The Dance of Life
Swedish dancer Johan Inger made a name for himself with a career in ballet and modern dance working for some of the world's top troupes. Today, he is on his way to becoming a top choreographer.
Johan Inger never set out to be a dancer. It was his parents, he says, who sensed very early on that he had a creative streak.
"I played the violin, sang in a boys' choir and danced," he says. "Dance classes were just sport and we used to compete with each other to see who could jump the highest or do the most turns. It took a while before I fell completely in love with it."
Dance brought together a number of Inger's favorite childhood pastimes. "I can remember I loved to put on the headphones and submerge myself in music," he says, "I always liked to play the clown and I always liked to act ... so it sort of fit me rather well."
Inger was born in Stockholm in 1967. He trained at both the Swedish Royal Ballet School and the National Ballet School in Canada where his teachers included Charles Mudry, Konstantine Damianov and Irena Milovan.
"The most important thing I ever learned was to let go and trust dance," he says. "You see, if you keep holding back then first of all it does not look good and it certainly is not going to appeal to an audience. You really have to dig into the feeling that you are trying to share through the steps."
Technique is important, he adds, but communication is vital: "The most crucial thing in dance is to be able to find freedom within the limitations of the technique. Somehow you must find a way to turn those steps into your own."
At age 17, Inger became a soloist with the Royal Swedish Ballet. It was his early association with the company that introduced him to the theater. But the fact that the company only performed a set repertoire became a source of frustration.
"We were put on stage very early on, so we were given a chance to really smell the theater,” Inger recalls. "Being around older dancers, watching them and taking classes with them sometimes -- that was for me the most inspiring part."
In 1990, Inger left Stockholm to join the prestigious Netherlands Dance Theater. He quickly became renowned as one of the NDT's great character dancers, gifted with an exceptional charisma. Working with the company also triggered another of his desires. "When I joined NDT, we worked hand-in-hand with the chorographers creating ballet in the studio," he says. "All of the sudden you’re expected not only to do the steps but also to contribute to the creative process!"
Slowly but surely, contributing to the process was no longer enough for Inger and he began to focus his attention on learning to create his own choreographies. "I discovered a creative side that maybe had been sleeping," he says, "I slowly started doing workshops, and that led me to where I am today."
Inger's first choreography for Netherlands Dance Theater II in 1995 was called "Mellantid" (Swedish for "in between time"). It was part of the Holland Dance Festival and was awarded the "Philip Morris Finest Selection" in the contemporary dance category in 1996. This was followed by "Sammanfall" for NDT II (1997), "Livnära" for NDT I (1998), "Round Corners" for NDT II in 1998 and "Among Others" for NDT I in 1999.
The dancers, says Inger, have always played an intimate part in his creative process, "I am very open to what they bring into a piece. It is a very open dialogue … I need the dancers in order to give myself a direction. I look deeply into their personalities and that may very well contribute to the end product."
In 1997 Inger created “Couple of Moments” for NDT III. Working with this distinguished group of very experienced dancers was, he says, one of his most fruitful encounters so far. NDT III is unique in that the troupe is populated with dancers who have already passed the age typically associated with retirement in the dance world. "They came across as the most hungry dancers I have ever worked with… I felt a lot of trust and respect from their side. I was nervous, but it turned into a wonderful experience," he says.
Back in Sweden, Inger has also established himself as a choreographer. In 1996 the country’s prestigious modern dance company, The Cullberg Ballet, added his choreography "Next," originally created for the annual NDT Workshop, to its repertoire. More works followed and in 2002 the company appointed him as its artistic director, a position he will assume in July 2003.
"I think the Swedes are quite open and I think dance has finally achieved a little better status there," says Inger. "I left Sweden for a lot of reasons and those reasons are still there. I don’t know how I am going to cope. But the big challenge is taking this position and seeing what I can do with it."
Although leaving Holland and the Netherlands Dance Theater will be hard, Inger says he hopes the position with the Cullberg Ballet will give him the chance to concentrate entirely on his choreographies. “I have a very good team and what I have to focus on is being creative," he says. "That is why I am going, that is why I think I should be there and that is why they should have me.”
Alongside his new daughter and the challenge of the new position, music and the solitude of an empty dance studio still play a central role in Inger's creative adventures. "I love to go into a studio alone and put on some music and improvise and dance," he says. It’s there, alone in the dance studio, that he believes many of his ideas for the Cullberg Ballet as well as what we hope will be many new Johan Inger choreographies will start to take shape.