By Karin Cravotta
The first time I see New York-based choreographer Pontus Lidberg, he’s sitting cross-legged on a chair in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Studio 1, watching his dancers. He sits completely still, in perfect meditative posture, not speaking. The dancers are moving in fluid, twirling patterns across the expanse of floor, like ripples in a bubbling brook or leaves gently blown around by the wind. Sometimes they are woven together in a quilt of clasped wrists and intertwined arms, twisting torsos and delicately balanced limbs, arched backs subtly connecting and then rolling off on their own again.
“I very much enjoy partnering, myself. The interaction of partnering is so wonderful. It’s a conversation or dialogue of sorts where you really share. That has influenced my choreography, because I feel I have a lot to give there.”
Suddenly Pontus speaks, standing up and moving to the center of the room to join his dancers. I watch as he engages them in conversation. I can’t hear a word, but it’s clear that I am witnessing a glimpse of creative exchange between choreographer and dancers, an ongoing dialogue that will serve to shape this piece over the next few weeks. I am struck by the way in which Pontus reveals his authority by offering a generous portion of it to the dancers.
Several days later, when I am asked to write an article on Pontus for the OBT Blog, I am thrilled. When I tell a few fellow staff members and dancers about my opportunity, I am bombarded with a sea of praise for Pontus. He is described consistently as “warm,” “gentle” and “Zen.”
Yet here I am, post-interview, excited to write my article but having a hard time getting it off the ground. I can’t seem to figure out how to structure it. As a writer, structure is important to me. Even my poetry tends towards traditional forms like the sonnet or sestina. I want to describe to the Blog readers Pontus’ new work. I want to share with you the wisdom he shared with me during our interview. But, where do I begin? Where’s my narrative?
“There’s not one singular message that is more important than any other in this piece.”
“In the context of dance, ‘narrative’ can have a meaning that I’m not so fond of. I think dance is more intelligent than us having to have a narrative. But, having said that, most of my work has some sort of human development, a narrative, to it. I want to challenge myself and do something different. There’s nothing more to [this piece] than the dance.”
“There is an existential point of view that is the reason for this [piece] in the first place. In general, I am very interested in existential questions. Recently I heard a quote or I read a quote I find very to the point from the Buddha – “What we call a person, the Buddha referred to simply as ‘stream’.” I think that is very to the point because, if you think about it, there is no beginning and no end, there is just now. The beginning is an arbitrary beginning. The end is an arbitrary end.”
Hmm. I suppose the most efficient way to write about Pontus Lidberg’s world premiere work “Stream” is to dive right in and go with the flow.
In the summer of 2012, Pontus arrived at OBT to meet the dancers, “to see who they are and how they move, how they process information.” At that time, he only had access to some first draft sketches of the score by Portland composer Ryan Francis. Of his decision to work with a modern composer, Pontus says, “A lot of concert dance uses old music nowadays. There’s a very big roster of famous composers, and a lot of new dance is made to old music.” The score that has evolved three seasons later is a result of a mutual collaboration with Ryan, after several conversations where the following components were discussed:
(1) Mutual sources of musical inspiration shared by choreographer and composer.
(2) Structure (i.e. what Pontus imagined “in terms of movement and how sequences weave into each other”). “I wanted a cyclical structure. You start the piece and it goes through a series of transformations to return to the beginning. However, when you return, it has changed, which is inevitable in life.”
(3) Sounds & the mood of the sound. “For a while, it was thought that a small chamber ensemble would play this music, but when that became no longer possible, we decided on strings and electronics. I was excited [about] using electronics because I like the encounter between analog (someone playing) and electronics. It’s a nice encounter between something very human and something very artificial.”
What has emerged is an emotionally stirring, melodic lullaby that inspires deep reflection in the heart of the listener, the type of music that conjures tears. The personal nature of the music complements the impersonal nature of Pontus’ vision: “If you look at a river or a mountain, it can be quite a strong experience, but it’s not personal. It’s personal for you, [it’s] your point of view, but the mountain is not talking to you. I always want to keep in mind that I am working with humans, with people. They are always going to be humans on the stage with all their own history and everything. I don’t remove the humanness ever from my dancers, but in this piece, it’s not about that.
“My range as a choreographer in the last few years has expanded in both directions. I am very comfortable using classical dancers and completely contemporary dancers, too. I always leave it to the dancers who are actually going to do it to inform me in what direction to go. I’m not interested in forcing dancers to do something that is unnatural to them, but I do challenge them. That’s a good thing, but squeezing them into a box is not. Because this is a very classical company, the piece has a more neoclassical look, but that’s the dancers’ look, more than anything.
“However, I did decide to use pointe shoes for the work, which is another reason why I wanted to avoid a more human, personal theme, because most of my work is very human and personal, because the dancers are humans and yet, they do magical things. But the dancers are normal… They have feelings and perspiration and weight. I think the pointe shoe is really the coming together of that: the illusion of something that is not quite real. It’s magical in some ways. For me, that becomes a clash… to have that magical pointe shoe element come together with real people.
“There is a great deal of magical realism in my work. Dance, in general, is a very fine medium to portray inner events that are limitless.”
When the conversation evolves into a discussion of functional patterns in nature, Pontus says, “This is something that I do, very specifically, in choreography. My choreography is aesthetic. It has an aesthetic component to it, but the way I try to achieve that is by efficiency, not by decoration. I remove decorations. I find it more beautiful. More pure and, therefore, more beautiful.”
I describe to Pontus how a friend of mine recently told me he appreciates the trees more in winter, when they’re bare, and therefore, more honest.
Pontus considers this and responds, “I had access to nature all the time growing up [in Sweden]. There is something else about trees. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow and then they fall off. Sometimes there’s even a gust of wind and then the tree just lets it go, which is not what we do. We cling to things very strongly. But in nature, it’s not a big deal. There is no clinging, no remorse. It’s very efficient… beautiful… direct. I find that very inspiring.”
By letting go of their leaves, the trees are able to blossom again. They are honoring their part of a broader cycle. They go through a series of transformations to return to the beginning, but when they return, they have changed. As do the patterns of “Stream,” the cycles of Ryan Francis’ score, and as “is inevitable in life.”
This afternoon, as I finish writing my article, Pontus is back in Studio 1. He is twirling among the dancers, turning somersaults on the floor. Now he is standing among them, laughing. Now he is up on a chair, watching.
Now he is standing among them again.
Now he is twirling.
Find out more about American Music Festival, running April 18 – 27, 2013 at the Newmark Theatre.