special interests in dance and puppetry have often led her to the Asian classical stage arts and increased her curiosity about contemporary ones.

Copyright © 2019 Margareta Sörenson
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