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The soft, elegant texture of his works is recognizable across ballet, contemporary dance and film. After making a name for himself as an independent artist, Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg was recently appointed the Artistic Director of Danish Dance Theatre. He spoke with ICONS ahead of his first creation for the Paris Opera Ballet, Les Noces, and shared his challenges, successes, and wisdom.
ICONS: When did you first feel the urge to choreograph?
Pontus Lidberg: From a young age I took opportunities as soon as they appeared. In school, there was a little workshop once a year, and when there was a chance to do my own thing, I would. For as long as I can remember, that has been a constant. When you're training as a dancer, it's not necessarily creative: you are learning things, practicing. Of course, you can argue that's creative, but not in the same sense. Creating was always more interesting to me.
I don't think I really thought about it as a career. I don't even think that way now: who knows if I'll be around in 5 years? I have quite a few years under my belt already – I'm not a new voice, but one thing that was easier at the beginning of my career was that I didn't necessarily think about what was possible or not possible when creating. It didn't occur to me that it might not work. Now, I think about the fact that what I have in mind might not be a good idea, even though I have more experience. That's why it can be very inspiring being around young people: they're very open, wide-eyed... If you don't know limits, then you don't have them.
ICONS: You danced with a number of companies - how do you look back on those years?
PL: I was an impatient dancer. I never really felt like it was 100% right for me. The idea that something will ever be 100% right sets you up for disappointment, of course, because it's not how things work. Having said that, I felt like there was something missing, whereas when I was able to create, nothing was missing. In a way, it was simple: I wanted to perform, but not at the expense of being able to create.
ICONS: Did you learn about choreography and creation from being in the studio as a dancer?
PL: No. I don't think so. I never really stayed so long anywhere that I became part of that place. There are some choreographers who have really made their mark on a lot of other dance-makers, like Forsythe, whose work has given birth to a whole generation. Same with Nederlands Dans Theater. That never happened to me: I was never with anybody for that long; I was gone before I settled into any one school of thought.
ICONS: What is it that shaped your choreography, then?
PL: From early on, as a dancer, I was interested in body mechanics, from alignment to the anatomical structure. For example, yoga made a lot of sense to me when I started doing it because it's a way of aligning mind with body and organizing your body. Classical ballet is another way of organizing the body. The mind-body connection has shaped the movement I create. I've been lucky to be more or less injury-free, but I also consider what's healthy and possible for the instrument that is my body.
I take that into account when I work with dancers as well. At this point, I think it's become intuitive: I just wouldn't ask a dancer to do something that's absolutely crazy, as in potentially dangerous. I know that a young body can take a lot, but I still wouldn't do it, because I know it's just not healthy. I don’t try to push the body as far as possible. Obviously, it can be super interesting to explore limits, but to me, there's so much the body can express while staying healthy.
I also believe that there is no such thing as an original idea. It might seem like that at the time, but whatever idea you had appeared out of nowhere. It was built upon all the moments that led up to that point when that idea appeared. The idea is a continuation of all that’s happened before. Movement is the same: it comes out of nowhere. My movement comes out of my life, my particular story with movement as well as the kind of body and nervous system I have been given. It’s the result of all the physical experiences I've had, which manifest at this moment. My work is unique because it's processed through my particular physicality, my way of thinking about art, but these are in turn the product of everything I've lived.
ICONS: How did you handle the transition to freelance life as a choreographer?
PL: I had to hustle. I also went to medical school for quite a long time – four and a half years. I started focusing on my own choreography around the same time, so I had a remarkably intense few years. Medical school was engaging and absorbing, but I also had the freedom to create work on my own terms, except for the fact that I had little money. That's really when my work started going somewhere, I think.
I wanted to become a doctor, but I also didn't want to give up on the creative side. It was a conundrum because I realized that what I imagined was really outside normal expectations. At the same time, I thought: why not? In the end, what happened is that my work took me outside of Sweden. I received offers to create elsewhere and I wanted to do so. It began with taking some time off my studies to do projects, then returning to school, then taking more time off... And eventually – well, I'm still off.
ICONS: What did you learn from the years you spent in medical school?
PL: Getting to learn that much and to focus on people other than yourself was really wonderful. I wouldn't be the choreographer I am today if it weren't for the experiences I had as a person, and these years in medical school are a big part of my life. They enriched me in tangible ways. In general, as a dancer, what you're doing is standing in front of a mirror or a coach, perfecting something that has to do with your own body as an instrument. That can be very exciting, but it is by nature quite self-absorbed. I thought: I can't be a dancer and be obsessed with my own development every hour of the day. Something was missing there. Being in medical school, studying, helping or figuring out how to help other people was very much the opposite of that. That's the main reason I wanted to do it: you're no longer concerned with yourself as a body that somebody is watching.
ICONS: How close are you to your ballet roots today as a choreographer?
