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Animated Edition - Summer 2006
Critical faculties
Donald Hutera yearns for emotional intelligence
What do we value most about dancers? Or, better, what qualities might the ideal dancer possess? No doubt any disparate group of fans could band together and give birth to some Frankenstein's monster of a mover - a potentially hideous but fascinating creature with, say, Sylvie Guillem's legs above Joaquin Cortes' flamenco feet and below Michael Clark's bare bottom, plus a soupçon of Fred Astaire's style.

My ideal dancer would be endowed with emotional intelligence. This could be defined as a sensitivity, gutsiness and honesty that all have an internal source. Recently I came upon an unexpected example of what I mean, but I need to preface it by reaching back to personal history.

Call me unusually precocious or prematurely pretentious, but Ingmar Bergman was one of the film gods of my mid-teens. I'll never forget the first time I saw Cries and Whispers, the great Swede's 1972 study of three sisters whose characters - and their somewhat schematic associations with purity, corruption and death - represented facets of his concept of Woman. The cast included the acclaimed actors Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann. There was a fourth female, an almost mute servant played by the internationally unknown Kari Sylwan. In one of the most extraordinary of the film's stream of intense, Oscar-winning images this bare-breasted peasant cradled the dying sister, to whom she was selflessly devoted, in a Pietà-like pose.

Flash-forward to The Place, May 2006. Sylwan, I'm thrilled to learn, is to be a key player in a collaborative evening between Ana Sanchez-Colberg, Puerto Rican-born artistic director of London-based Theatre enCorps, and Swedish choreographer Evfa Lilja. What's a mini-icon of my film-going youth doing in a dance piece? Apparently Sylwan, 65, commenced her dance career in 1956. She was a member of Sweden's Royal Ballet, a soloist in the Cullberg Ballet and, later, an assistant director to Bergman. Until her retirement last year she was the principal of Stockholm's University College of Dance. Since 2003 she's been working with Lilja's company, E.L.D., on an extensive research project entitled Movement as the Memory of the Body.

Lilja's motives are revealed in her writing: 'Why do certain cultures view age as an accumulation of wisdom, while others neglect the old and keep them in the isolation of terminal storage? What forms of artistic expression can portray the inner lives of the elderly, their desires, sexuality, fear, joy, their thinking and their reflections? How do children and young people view the old - and getting old? These are all speculative matters, scientific questions, but I want to incorporate the curiosity they arouse within an artistic process.'

Using the Eye in the Middle of Your Head is a bleakly Nordic yet uplifting two-hander Lilja made for and with Sylwan and actor, dancer, director and producer Jan Abramson, who is pushing 70. They wear street garb on an empty stage. Sylwan, sitting barefoot like a child in a sandbox, repeatedly runs her hands up, over and down her body. The epitome of long-suffering patience and concentration, she rubs and stirs the floor or writes in the air. Balding, sturdy and attentive, Abramson paces on the periphery. Eventually the focus shifts to him. He strips to his underwear, cowering in fear and humiliation as Sylwan, his would-be comforter, hovers in the background. Later they embrace, waltz a bit, run slowly side by side, lie down and toss, turn and roll. But it's who they are, not what they do, that counts. Each is a repository of information about what it means to have lived. Their partnership is marked by delicacy, vulnerability, determination, frustration and, possibly, regret.

Lilja's dance is by no means a definitive portrait of maturity, but I'll not soon forget these performers and their combination of gravitas and transparency. How is it possible to be so seemingly unguarded and emotionally available as they were onstage? Must people be born with these attributes, or can they be taught? Yet this is not about technique nor, I suspect, do such gifts arrive automatically with age. Could it be that certain creative circumstances induce a quality of revelation? I occasionally spot it in younger dancers like Andrea Rauch, the Slovenian mainstay of Charles Linehan's company. (She's wonderfully direct in her approach to his elusive, dramatically allusive work, while at the same time appearing to harbour a secret.) I've witnessed it in Fin Walker's work for CandoCo and her own Walker Dance Park Music, and in performances by the exceptional learning-disabled group Anjali.

It was present, too, to varying degrees, in the ten members of London Contemporary Dance School's postgraduate group EDge. Their 2006 international touring programme features Sue MacLennan's Just Seconds Before. Fleeting, pensive yet fluidly playful, this deceptively arbitrary ensemble dance allows its fresh-faced cast to move and be onstage pretty much without needing to adopt roles or wear masks. To be unhidden was their challenge as performers.

The audience at The Place, where I caught EDge in action, consisted mainly of well-behaved, receptive schoolkids, many of whom had previously participated in education work with company dancers. So there, facing each other, were two sides of the future of dance in the UK, and in the same space where Sylwan and Abramson had bared parts of their souls in public. I left the venue thinking, as Lilja has, about gaps and proximities in the perceptions of young and old, about exchanges between innocence and experience, and about what it takes - some unlearning, maybe - to make dance truly accessible on deeper levels than is the norm.

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the autumn 2003 and summer 2005 editions of Animated, and writes Critical Faculties as a regular column. Email donaldhutera@yahoo.com

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Animated: Summer 2006