Archive for November, 2011

Donya Feuer Has Died: Influential Dancer, Choreographer, Director, and Filmmaker

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Donya Feuer, dancer, choreographer, director, filmmaker and teacher, died in Stockholm on November 6th, 2011. Her innovative approach to movement across several media and her poetic control of detail in performance had a powerful effect on theatre and dance in Stockholm for over forty years. A highly collaborative artist, her ideas and methods were influential on those with whom she worked: Paul Sanasardo, Pina Bausch, Ingmar Bergman, Ted Hughes, Mats Ek, and many other choreographers, dancers and actors. Her long career began with dance in the United States, but expanded into theatre, opera and film in Sweden.

Donya Feuer, portrait (Stockholm, 1960s)

Donya Feuer, portrait (Stockholm, 1960s)

Donya Feuer was born in Philadelphia on October 31, 1934. Her mother, Pauline Feuer, was a noted social worker and activist. She received her early dance training from Nadia Chilkovski, the well-known left wing modern dancer and dance educator. Feuer was a scholarship student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and then became an apprentice in the Martha Graham Dance Company; she danced with Graham on tour to Asia in 1955. Her choreographic career began upon leaving Graham in 1955 to found Studio for Dance with Paul Sanasardo in New York City. Her first important dance work was Dust for Sparrows (1958). Her partnership with Sanasardo included making and performing works for a remarkably talented group of young children; they also worked with dancers such as Diane Germaine, Manuel Alum, and Pina Bausch to produce a series of striking and original ballets: In View of God (1959), Laughter After All (1960), Pictures in Our House (1961), and the multiple evening Excursion for Miracles (1961).

Feuer went to Stockholm in 1963 initially to teach dance; she trained Mats Ek and Niklas Ek both of whom premiered in her work. She soon was choreographing productions directed by Alf Sjöberg and Frank Sundström. Her work with Sundström in 1965 on Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade was hailed as groundbreaking. She was officially invited to join the Kungliga Dramatiska Theatern (Royal Dramatic Theatre) in 1966 as a choreographer and in 1967 she was appointed director. From then on she became closely associated with the theater work of Ingmar Bergman who facilitated the creation of her Dans Kompaniet (Dance Company). Bergman encouraged her to stage dance evenings at the Dramaten, which she did working with composer Ulf Björlin and set designer Lennart Mörk; Bergman first worked with Feuer himself when he directed Lars Forsell’s Show (1971).

Feuer became indispensable to Bergman’s work for the theatre upon his return from Germany to Sweden in 1984. She made important choreographic contributions to his productions of Shakespeare’s Kung Lear (1984), Mishima’s Markisinnnan de Sade (1989), and Schiller’s Maria Stuarda (2000). Much of Bergman’s late theater work relied upon Feuer’s ability to make movement that determined the production’s physical language and expressive range without drawing attention to itself as dance. She brought some of these productions to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. In 1996 Bergman created the role of Talata for her in his production of the opera Bakanterna.

But Feuer also directed groundbreaking productions of her own at the Dramaten, including Shakespeare’s Stormen (1968), Lars Noren’s Fursteslickaren (1973), Kristina Lugn’s Det vackra blir liksom över (1989), and Pejlingar (1978), a solo for Karen Kavli made up of a montage of Shakespearian roles. It was out of this production that she got the idea for “a play that Shakespeare never wrote”, and inspired Ted Hughes to write, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, which was originally drafted in 150 letters he sent to Feuer over several months. In consultation with Hughes, Feuer went on to create a series of productions based on an experimental approach to Shakespearian text without plot between 1991 and 1995 with Will’s Company. This project, known as “In the Company of Shakespeare”, led to a teacher-training program implemented in secondary schools throughout Scandinavia. In 1998 she received the Stads Heders Prize in recognition of this work with children on Shakespeare and performance.

Feuer directing "In the Company of Shakespeare"

Feuer directing "In the Company of Shakespeare"

In addition to this, Feuer introduced modern dance to Sweden in the mid 1960s, and staged a series of influential dance productions that included the psychedelic pop ballet Love Love Love for the Culberg Ballet, Spel för museet (at the Historiska Museet, 1965), Ett spel om formal och mäniskor (for Swedish television, 1967), Varg rop (1971), Gud lever och har hälsan (1971), and ej blot til lyst (1985). She collaborated with Per Jönsson on Three Dances (1991) in which she danced. And she created a series of dance films beginning with the experimental De fördörnda Kvinnornas Dans (Monteverdi’s The Ungrateful Women) filmed at Faro with Bergman in 1973. This was followed by two films about Nijinsky for which she enlisted the participation of Romola Nijinsky, and created longer films on the dancer’s passion, notably Dansaren (The Dancer), which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1994 and was nominated for an Academy Award. Feuer also created a number of experimental dance films in the 1970s for Norwegian television. Her work in dance was recognized by the Carina Ari Gold Medal in 1996.