PL: My background is really mixed: I was a ballet dancer, but my work has moved in many different directions since I started choreographing. I never really adhered to one language or school of thought, be it classical, neoclassical, contemporary or conceptual. I'm equally comfortable making work for ballet dancers in pointe shoes and doing installation work for art galleries. It just depends on the context.
ICONS: What do you think is constant about your work?
PL: There are certain colors – literally and philosophically – that are always present. My work is recognizable, I think, even across genres, from contemporary to classical. I think there's a certain softness to my work, a tenderness, and a dreamlike quality. It can have various meanings, but it relies more on archetypes and symbols than on a specific narrative.
ICONS: You have over 15 years’ experience as a full-time choreographer. What are the lessons you’ve learned?
PL: I've met a lot of people, and my work has taken me a lot of places. To be honest, I think the most important thing for me when I'm working is the social context, the encounters I have with dancers and other people. The creations I most treasures are the ones where I had close contact with the dancers. I feel like I always do with some people, in every place, but company cultures are different. Some companies are more interested in personal encounters and process than others.
ICONS: What is your creative process like? Do you prepare movement ahead of time or work mostly in the studio?
PL: Both – it depends on the company. Some dancers are used to working with tasks, concepts, and others aren't. If they aren't, then I have to do it, and in this case, I have to prepare. Sometimes I'm surprised: in fact, I don't really make a decision about which way to go before I meet the dancers. I could prepare the whole thing and it might not be the right fit. I really don't like imposing my work if it's not a good fit.
I don't give free rein either, or rarely: my work isn't improvisation-based. It has a clear aesthetic or a clear idea of what the piece will be. I'm really driving the process, even if the dancers are co-creating or creating with me. I prefer to work in dialogue and not take anything for granted. First I have to understand who the dancers are, and that informs the work. Otherwise, my role becomes that of a teacher.
ICONS: Why did you select Les Noces for the Paris Opera Ballet?
PL: It came from my conversations with Aurélie [Dupont]. I think it makes sense to revisit Les Noces. Some iconic scores have a lot of baggage, Rite of Spring above all. Everybody has some kind of idea about what Rite of Spring is or should be. Even if it's not Nijinsky's, it's Pina Bausch's Rite. With Les Noces, most people don't really have a finalized idea about what it should be. As such, I think it's worth revisiting, and it's a remarkable piece of music.
I'm not doing a “version” of it, however. I'm creating new work, not revisiting the libretto or the original ideas behind it. The concept has nothing to do with the original version or later ones. A lot of versions have used the idea of a wedding, the original layout with the bride and the groom. Mine will just be a creation to the score of Les Noces.
ICONS: What inspired you during the creative process?
PL: I thought about marriage today in contemporary society, and it's barely related to what it was even 100 years ago. The idea of marriage contains a sense of eternity: if you have a religious wedding, it's still “until death does us part.” But it certainly isn't like that for most people. The likelihood of divorce is quite high, yet it seems people still have this idea that marriage is a permanent solution to something. In fact, in this day and age, marriage is more fluid than ever. It's also no longer gendered in the same way. In a way, it's a bit strange that the gay movement fought for something so conservative: in some ways, it would have been more logical to fight for the right not to marry for everybody!
A Les Noces today is certainly not going to be about an arranged marriage in Russia. It's just not relevant anymore. It will be more about the idea of coupling, of finding the one – what does that mean? Is that a romantic idea that's going to dissolve?
ICONS: You’re working with a big cast. Does that change your process?
PL: I'm more used to working closely with a few people. My project-based company has always involved artists I'm very intimate with. It would make a lot of sense to come to a new place and work with a small number of dancers, but I set out to do a group piece and I like the challenge. A big stage like the Paris Opera makes it possible to work with a large cast. And the dancers here are very diverse. It's not a homogenous group at all. They have different personalities, bodies, and points of view, which is really nice. It sounds normal, but some companies are quite homogenous in their training and way of thinking.
ICONS: How have you approached Stravinsky’s score?
PL: The way I've related to the score up to this point is through its dramatic structure, what I hear in the music as events or changes. But I didn't choreograph to the music in advance, because I didn't want to get stuck. At the moment we're just making expressive material, and that can be pushed in different directions with the music. I don't want to be so tied to the music that it's limiting me.
I think musicality can be many things: I don't like Mickey Mouse-ing, as in when the music and the movement have a 1:1 ratio. I feel like there can be layers that are in dialogue with each other. Sometimes they're closely related while still retaining their own voices, their own journeys. I don't really count either. I can count, but I don't feel like I need to most of the time, because I learn the melody by heart. Stravinsky's music is hard to count; it's not linear – just knowing it is easier. Counting can be helpful, but it can also be detrimental: music isn't a metronome.
ICONS: When you go into a company like the Paris Opera Ballet, are you looking to use qualities that are specific to ballet dancers?
