"Slowness, attention, presence"

•  Chronologies
•  Books
•  Lines, Off-lines
•  Essays
•  Etc.
film & video
•  Chronologies
•  The Ball & The Wall
•  Before The Wall
•  Leaping, Looping
•  Etc.
•  Chronologies
•  With Clinch
•  Instead Of
•  With Søren Kjærgaard
•  Etc.
•  Chronologies
•  Jazz 61, 62, 63 ...
•  Tamburinen, Tangent
•  DR correspondent
•  Etc.
•  Chronologies
•  On court, off records
•  Profiles, interviews
•  Links
•  Etc.
•  Chronologies
•  Cacophony for 8 Players
•  Letters
•  Video
•  Etc.
•  Chronologies
•  Exhibitions
•  Transversions
•  Video: excerpts, outtakes
•  Etc.
© 2005-2024 Interplay

by Lars Movin

Weekendavisen, Dec. 24, 2023
(A rough Google translation from Danish into English.)

If Torben Ulrich had not filled his life with ball games and all that followed, he would have liked to have been either a postman or a dancer. Now the dancing messenger has moved on. He was 95 years old.

In the summer of 1987, the 58-year-old Torben Ulrich was visiting Denmark from the USA, where he had been based since the beginning of the decade. The occasion was a kind of pilgrimage, a so-called prostrations trip from the Center for Tibetan Buddhism on Svanemøllevej north of Copenhagen to a stupa, a Buddhist shrine, in Korterup near Rødby on Lolland river.

In the variant of prostrations that was discussed here, the Buddhist student lies down on the ground to the full extent of his body, with his face down and his arms extended straight ahead, and then rises to pose at the point marked by the fingertips. How to avoid repeating. This is how Torben Ulrich measured out with his body the one and a half hundred kilometer long road between Svanemøllevej and Korterup, partly as a religious practice, partly as a gesture to the Denmark with which he never let go of the connection, even though he spent the last forty years of his life in America, primarily in Seattle and San Francisco.

The prostrations trip, where Torben Ulrich — as always — was accompanied by his American wife, Molly Martin, lasted just under three months and was heavily covered by the Danish media, just as the slow pilgrim was also noticed by the locals where he emerged. At one point there was an elderly lady who cycled by on the other side of the road and as she passed shouted :

“Torben Ulrich, you are really crazy!"

He was now, Torben Ulrich. Even more than generally gifted, which has been expressed, among other things, in a writing business that began back in the mid-1940s, and which in the late years resulted in a series of book publications.

But conventional, he was not.

The unconventional became Torben Ulrich's predicate or badge of nobility as a sports practitioner, primarily a tennis player — or ballplayer, as he himself liked to say.

With a pair of parents, Ulla and Einer Ulrich, who were both active sports practitioners — the father also held leading positions within the organization — the Hellerup boy Torben Ulrich was, so to speak, born onto the track. And from when he won the Danish junior men's singles championship as a 16-year-old until 1976, when he was number one in the world rankings for players over 45, and also after that, he attracted attention as brilliantly gifted on all kinds of tennis courts. But also as a controversial figure who, despite his elegant game, never really fit into the norms of the sports world, either in terms of appearance, behavior or attitude.

He lived with the fundamental competitive element of sport as a condition, but he basically did not accept it. Where others saw opponents, he saw — with one of his characteristic self-invented words — supporters. Where others talked about points, he talked about aesthetics, philosophy, spirituality. The inherent binarity, the very opposition between winning and losing, he spent a lifetime trying to dissolve. But what would be left if you took the result-oriented aspect out of sport, the environment asked again and again. A whole world, answered Torben Ulrich. For him, the match was not a match at all, but a continuous dialogue with the ball and each other. An inexhaustible space of possibilities, which throughout his life he investigated and dealt with in every imaginable way, at the same time as he built up a unique set of methods and tools, which together with an eternally budding theoretical apparatus the spirit came to constitute an entire cosmology.

But it all started with the sport, the ball and the movement. It was the backbone of the multifaceted life's work. Just like the aforementioned slide trip, it also had a sporting aspect. And along the way, other elements were built on, alongside activities such as writing, music, visual arts, film, performance. But the wonderful thing about Torben Ulrich was that he always managed to draw connections between the different tracks in his universe. It was all interconnected and basically rooted in the same element.