She is survived by her son, Magnus Love Feuer of Los Angeles, California.

Merce Cunningham’s Final Company Work “Nearly Ninety2” at Stanford

Monday, November 7th, 2011

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company completed another lap in the countdown of its Legacy Tour toward the end of this year when it will give its final performances in New York City. The last work Cunningham choreographed for his company, Nearly Ninety2, was given a single performance to a packed house at Stanford University’s Memorial Auditorium on November 1, 2011. Cunningham (who died in 2009 at the age of 90) seems in this work to have prefigured his own passing but the initially somber mood made of exceedingly slow movement progresses subtly toward a sense of quickening and light until it can practically no longer be contained on the stage. The idea of this piece as a choreographic farewell is rendered more poignant by the decision of the Cunningham Trust to terminate the company after its world tour in able to devote attention to teaching and licensing his work to other companies. This strategy to ensure the survival of his work on the stage is the first of its kind in the modern dance field. The audience was very aware it was seeing his last work for the last time: last squared, as it were. Even the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation archive, presently housed at Westbeth in New York City, will be ‘disbanded’ when its holdings are donated to the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library. As explained by archivist David Vaughan in a post-performance discussion, the final activity of the Foundation is the creation of ‘dance capsules’ containing all the information necessary to reconstruct his works. In some sense, Nearly Ninety2 was itself a living and breathing dance capsule.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM, photo by Mark Selige

MERCE CUNNINGHAM, photo by Mark Selige

The double sense of an ending – a last work performed for the last time by the choreographer’s company – invested this performance with a sense of finality, and was dramatic and affecting as a memorializing gesture. Yet, Nearly Ninety2 was actually ‘reconstructed’ for this final performance from the original, which suggests a certain encapsulation of memory at work even prior to the dissolving of the Company. Nearly Ninety2 was apparently something quite different at its premiere at BAM in 2009. In the 2011 staging there was no eight-ton set center stage concealing the musicians, and on top of which a solo was performed: only a bare stage filled with the comings and goings of thirteen dancers in newly designed costumes. It was a version of late Cunningham as purist and suggests the trope of the artist who, at an advanced age, had the distinct ability to distill the essence of his art in an ascetic gesture – one thinks of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cycle Art of the Fugue, completed as he was dying, and whose score was in need of being sorted out posthumously.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY / "NEARLY NINETY 2" 2009 (Melissa Toogood, Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman) Photo by Anna Finke

MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY / "NEARLY NINETY 2" 2009 (Melissa Toogood, Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman) Photo by Anna Finke

I had been struck once once before at the Company’s memorial concert (Park Avenue Armory, New York City, October 28, 2009) at how, despite the chance procedures Cunningham was known for using in the compositional process, he nevertheless remained accountable for (if not intentionally responsible to) each pairing of bodies, each angle from which shapes emerged out of movement, in sum, for each visual and kinesthetic moment of his work as it was set before us. Despite its openness of meaning and continuous experimentation and discovery Cunningham’s work displayed a deliberate quality as well. In a time when improvisation and new collaborative techniques for setting dances abound he sustained a sense of choreographic craftsmanship that is becoming a rarity in the contemporary dance scene. This would be particularly true of Nearly Ninety2 in that here, as director of choreography Robert Swinston explained in the post-performance discussion, Cunningham did not use computer software in making this dance. Nearly Ninety2 shows a hands-on commitment to the creation of choreography, which displays Cunningham’s mastery of theme and variation at multiple levels of the choreographic construction.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY / "NEARLY NINETY 2" 2009

MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY / "NEARLY NINETY 2" 2009

The importance of lighting and the subtle evolution of the sound score by John Paul Jones and Takehisa Kosugi make it a chromatic piece that begins in a somber darkness peopled by dancers in grey leotards against a black backdrop as they enter couple by couple: the women perform beguilingly smooth double or triple attitude turns and then proceed to hunched over développés devant in plié, as the men arch with one hand to head and perform the duties of partnering in an almost balletic sense. The couples accumulate and the sense of how the shapes change occurs as much through canon as through the sheer accumulation of bodies. The play of mass and line (both in the individual and the group) is the watchword, as well as a certain structural counterpoint: the work begins with a remarkably sustained slowness and somberness – balances and supports extended so long that the dancers fairly droop from the pull of gravity. Once the back scrim lifts to reveal a searing crack of yellow light spilling over the floor the ambiance has begun to change through imperceptible degrees (possibly a metaphor for time itself). Such gradual but still stark changes of light are a constant, and make the dancers stand forth as if they were insects displayed on glass as the work progresses from an almost melancholy slowness to progressively paced attack and speed until they virtually fly off the stage at the end to an incandescent dawn.