‘Figure a Sea:’ A Ballet Like No Other

Choreographer Deborah Hay, composer Laurie Anderson and the Cullberg Ballet of Sweden brought their collaborative talents to MSU with ‘Figure a Sea.’

Kasser Theater presents ‘Figure a Sea.’

figure a sea
Photo courtesy of Peak Performances.

Even though it was only 7:15 p.m., I felt like I was late. Fifteen minutes before the start time and there was already a lot to see on stage at The Kasser Theater for Figure a Sea. Dressed in shades of blue and black, against a white floor and backdrop, dancers moved about the stage slowly and silently, almost in slow motion.

This was the American Premiere of the Cullberg Ballet’s Figure a Sea, choreographed by Deborah Hay with music composed by Laurie Anderson and performed by the Swedish modern dance company, Cullberg Ballet.

The biggest indication that the show was starting was when a sudden hush came over the crowd at exactly 7:30 p.m. The dancers were still for a moment and then we heard sound for the first time. Anderson’s composition was done especially for Figure a Sea.  The soft low sounds often gave me the impression of a lonely landscape, or maybe a seascape, with a solitary boat or lighthouse on the horizon.

Figure a Sea was very different,” said Montclair State sophomore Tanya Perez. “I’m used to a show having music the whole time. When you walked in you thought, ‘Oh, they’re rehearsing.’ Then the lights went down and they kept doing their thing. Everyone was doing something different and you wanted to pay attention to everyone. It was a lot to take in.”

That is likely Hay’s intention with Figure a Sea. With 20 dancers, this was the largest company I’ve seen at The Kasser. The stage was always full of movement and no matter what you looked at, you knew that you were missing something else that was equally amazing. Hay has said that, “Figure a Sea is a meditation on seeing…a space for self-reflection, for seeing oneself seeing.”

Hay is well-known as a founding member of the innovative and unorthodox Judson Dance Theater. She has done a great deal of work with improvisation. She will pose questions to her dancers that they must answer in their performance. This is a way of keeping them focused.

One question might be, “How do you enliven the edges of the space?” This was answered in how many of the Figure a Sea dancers would use periphery of the stage – often occupying the wings or the front sides near the exits.

As Perez noted, sometimes there was no sound at all, but even when there was sound, it was never so loud that it drowned out the light taping of the dancers’ bare feet as they jogged in place or ran lightly across the stage on the balls of their feet.  The loudest parts were when the dancers would hum or speak, possibly in Swedish.

figure a sea
Photo courtesy of Peak Performances.

At one point the dancers began to pair up, finding a partner and moving in unison with that partner, until there were only two single people left: a male and a female. I guess the romantic in me waited for them to find each other, but sadly, they never did. The pairs would strike poses of silent screaming or grimacing at each other. And then, gradually, the pairs dispersed until all the dancers were performing singly again.

Chris Parker is a professor at Montclair State who is currently teaching the revolutionary Creative Thinking class that, along with Peak Performances, is also a part of the Department of Arts and Cultural Programming.  “Figure a Sea claims to have no narrative and no rhythm. Yet, I saw about 700 narratives, and definitely they were in chapters,” said Parker. “That’s my perspective. That’s me receiving the beauty and the pattern of it – as maybe I wanted, but was nonetheless able to receive. Maybe you saw something else.”

The Montclair community is, indeed, very fortunate to have such opportunities to expand the way they see the world through the various offerings of the Department of Arts and Cultural Programming.

In the midst of all this modern dance, I was able to catch the occasional traditional ballet move. One example of this was when a female dancer found center stage and did what might have been an arabesque. I really enjoyed this blending of the old and new. Figure a Sea made me see the term “ballet” in a whole new light.

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