Her most celebrated work was Miss Julie, based on the play by August Strindberg and performed by companies round the world. But she left a twofold legacy, for she gave birth not only to important dance, but also to three talented children by Anders Ek, a leading Swedish actor.
First came Niklas (born 1943), a dancer who worked with Maurice Bejart and Merce Cunningham as well as the Cullberg Ballet; then Malin (born 1945), an actress with the Swedish National Theatre; and Mats (Malin's twin brother), who followed his mother as an internationally reputed choreographer and for a while succeeded her as director of the Cullberg Ballet. It was his work which the Cullberg Ballet celebrated in three programmes at the Edinburgh Festival.
Cullberg was born in Nykoping, Sweden, in 1908, the daughter of an affluent bank director. From childhood she studied ballet and modern dance, but it was seeing a performance in 1935 of Kurt Jooss's The Green Table which pushed her into professional dance at the late age of 27. She was considering becoming a librarian, after studying literature at the University of Stockholm.
She immediately left for England, to train with Jooss and his colleague Sigurd Leeder, in exile from Nazi Germany and based at Dartington Hall in Devon. She stayed four years, returning to Stockholm in 1939 and founding a group that autumn. This became the Cullberg Group in 1944, taking part in Swedish National Theatre Centre tours. She made solos for herself and small group dances, distinctive for their satire, humour and political awareness. Her academic background resulted in many of her works being rooted in literature.
In 1946 she formed the Swedish Dance Theatre with a fellow Swedish choreographer and dancer, Ivo Cramer, which performed widely in Europe and lasted one year. In 1949 she started the first edition of the Cullberg Ballet with the dancer Elsa Marianne von Rosen. By then she was studying ballet again and she was one of the first to understand the potential of fusing modern dance with ballet. (Many others were to follow her down that hybrid path.)
Miss Julie, choreographed in 1950, belonged to this genre, its creation prompted by Roland Petit's own ballet Carmen. With Elsa Marianne von Rosen in the title role and Cullberg as the cook, Kirsten, who is engaged to the manipulative butler, Jean, Miss Julie achieved enormous acclaim. The Cullberg Ballet brought it to London the following year and it has since entered the repertoires of many companies. In 1958 it was restaged for American Ballet Theatre with Violette Verdy and Erik Bruhn. Nureyev presented it at the London Coliseum, and like Bruhn gave a searing account of the role of Jean.
Never an abstract choreographer, Cullberg's movement carried the imprint of an inner psychological state and she had an exceptional gift for presenting dramatic situations clearly and concisely. Medea, also created in 1950, entered the New York City Ballet repertoire in 1958 and prompted John Martin, the dance critic of The New York Times, to write: "There is not a superfluous phrase, a meaningless gesture, an item of mere decoration in the choreography from end to end."
Again in 1950 she made Oscar's Ball for the Cullberg Ballet, then went on to create several works for the Swedish Royal Ballet. The enormous acclaim for Miss Julie caused the Royal Swedish Ballet to invite Cullberg and von Rosen to join them as resident choreographer and dancer respectively. Cullberg stayed with this company until 1956, then went on to choreograph ballets for the Gothenburg Opera Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and American Ballet Theatre among others.
In 1967 she started the present Cullberg Ballet, heading it until 1981, when she invited her son Mats to become joint director, and four years later left him in sole charge. In the early 1960s, she became involved with making dance for television and twice won the Prix Italia. Where others were content merely to film existing dance pieces, she understood that dance on the small screen can only work if it is specially made. On stage and on screen, her choice of music was broad, from heavyweight composers such as Prokofiev and Rossini, to lesser-known Scandinavians, and even Abba for a 1984 television piece, Abballet.
The demands of her career led to stresses at home. In 1949 she separated from her husband after seven years of marriage and Swedish critics interpreted her ballet Medea as an expression of this personal crisis. Although the couple were reconciled in 1959 and she directed him in Othello for the new Stockholm City Theatre, they eventually divorced.
Cullberg was known primarily as a choreographer, and only stopped in her eighties. But she also continued as a dancer. Mats Ek cast her, then 68, in his Soweto as a fiery Mother Africa figure, inciting the oppressed to rebel. And her last appearance was in 1991, when she performed in Mats Ek's television dance The Old Woman and the Door, her long white hair flying.
Birgit Cullberg, choreographer, dancer and director: born Nykoping, Sweden 3 August 1908; married 1942 Anders Ek (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Stockholm 8 September 1999.