Once known as Cullberg Ballet (and still regularly referred to as such), this Swedish company has been at the cutting edge of contemporary dance since it was formed, in 1967, as a platform for the Stockholm-based choreographer, Birgit Cullberg. She directed the company until 1985, being succeeded by her son, Mats Ek (who remained in post until 1993). Today, Cullberg works exclusively with three choreographers: Alma Söderberg, Jefta van Dinther and Deborah Hay, the latter the creator of Figure a Sea. Hay was a member of the avant-garde 60s dance collective at Judson Church in New York, which gave birth to post-modern dance. Both the Cullberg company and the work of Hay are relative strangers to the UK and so this one-night-only gig at the Southbank Centre was a must-see for aficionados of contemporary dance.

<i>Figure at Sea</i> © Urban Jörén
Figure at Sea
© Urban Jörén

Figure a Sea, which premiered at Stockholm’s Dansens Hus in September 2015, eschews any semblance of traditional form, technique or narrative and possesses minimal theatrical accoutrements; the set being a simple white rectangle, divided into two squares (one as a vertical backdrop, the other as the central stage). The choreographer is on record as questioning the seduction of the centre in performance and, here, she counteracts that attraction by ensuring that much of the action is in the margins. There are no wings to this stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall but one assumes that if there were, the performance would be transitioning into that unseen territory.

Interestingly, the premiere of Figure a Sea, and most subsequent performances, engaged 21 dancers but here there were just 17. It is a work that could probably be performed by any number of this sort without any obvious differences. The dancers are essentially divided into three tribes, identified by the similarity of their costuming (designed by Marita Tjärnström): one group of five wore a sort of Scouts’ uniform of navy shirt and baggy shorts; another quintet sported black and white patterned shirts and dark leggings; while the larger group of seven wore transparent black tops and variable length shorts and culottes in a blue-grey colourway. I’m guessing that these groups are usually each seven-strong in the full 21-performer cast.

This focus on numbers is important because one senses a mathematical undercurrent to the work. The ratio of women to men is disproportionate across the three groups: five of the transparent tops are worn by men whereas both of the other quintets are dominated by women. The groups often congregate but also split up and integrate. Intimacy is key and often fifteen dancers are on their feet while another pair rest on the floor, cuddling and caressing; at one point all the dancers perform in a pair while one man dances alone in their midst. Although, I have referenced gender in this review, the intimacy and partnering are not gender-specific.

The work is ongoing as the audience enter and there is a sense of deconstruction that is common to the Judson Church ethos. It is a work without a beginning, or at least with a beginning that is secret. The first ten minutes or so (who knows how long it had lasted) took place with the house lights up and the audience chattering away, seemingly oblivious to the live performance onstage, but then, as so often happens in such scenarios, a magical hush descended across the venue, just before the house lights faded. The silence continued for several minutes more before Laurie Anderson’s gentle soundscape gradually filtered into our collective consciousness.

The movement seemed to be improvised and yet there was a pervading sense of structure to actions that ran a wide spectrum from everyday acts and gestures (skipping seemed a regular activity) to unrefined, rough-edged interpretations of classical technique. There was synergy and repetition within a fluid and incessant torrent of apparently random motion. It struck me that the 17 dancers were each highly individual in terms of physique and personal characteristics. No two of them resembled each other. Of particular note were London Contemporary Dance School graduate, Heather Birley – with her distinctive, long flame-red hair – and the mesmerising vacant stare of Finnish dancer, Vera Nevanlinna, a guest artist with Cullberg for this work only.

The whole group is onstage for the entire performance although often the dancers congregated in groups in the peripheral areas, sometimes as bystanders rather than active performers. The work peters to an end when they gradually leave one-by-one through various exits until only Nevanlinna and Sylvie Gehin Karlsson remained; the latter performing a lonely and expressionless concluding solo.

This is not dance to entertain, but dance to challenge our perceptions of dance. As such, there are sections that are arrestingly thought-provoking; and others that dare one’s concentration to remain alert, and, in my case, not always with success.