When The Dance Becomes the Dance

Dancing, I become the breath swirling on God’s palm.

When the Dancer Becomes the Dance
Donya Feuer Oct. 31, 1934 – Nov. 6, 2011

On my 40th birthday a true legend died.

A few years ago while I was working on my dissertation “Pure Artistry: Ingmar Bergman, the Face as Portal and the Performance of the Soul” Harvey Lichtenstein at Brooklyn Academy of Music, a man whom I didn’t know personally but who knew I was interviewing various of Bergman’s collaborators, encouraged me to contact Donya Feuer in Stockholm. I came to understand that in the Swedish and Norwegian dance worlds, at least among the members of those Nordic countries’ cultural intelligentsia and to some extent also in the U.S., Feuer had become something of a legend due to her mastery of dance, her experimental brilliance and her ability to translate the magic of movement into the film medium. Shortly after returning to my motherland on a summer break from the U.S, I telephoned her. Explaining the purpose of the call, I asked if she might grant me an interview in person to discuss her choreography-work with Bergman both for the stage and for camera. Demonstrating an attitude which I later learned was integral to Donya’s character, she answered briskly and sharply: “Only because you come with such a great reference (meaning Mr. Lichtenstein) I will grant you an interview; however, you must understand that the subject matter (i.e., Bergman) is sacred to me and if I don’t like you or feel comfortable with you I will end the talk with little ado, and, but the way, I will know within the first couple of minutes exactly how I feel about you.”

Somewhat intimidated yet excited I took a deep breath: “Thank you for your straightforwardness. I understand and accept. When can we meet?”

We met the following day, an early summer afternoon in Gamla Stan, the old part of Stockholm, where she had her flat. I was to wait for her outside a charming hotel across the street from her address. Feeling the cool air, the cobblestones uneven under my feet, the giant castle and old cathedral nearby – all held together by this medieval Old City, I remind myself not to have any expectations, just to be open and present. And then, I see her: a veritable angel, so small in stature yet with a white lion-like mane framing her petite, sensitive and intense face, her eyes awake and piercing. I had never seen her before, but I knew beyond a doubt that this was indeed the legendary Donya Feuer.

It turned out we both liked special places: We strolled up and down the winding narrow streets until we found one of those classy gems. The restaurant, beautiful and exquisite offered us a circular corner table hidden away on the second floor. We sat down and began to communicate about our intended focus, Ingmar Bergman, whom we both adored and respected, but from such different perspective. I had studied him to the very bone, academically, and she had worked with him closely for years. After a while I realized that, swept into the conversation, I had forgotten to take out my iPod recorder. Now doing so, I asked for her permission to record and we continued the journey of Donya meeting Ingmar. Suddenly she stopped, tensed, and muttered that this would in fact not work. Having set my mind on not being attached to any fixed outcome of this meeting I began to pack my things, nevertheless grateful that we had not yet ordered any food, as that could have become very awkward: her not approving of me but the two of us still having to eat together. Finally, I turned off the recording device to place it back into my purse and got ready to say good-bye gracefully. “Ah!” She sighs, “Now I can talk freely!”

To my joyous surprise I realized that it was my recording her that made her so uncomfortable, not me! The conversation that followed lasted for seven hours! After four hours at the restaurant she asked me to join her at her apartment, which I felt honored to do.

Her home, cushioned under the roof beams on the fifth floor with no elevator, featured light wooden floors and white-washed walls. The guestroom, hall, living room, kitchen and bedroom were all spartanly-furnished, in a Swedish way – lots of wood and books and light. From her kitchen-window you could catch a glimpse of the great church with its giant bell that would sound deep and loud every so often. At this kitchen table we would come to drink many cups of tea over the next few years. We would also venture into her attic which was a treasure store and a mini-library of sorts, featuring vinyl records, workbooks from shows by both Donya and Bergman, photographs, diaries and much more. In her living room, where most every morning she would practice yoga, rested a wooden sofa, and in it – “the Hughes gold:” Earlier in her career (around the year of 1989) she had discovered Ted Hughes’ selection of Shakespearean texts. This was printed in a little red book she’d picked up at the airport in London. Deeply inspired, she brought it to the Royal Theatre in Stockholm where she was then working with luminaries such as Alf Sjöberg and Ingmar Bergman. She told the artistic director that she wanted to create a one-woman show based on Hughes’ selection (to be mounted on the main stage!). She was granted her wish under one condition: that she would return to England, meet with Mr. Hughes personally and gain his approval to use the text. At the time Hughes was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, reigning for several years and Donya, somewhat daunted by the task, was filled with creative passion for the theatrical production that had now begun to percolate in her mind.

She would only meet Ted Hughes once in person, this when she indeed traveled to ask for his blessing, which he bestowed. But their connection went far beyond the physical realm and for almost two years he sent her letters – hammered out on his typewriter, fifty-one in total, some three pages in lengths, others as many as twelve, in which he explored the deeper meaning and mythic sensibility in each of Shakespeare’s work. At the end he wrote an extensive book based on this correspondence, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. (He dedicated this book to Donya Feuer and Peter Brook.) These letters, filled with Donya’s notes and questions, where safely tucked away in her wooden chest. Donya and Ted had a creative relationship that bordered on the romantic but ultimately manifested itself at an artistic, soulful, indeed, mythical level.

The sunlight in the kitchen and living room was most remarkable in the afternoon. Often we would sit on the floor and listen to classical music with the volume turned on high to mull over these letters. Other times, we would read Donya’s personal writings and she would reminiscence about her past, both private and professional. We would stroll down to nearby restaurants, eat light but well and drink good wine. She would tell me funny stories about her lovers or we would get entangled in conversations with interesting people seated nearby. Naturally much of the focus was on her, still she was sensitive and caring: “You are welcome here!” She meant into her heart and home, but also to the artistic community of Sweden, which was far away from her home country where I then resided.

One day we ventured off to a museum where a Pina Bausch exhibit was taking place. Bausch had studied with Donya and Paul Sanasardo when the famous German dancer first arrived to America. Another time we visited the Dance Museum to study the material in its holdings related to Donya herself. During that time I returned to Sweden once or twice a year and would stay at her place anywhere from a few days to several weeks. By then she was becoming more frail and her memory was fading. I would call from Santa Barbara or Umeå (my two hometowns during this time period) to see how she was holding up. When Bergman died in 2007 I was the first to call her and give her the sad news. While she had many dear friends and she and I only knew for far too short a time, our hearts had become very dear to one other.

She would often speak about her son and his father, about Bergman, and about the holiness one finds in dance. “Dance is sacred, it is holy, the body moves and becomes the dance,” she would say. “The dancer becomes the dance, this is holy.” “Dancing, I become the breath swirling on God’s palm.”

One of these magical afternoons we were seated in her large bedroom, cornered between the kitchen and the living room. I have a video camera. “Why don’t you dance for me, Donya?” This old woman, then seventy-four years old, with her petite face lacking almost any trace of wrinkles, almost transparent, with the fairy physique of a lifelong dancer, began to move, without any audible music, but with an internal rhythm and life that was so powerful, so masterful and so fully inhabited. Both of us were swept away: she moving while I sat with my mouth agape, eyes transfixed. After quite some time she grew tired and to my distress I realized that I had not pressed “record”. With her usual kindness, candor and passion she danced a bit more; this I filmed. But those first blessed moments…her bliss and poise are etched only into my memory and into her tender heart. How many such moments did she collect with her giant friends, Martha Graham, Sanasardo, Bausch, Hughes, Sjöberg, Bergman? Many, many… I am most certain.

By Ottiliana Rolandsson, Ph.D.
November 16, 2011


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