Deborah Hay’s open-ended ‘Figure a Sea’ is as real as life itself

Members of the Cullberg Ballet in "Figure a Sea," which will be at the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University through Oct. 9.

MARINA LEVITSKAYA

Members of the Cullberg Ballet in “Figure a Sea,” which will be at the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University through Oct. 9.

Choreographer Deborah Hay has divided her dancers into teams, each with its own uniform. One cohort wears buttoned-up navy shirts with black shorts. They look stern, as if they were the beach volleyball team from a religious academy. Another, more relaxed group comes dressed for the summer heat in breezy mesh tops; while the third team sports brightly patterned shirts they might have found in a discount rack at a store on the Boardwalk.

We can thank the Cullberg Ballet’s costume designer, Marita Tjarnstrom, for these togs, cleverly suggesting the colors of the shoreline and the theme of Hay’s dance, “Figure a Sea” — a U.S. premiere, as refreshing as an ocean breeze, that the legendary Swedish company brought to the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University on Thursday as part of the Peak Performances series. (There also will be performances Friday through Sunday).

The uniforms also help define a scene that otherwise might appear chaotic. “Figure a Sea” is only slightly less tumultuous than the surf.

The choreographer, a doyenne of the American avant-garde, revels in her freedom to begin the world anew. Instead of barking commands at her dancers, she has coaxed them into making the work themselves by asking questions like “How do you not get seduced by the center of the space?” (That’s a good one for those born-to-shine types who instinctively seek out the limelight). Evidently the audience is not privy to Hay’s game plan, but it often seems as if each of the 20 dancers onstage is playing by his or her own rules.

Still, there are no collisions, and Hay has speckled the piece with enough solid structures to confirm her guiding hand. What we see is not anarchy, but a design so complicated that while its limits become obvious we cannot predict what shape the piece will take at any given moment.

Who knows when this timeless dance began? The performers are already onstage when the audience enters the theater, and what appears at first to be a motley warm-up turns out to be the piece itself. Isolated figures stretch, squat and hold their arms akimbo. Three dancers hug one another consolingly; a woman practices a ballet exercise. Two women rest on their sides in a matching pose, as if by coincidence. The action spills over the large white dance floor centerstage, washing into the exposed wing-space and trickling into the corners by the exit doors.

Hay is a veteran of the 1960s, but her work still feels experimental, filled with a spirit of youthful curiosity and openness. She doesn’t make demands on us or try too often to direct our gaze. Instead, she invites us to explore the dance and focus where we will: on a woman’s knee, bent and turned in; on a man who squats, his spine relaxed, sinking into his heels. Nothing matters, and everything matters.

Gradually, the houselights dim and the white rectangular backdrop comes alive, opaque on top but with its lower half translucent and gleaming. The dance continues as before, however, purposefully but seemingly at random. The performers keep busy, but remain aware of one another, with individuals pausing to survey the scene around them as if looking for direction or awaiting a cue. Their movements are gentle and largely unhurried. It’s as if the foraging gulls of Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds” had gulped down a packet of quaaludes left on the shore by a careless picnicker.

Laurie Anderson’s music comes and goes, sounding distant and suggesting a foghorn, a Siren song, and the secret conversations of whales. At times it breathes and rumbles.

Inevitably, moments when the dance becomes more sociable grab our attention. Three dancers fall face-down onto the floor and stay there, while the others shuffle around them. Later, those three will rise to their knees and embrace one another. The dancers wearing patterned shirts gather together and raise their arms like steeples. Two women splay their hands and tilt their bodies, mirroring each other.

Though affectionate hugs are common enough, no one bears another person’s weight until the team in dark blue shirts huddles in a corner and lifts a woman on high. Oh-so gradually, “Figure a Sea” becomes more dramatic, with dancers murmuring and shivering, couples holding hands, and a man aiming an invisible something at another man’s open mouth before he drops to his knees and prays.

Then, rather suddenly, most of the performers vacate the space, leaving us with the “ballet girl” once again practicing her adagio — such determination — and another footloose woman who pauses in midstep and traces curves. Do these women represent choreographic alternatives, or are they in some way alike?

Like a ballet class, Hay’s open-ended dance seems less a goal unto itself than a preparation for something else. One day, a new dance language will emerge from this ocean primeval, crawling onto the land distinct in its identity and filled with confidence.

“Figure a Sea” will also be presented at the Kasser Theater at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7; 8 p.m. Oct. 8; and 3 p.m. Oct. 9. Visit peakperfs.org.

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