Bengt Häger - Doyen of the Foundations

PR and fact box
Professor Bengt Häger has passed away:

Bengt Häger 1916-2011

The Dancing Times

"He was a distinguished, courtly gentleman of the old school, a delightful and amusing companion who bore his many awards lightly and totally without vanity"
- Mary Clarke

Mary Clarke's & Erik Näslund's Obituary in The Dancing Times (PDF)

The importance of Professor Bengt Häger, doyen and founder of the Carina Ari Foundations, in promoting the development of Swedish dance in the 20th century is well-known. Most of us are also familiar with his contribution as a dance critic and writer in Stockholms Tidningen and other publications, as the founder and director of Dansmuseet, as the principal of the first national training programme at university level for choreography and dance pedagogy, the Institute of Choreography (now the University College of Dance and Circus) and the founder and director of the Swedish dancer and choreographer Carina Ari's three foundations for the promotion of Swedish dance.

Professor Bengt Häger
Professor Bengt Häger
What some may not recall quite as vividly is Professor Häger's efforts to promote Swedish dance internationally – his managerial work, bringing renowned international dance companies and artists to a culture-starved Sweden after the Second World War – providing Swedish dancers and choreographers with valuable input from abroad, and giving audiences opportunities to see dance of international quality.

It all started with a successful guest performance at Cirkus in Stockholm by the American dancer Katherine Dunham and her company in the late 1940s. They were on tour in London, and Häger, who was known as a good organiser of dance performances (for instance helping the patron of Les Ballets Suédois Rolf de Maré with his choreography competition in Stockholm in 1945 and the following year in Copenhagen) was asked if he could organise a few performances for the Dunham company in Stockholm. Häger was a close friend of the then manager of Cirkus on Djurgården in Stockholm and asked if he could rent the venue cheaply for a guest performance, since it was off-season and Cirkus was not booked. The manager was glad to get some rent and agreed to the modest terms – something he later regretted, since the company performed to a full house in Stockholm for several weeks.

The Metropolitan Ballet's first performance in Sweden ended in disaster – the audience didn't turn up. The guest performance was badly planned, and Häger took over as manager, organising a tour throughout Sweden. He bombarded all the local newspapers, making sure they supported the project with enthusiastic advance announcements and detailed reviews of the performances. That both the presentations and reviews were written by Häger himself was something that most people didn't realise – or didn't care about. And if anyone did protest, their murmurs were drowned out by the raptures of the audience over the fine dancers, choreographies and the expertise of the articles.

Some time after this, Häger was called up by the famous British dance illustrator Kay Ambrose, who was trying to assist an Indian dance group who were having trouble with their manager and their European tour. "You're a tour organiser – we have a fine little company of Indian dancers here. Can you help them?" This was Ram Gopal's famous Indian company. Häger took them under his wing and organised month-long tours in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland – Häger's first Finnish success.

In Paris after the War Häger collaborated with the wealthy Betsabe de Rothschild, sister of the banker. She was writing a book about the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and was also financing Martha's European tour. Unfortunately, Martha sprained her ankle during the first performance in Paris, and the entire tour had to be cancelled. She danced in all the ballets herself and refused to let anyone replace her. Häger recalled how he and Betsabe sat by her bedside at the hospital, comforting her as she cried over the cancelled performances. Betsabe promised her that she could come back whenever she wanted and do her tour. A year or so later, in 1954, Martha and her ensemble returned to Europe and Scandinavia, with Häger as the tour organiser.

Merce Cunningham was another dance artist who eventually attained cult status, whom Häger brought to Sweden in the late 1950s for his first performances outside the USA. It took many years, however, before Merce gained recognition for his art from the Swedish dance establishment.

One of the major dance events in postwar Sweden was Häger's tour with the Peking Opera. Twice in the 1950s he organised longer performance seasons with a huge group of dancers, actors and musicians. The Scandinavians had the privilege of experiencing the ancient Chinese dance and theatre tradition that was to disappear within the next few years in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It was also due to Häger that the Royal Swedish Ballet got an invitation to dance in Kina in the beginning of the 1960s.

Eventually, the international dance scene began to take Northern Europe into account when planning major tours that filled the theatres and were commercially viable. The basic principle was that if Häger, as a critic, was convinced that the artists and the dance company were good, then all the other organisers and decision-makers followed his advice. In consequence, one innovative international ensemble after the other was presented in Sweden and Scandinavia by Professor Bengt Häger as the promoter.

Prof. Häger, Willy Gordon
Professor Häger with his sculpture and the sculptor Willy Gordon in the Gustav III Cafe at the Royal Opera. Photo: Satu Mariia Harjanne, 17 June, 2002

In 2011, when Bengt Häger summed up his impressions of the art of dance, he said that perhaps the most interesting and important dance style that has now been adapted by contemporary dancers was the very origin of European dance – Baroque dance. This is especially significant in Sweden, since this is the only place in the world where we have an intact Baroque theatre, with all the machinery, décor and equipment, at Drottningholm Palace in Stockholm.

The dance itself as it was performed has been fervently discussed. How did they dance? There are various opinions about this, and Sweden has had several interpreters of the historic dance style in performances at the Drottningholm Theatre, including Mary Skeaping, Ivo Cramér and Regina Beck-Friis.

The Baroque style of movement has been studied continuously in Central Europe especially, while Sweden has focused on researching the music from that period.

As a former manager, Bengt Häger was particularly keen that the Carina Ari Memorial Foundation should support the Drottningholm Palace Theatre to enable guest performances by renowned Baroque ensembles from abroad – a link to the international dance scene that helps to revitalise the art of dance in Sweden.

He also considered it essential that Swedish dancers should be included in these guest performances. We need to learn and improve Swedish knowledge in the field of Baroque dance, not least so that we can give young dancers and choreographers further opportunities for qualified stage work.

Professor Bengt Häger passed away on Wednesday 2 November 2011, leaving us in deep sorrow. He was 95, and remained active to the end of his life.

Satu Mariia Harjanne