When the Dancer Becomes the Dance
Donya Feuer Oct. 31, 1934 – Nov. 6, 2011
A few years ago when 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 I didn’t know personally but who knew I was interviewing collaborators to Bergman, encouraged me to contact Donya Feuer in Stockholm. I came to understand that, at least, in the Swedish and Norwegian dance-world and among their cultural intelligencia, Feuer had become something of a legend due to her mastery of dance, experimental brilliance and her ability to translate the magic of movement into the film medium. Shortly after arriving to my motherland I called her to ask if she might grant me an interview in person discussing her choreography-work with Bergman for the stage and camera. With an attitude which I later learned was integral to Donya’s personality, she answered briskly and sharply: “Only because you come with such great reference (meaning Mr. Lichtenstein) I will grant you an interview, however, you must understand that the subject matter (Bergman, that was) 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, by the way, I will know within the first couple of minutes 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. And then, I saw her: an angel, so small in stature yet with a white lion-mane framing her petite, sensitive and intense face. Her eyes awake and piercing. I had not seen her before, but I knew beyond a doubt that this was the legendary Donya Feuer.
We sat down in a beautiful restaurant and began our conversation about our intended focus, Ingmar Bergman, whom we both adored and respected, but from such different perspectives. I had studied him to the bone, academically, and she had worked with him artistically for years. Suddenly, shortly into the conversation, she stopped, tense and muttered that this would not work. Having set my mind on not being attached to any outcome of this meeting I began to pack my things, nevertheless grateful that we had not yet ordered any food. Lastly, I turn off the recording device to place it back into my purse and getting ready to gracefully say good-bye. “Ah!” she sighs, “Now I can talk freely!”
To my joyous surprise I realised that it was the recording that had made her feel uncomfortable, not me! The conversation that followed lasted for 7 hours. After 4 hours at the restaurant she asked me to join her at her apartment, which I was honoured to do.
Donya’s home, cushioned under the roof beams five stories up without an elevator, was dressed in 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 came to drink many cups of tea over the next few years. We would venture into her attic which was a treasure and a mini-library of sorts, featuring vinyl records, work-books from shows by both Feuer and Bergman, photographs, diaries, letters and much more. In her living room, where most every morning she would practice yoga, stood a Swedish wooden sofa, and in it – “the Hughes’ gold:” Earlier in her career 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 worked with luminaries such as Ingmar Bergman and Alf Sjöberg. 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 Mr. Hughes personally and gain his approval to use the text. At the time Hughes had reined as the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom for several years. Donya was daunted by the task yet filled with creative passion and conviction.
She would only meet Ted 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, 51 in total some 3 pages in lengths, others 12, 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, Peter Brook and Roy Davids.) These original letters, filled with Donya’s handwritten scribbles, notes and questions, where safely tucked away in her wooden chest. Donya and Ted had a creative relationship that bordered on the romantic but manifested at an artistic and soulful…yes, mythical, level.
The sunlight in the kitchen and living room was most remarkable in the afternoon. Often we would sit on the floor and listening 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 reminisce of the past, both private and professional. We would stroll down to nearby restaurants, eat light but well and drink wine. She would tell me funny stories about her lovers or we would get entangled in conversations with interesting people dining at the same place. Naturally, much 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 took place. Bausch studied with Donya and her dance partner Paul Sanasardo when the famous German dancer first arrived to America. Another time we visited the Dance Museum to study its material on Donya herself. I returned to Sweden once or twice a year and would stay at her place from a few days to several weeks. She was getting frailer 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 I was the first to call her and give her the sad news. While she had many close friends and she and I only knew each other shortly, too, too short a time, we were very dear to each other.
She would often speak about her son and his father, about Bergman, and about the holiness 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 had a video camera. “Why don’t you dance for me, Donya?” This old woman, then 74-75 years old, with her petite face lacking almost any trace of wrinkles, transparent, with the fairy physique of a life-long dancer, began to move, without audible music, but with an internal rhythm and life that was so powerful, so masterful and so fully inhabited. Both of us 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 realised that I never pressed “record”. With her usual kindness, candour 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 share with her giant friends — Martha Graham, Sanasardo, Bausch, Hughes, Sjöberg, Bergman? Many, many…
By Ottiliana Rolandsson, Ph.D.
November 16, 2011
Main profession: Director
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