PL: I feel like what's wonderful about the Paris Opera is that they're a company that embraces many kinds of dance, so even though they're a classical ballet company, I don't feel obliged to be classical. I could have chosen to work with pointe shoes, for instance, but I'm not. The minute you put pointe shoes on a dancer, they're a dancer. At this point, I'm exploring something a bit more neutral, more of a person.
Also, given the subject matter, if I had pointe shoes, I'd likely have to separate by gender, and the whole idea behind my creation is that traditional gendering is out of sync with reality now. My work isn't necessarily gender-specific, although it's often character-based. An encounter can be two men, two women, a man, and a woman. It doesn't matter.
ICONS: Have you developed strategies to work with new dancers?
PL: I hope so! I can tell you this: almost every time I start a new creation, I think: how am I going to create one step? And then a few weeks later, there is a premiere, and I don't know how I did it. Once I'm in the studio, it just happens.
ICONS: In 2018, you were appointed an artistic director of Danish Dance Theatre. Why did you decide to continue your work in a company setting?
PL: I'd had my own company, so to speak, for quite a while, since about 2003, but it had been more of a group of people who came together for specific projects. Nothing about it was permanent, except the wish to do it. I was only available for part of the year anyway because I would do commissions for other companies and other things. Danish Dance Theatre is quite different because it's an institution, with dancers who have year-round contracts.
The other difference is that now I also get to curate, which I'm very happy about. Opportunities like this don't really grow on trees, and for it to be the right time, the right place, the right context – it's quite rare, actually. It's not like I've been on the lookout for anything like this, but when it came up, it felt like a logical next step in every sense.
ICONS: Why was this company the right one for you?
PL: It's smallish but it has tremendous potential. There aren't that many contemporary dance companies in Scandinavia, and this is one of the few national ones. I can also see that there are certain things that have not yet been explored in Copenhagen dance-wise, and I want to bring them there. In a lot of cities, the dance scene can be quite saturated, but Copenhagen has room for more dance. Given where I am in my career, it's a place where I can contribute. I have a lot of energy and ambition, and I think I can make things happen, just as I did with my own projects.
For me, directing a contemporary company with dancers trained in contemporary dance also makes sense in terms of where I'm heading. I feel like I've done so much ballet in my life, and contemporary dance can mean so many different things. Ballet is quite defined. The scope is just much larger in contemporary dance; there's much more to explore in order to grow as an artist.
ICONS: You have also done a lot of film work. What do you see as the main differences between making a dance for the stage and for film?
PL: They're two completely separate things. Stage dance is a live art form that you share with an audience at the moment. It will never be the same again, even if you repeat the show the next day. The film is a fixed medium: it's like painting -- you work on it until you decide that it's finished. On the other hand, a film is much more precise. Any kind of artistic choice you imagine is possible. In a performance, time goes from beginning to end, for instance. With film, time might go backward, or parallel timelines might occur. I want to keep working with both, even though in a way, I think a film is a better medium for me. It's more precise yet unlimited. Limitations are great; they force you to work with what you have, but I think my mind thinks more in terms of film.
ICONS: What advice would the Pontus of today give to young Pontus?
PL: I've never thought about that. The question makes me a bit uneasy because it's a bit like saying: what could I have done differently? I accept that things happen the way they happen. Some things in my life worked out, and others didn't. What I would say to a young choreographer though is that this career takes dedication. It doesn't happen with one work, or two, or three. It's a journey you need to dedicate yourself to. It involves a lot of layers, and it takes time. You need to keep working to start seeing the bigger picture.
More about Pontus Lidberg: Raised in Stockholm, Sweden, Pontus Lidberg trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School. From 1996 to 2003, he danced professionally with the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, Gothenburg Ballet, and the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. As a choreographer, Lidberg has created more than 40 works for dance companies including New York City Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, SemperOper Ballett Dresden, Martha Graham Dance Company, Le Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, The Royal Swedish Ballet, The Royal Danish Ballet, Beijing Dance Theatre, BalletBoyz, Morphoses, as well as for his own concert group, Pontus Lidberg Dance. His award-winning work for film includes The Rain (2007) and Labyrinth Within (Best Picture at Lincoln Center’s Dance on Camera Festival in 2012). He holds an MFA in Contemporary Performing Arts from the University of Gothenburg, Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts. In April 2018, he was appointed the artistic director of Danish Dance Theatre.
Images and art photography in order of appearance from top to bottom:
Photo of Pontus Lidberg, by Charlie Makkos
Une Autre Passion, Ballet du Grand Theatre, Photo by Gregory Batardon
Snow, Pontus Lidberg, Photo by Petrus Sjövik
Siren, Danis Hance Theatre, Photo by Peter Leuder
Une Autre Passion, Ballet du Grand Theatre, Photo by Gregory Batardon
Paysage, Soudain, La Nuit, Acosta Danza
Interviewer: Laura Cappelle
Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista
Dance ICONS, Inc., February 2019 © All rights reserved.