Lia Schubert was an internationally renowned dancer and dance instructor. She introduced jazz dance to Sweden, she was one of the initiators of the Cullberg Ballet, and one of the founders of the Ballet Academies in Gothenburg and Stockholm.
Lia Schubert was born in Vienna in 1926. She grew up as a member of a well-to-do Jewish family. Her father, Dezider Schubert, owned a textiles shop. Her mother, Adolfine Schubert, owned a dry cleaners but had previously been a dancer at the Vienna Opera. Lia Schubert also had a brother, Walter, who was three years her senior. Due to increasingly Nazi leanings in Austria the whole family moved to Zagreb in 1931.
Lia Schubert was fascinated by everything theatre and dreamt of running her own dance school from an early age. She herself later said that this dream was her driving force throughout her life and gave her strength even when times were hard. Her interest in dance really took off when she was nine and saw Harald Kreutzberg performing modern dance. This led her to begin taking dance lessons. As a 12-year-old she performed with the Zagreb Opera and was named a young talent. This played a large part in the family’s decision to move to Paris, where Lia Schubert enrolled at the Conservatoire de la Musique et Danse de Paris. One of the consequences of the German occupation was that she could not continue there. However, her desire for artistic expression overcame her fear and Lia Schubert defied the lack of freedom which being a female Jew in Paris during the Second World War entailed. She would hide the Star of David that was on her jacket and sneak into the Comédie Française.
During the Second World War Lia Schubert’s family was exterminated in various concentration camps. She only escaped death by a hair’s breadth thanks to a rescue action by the resistance. The remaining war years turned into a cat-and-mouse game to steer clear of the Nazis. With false identity papers, a good network and great talent Lia Schubert managed to obtain intermittent contracts as a dancer in both Marseille and Lille. She also helped the resistance movement to save children from the Nazis. After the war had ended she continued to devote her time to children traumatised by war and those who had become orphans. She combined her love for dance with her activism and taught the children to dance. Her first choreography was created with orphaned war children.
The post-war period saw Lia Schubert taking various casual jobs whilst also taking lessons in classical ballet. She also deepened her knowledge of the history of dance by spending hours and days at the Archive de la Dance in Paris. She was mainly fascinated by expressionistic dance. Around 1950 she obtained a contract at Théâtre de Paris as a dancer in The Merry Widow. She was then discovered by Carl-Gustaf Kruuse af Verchou, ballet master at Malmö Stadsteater, who employed her as both a dancer and a teacher with the Malmö Ballet. Malmö Stadsteater became her school. She watched all the performances and sat in on as many rehearsals as she could in order to learn everything from lighting and sound to scenography.
In 1953 Lia Schubert moved to Stockholm determined to focus on teaching and thereby finally realising her dream of running her own dance school. She combined teaching with a position in the Oscars Ballet. There she met the actor and director Sten Lonnert, who became her first husband.
Lia Schubert wanted to bring the latest trends from both the European and American dance scene to Swedish cultural life. In 1954 she made a breakthrough with her Triangle composition, which earned third place in a choreography competition at the Stockholm Opera. She then collaborated with Kursverksamheten at Stockholm University to realise her plans for a dance course in which both classical and modern dance moves would be offered simultaneously. Her aim was partly to broaden her students’ forms of expression, and partly to foster a more radical form of creativity. With a teaching staff mainly imported from the USA, the Ballet Academy in Stockholm accepted its first batch of both professional and amateur students in 1957. One of the first to appear on the premises was Birgit Cullberg, but even parts of the Opera’s ballet ensemble attended the alternative dance classes. With the help of her teaching staff, Lia Schubert successfully convinced Yrkesöverstyrelsen that the training provided by the Ballet Academy was important for Swedish cultural life and thereby was worthy of its economic support.
At an international summer course in Krefeldt, Germany, in 1960 Lia Schubert met the American Steffi Nossen, who invited her to New York to give lectures, make new contacts with future guest teachers and to draw inspiration for further development of the Ballet Academy. Lia Schubert also became acquainted with Walter Nicks, the American Dunham dancer. She could see the greatness in his method of teaching jazz dance – a form of dance which did not yet exist in Sweden – and she invited him to teach at the Ballet Academy. This led to an extraordinary explosion of interest in jazz dance in Sweden. Everyone wanted to learn this style of dancing. Together Lia Schubert and Walter Nicks taught the basics of the style in a TV series in 1966. With the support of the Stockholm Kulturnämnd Lia Schubert developed Stockholms Dansteater and the first performance was Jazzballet-61 with music composed by Georg Riedel. The performance was a hit with both the public and the media and four annual performances ensued as part of the series.
Lia Schubert moved seamlessly between completely different artistic genres and circles. She found it perfectly natural to choreograph to Cornelis Vreeswijk’s songs. They became good friends and during extended meals at Gyldene Freden in Gamla stan in the mid-1960s they came up with performances such as Knickedick and Balladen om ett Rosenblad.
Lia Schubert was one of the initiators behind the Cullberg Ballet but was excluded when it came to establishing contacts with politicians and other stakeholders. She herself believed this was because she was not taken seriously by the establishment and because she was a controversial person. She had defined views on Swedish cultural politics and bureaucracy, which she believed had “hindered many talents, and killed many artists’ ability to take the initiative”. Lia Schubert was despondent after being rejected and had had enough of Swedish cultural politics. This happened while she was going through her divorce and as the need to find her roots was growing stronger. She headed to Israel. However, before she left she laid the foundations for the Ballet Academy in Gothenburg, in collaboration with the dancer Claude Marchant.
In Israel Lia Schubert was a dance instructor at the Batsheva Dance Company and became ballet master at the folklore dance theatre Imbal, before she finally established her own dance school, the Dance Centre in Haifa. Along with the Swedish dancers Kenneth Gustafsson and Kaj Selling she also set up a dance company called The Dancers Stage which toured schools. In the artists’ town Ein Hod she met the man who became her second husband, the Dutch artist Jan Tom van den Bergen. Their relationship lasted for the rest of their lives. They ran a gallery together in Haifa, where they mainly displayed Tom’s artwork and Lia’s handmade dolls.
Lia Schubert felt that the atmosphere in Israel was getting tense and after eleven years she returned to Sweden. Following a few years as a teacher at the Opera ballet’s training school she finally ended up in Gothenburg at the very Ballet Academy she had helped to set up in 1967. Thanks to Lia Schubert and the Kursverksamhet at Gothenburg University the first formal training for musical artists became established in 1983. Lia Schubert was the artistic leader of the training programme, initially working in conjunction with Claude Marchant.
During the 1980s Lia Schubert, with the help of her internationally renowned teaching staff of actors, singing teachers and dancers like T J Rizzo, Tim Zimmerman, Anna Grip and Kenneth Gustafsson, further developed the Ballet Academy into a significant spawning ground for not only Sweden’s but also Europe’s musical scenes. She was also an initiator of Dansteater Thalia in Gothenburg, a dance company which toured the schools of western Sweden for a few years with funding from various cultural agencies, displaying her own, Kenneth Gustafsson’s and Anna Grip’s choreographies.
Due to failing health Lia Schubert resigned as leader of the Ballet Academy in Gothenburg in 1997. She spent the remaining years of her life in her home in Fåglavik near Herrljunga. Lia Schubert died in 1999.