This week marks the seven-year anniversary of the death of Anna-Greta Stahle. Anna-Greta was a dance critic and author, who worked for the Dagens Nyheter (Daily News) in Stockholm. And she was the person that taught me to write a dance review.
Her daughter, Anna-Karin taught National dance at the Danshogskolan (University College Of Dance), where I spent part of my second year of university on a Socrates exchange programme from the Roehampton Institute and where Anna-Greta was a lecturer from 1968-82. She had a beautiful house on Lidingo, an island connected to mainland Stockholm.
It was a pretty fancy place to live – Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog from ABBA lived there, the sculptor Carl Milles used to and Nobel laureates Gustaf Dalen and Par Lagerkvist are buried in the church there. Anna-Greta’s house was yellow on the outside and open plan inside, filled with light and pale Swedish pine with striped upholstery, like a Carl Larsson painting.
She joined the newspaper in 1942, becoming its ballet critic 10 years later. She was known for being a skilled, sharp and keen critic, and was the first ever non-dancer to receive the Carina Ari Medal, Sweden’s finest ballet award, given on other years to Mikhail Baryshnikov, Merce Cunningham, Maurice Bejart; Sir Frederic Ashton and Margot Fonteyn.
She rolled merrily in, declaring that she’d been at a 48-hour party with some girlfriends on the archipelago. I was so cross I could barely speak.
Born in Norlin, 1913, Anna-Greta was 86 when I turned up on her doorstep. She wasted no time in getting me to the theatre to see a mixed bill at the Ulriksdals Slottsteater, the oldest Rococo theatre in Sweden (1753) set in national parkland and used by King Gustav III and Carl Michael Bellman during the summer season. The performance had choreography by Ivo Cramer, Rudolf Nureyev, Birgit Cullberg and Mary Skeaping (who Anna-Greta wrote a book with about the Stockholm Opera Ballet in 1979). She gave me a pen and told me to make notes, which I still have. They say things like “the audience cheered when the stage hands came on to sweep the floor” and “they are not dancing en pointe”. She knew everything there was to know about the history of the theatre, the works and their choreographers, and everyone in the theatre knew her.
In his obituary for the Dancing Times, Erik Naslund, Director of the Dans Museet in Stockholm, described Anna-Greta as having: “the charm and laughter of a young girl until the end” and that she used to say she’d “prefer to get a laugh from her students, than to see them fall asleep”.
On the way home from the theatre she drove the wrong way up a one way street (she had forgotten her glasses). I almost had a heart attack but she thought it was hilarious.
I would come home from the Danshogskolan, exhausted and frozen from the sparkling snow and Anna-Greta would be baking apples from her own garden, cooking them with butter, sugar and cinnamon, and brewing coffee in a tiny caffetiere. She would take me up to the locked library on the top floor of her house – the only place I wasn’t allowed to go alone – and it was choc full, floor to ceiling of books on theatre and dance and Japan and travel. Creepy old Japanese antique puppets in gilded costume and pale, dramatic faces sat on top of the bookshelves in delicate glass cases. I found them mildly terrifying but they were incredibly valuable, in a historical sense as much as any other, and had been found during research on a book Anna-Greta wrote, Classical Japanese Theater in 1976.
She always had a story – about the plot of a ballet, or a trip somewhere – to Singapore where the birds “danced” in an open air theatre that started with a flamingo ballet, with a white parrot as leading lady doing tricks, or her time asthe first-ever director of Stockholm’s Circus Academy in 1978.
And time didn’t slow her down. I came home one Friday after a week of particularly grueling rehearsals and there was no sight nor sound of Anna-Greta. For two whole days I didn’t leave the house, panicking and wondering if I should call her family or a hospital, until she rolled merrily in with a straw basket full of berries, declaring that she’d been at a 48-hour kraftskiva (crayfish party) with some girlfriends on the archipelago. I was so cross I could barely speak.
But she made it up by coming to my school show when I was crowned Santa Lucia in Swedish tradition, balancing a crown of lit candles on my head.
She died March 10, 2006 at the age of 93, and I like to think, drinking schnapps and eating crayfish until she went. I hope that one day my obituary will read like hers.