The so- called "ball pictures", paintings created with the help of color-marinated tennis balls and skipping rope, were visual expressions of bodily experiences. The English-language poems, Songlines, revolved around related motifs. The musical developments, not least in the duo with the pianist Søren Kjærgaard, were another excursion from the same core. And something similar could be said about the philosophical and religious studies. Everything was cultivated in depth, with scientific seriousness and yet with a peculiarly playful approach, where experience and self-investment in the best moments merged into a higher unity with generally accepted professional premises. It seemed quite simply, as if Torben Ulrich had decided in his lifelong studies to use its entire existence as a laboratory, a tool for experiment and realization.

However, to say that Torben Ulrich was controversial is both true and an oversimplification. The long hair and beard naturally contributed to the impression of him as an outsider in the sports world. Just as various provocative actions or happenings in different phases of life made it easy for the citizens to park him on the sidelines as a troublemaker of a beatnik or an unserious hippie.

That side of the matter is conveniently summarized in a series of anecdotes that have routinely been brought to the fore when examples had to be given of how eccentric the long-haired tennis player was. Like the time in 1954, when he was late for a Wimbledon match and thus triggered a scandal in the Danish Lawn Tennis Association (where his father was chairman), because he was sitting in his hotel room and finishing a jazz column for Politiken. Or the time in 1966, when he left a match against Carl-Edvard Hedelund after having announced in advance that — if he were to reach Saturday's semifinal — he could only play until 3 p.m., because he had to watch the World Cup soccer final between England and West Germany on television. Or the time in 1969, when he finally gave up his status as an amateur equestrian and joined the ranks of the professionals by signing a contract for between 17 and 19 cents. Or then …

Of course it's funny with those types of stories. Seen in isolation, they just don't say very much about the seriousness behind the episodes in question. And if you want to try to approach an understanding of the stuff Torben Ulrich was made of, in my opinion, the keys are not so much to be found in the subcultures or rebellion of the '50s and '60s persecutions, but rather further back, more precisely in the years around the Second World War, when, as the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, he received some of the evils of this world on the closest team.

Without Torben Ulrich ever having thought about his half-Jewish identity, part of his family was suddenly forced to go underground when the instructions for the deportation of Danish Jews were announced in September 1943. A short time later, the 14-year-old rich boy found himself on board a cutter bound for Sweden, stowed together with far too many other refugees in a hold, with his clarinet under his arm and a foreign boy on his shoulders, because there was simply no room for everyone to stand on the floor. Shortly after departure, a shock went through the assembly as the sound of machine-gun volleys struck the ship's side, a signal that the cutter had been spotted by the Germans.

The fugitives were driven to the Horserød camp, from where they were released after a few days of detention and interrogation. When Torben Ulrich resumed his schooling at Ordrup Gymnasium, he brought a note from his parents explaining why he had not prepared for mathematics. Even so, the teacher gave him a good slap on the cheek. After which he resolutely went down to his desk and packed his things, never to return.

Shortly afterwards he managed to get to Sweden, where Torben Ulrich spent the rest of the war at the Sigtuna boarding school near Stockholm. But the world has never been the same since.

The post-war years meant a mighty revival. In the context of tennis, Torben Ulrich and his partner Kurt Nielsen formed Denmark's young dream team, at the same time as they also showed off their legs and defied the authoritarian norms of the sports world by being flabby, partying through and listening to jazz (yes, they even opened their own jazz club, Blue Note on Kgs. Nytorv). And around these activities a new world began to grow in the form of all the impulses that flowed across the now open borders – literature, philosophy, art, music and everything else from near and far.

Not least via the mentor Terkild Vinding, doctor and psychiatrist of the Freudian school, Torben Ulrich was introduced to psychoanalysis, Wilhelm Reich's orgasm theories, Marxism and the first touches of Eastern thinking. Suddenly, an icon gallery emerged with names like Krishnamurti, Madame Blavatsky and Henry Miller; and here at home types such as gymnastics teacher Astrid Gøssel, composer Bernhard Christensen and the multi-talented Poul Henningsen. And when Torben Ulrich had grasped the first signals, he proved able to think independently and build all that he intercepted into his own ever-growing spiritual house. The soundtrack to this entire construction was jazz from start to finish. In his young years, Torben Ulrich even flirted with the clarinet and enjoyed building a friendship with the master of the instrument, Sidney Bechet, and jamming with Louis Armstrong. But it was as a critic and mediator that he particularly made a mark. In 1954, at the age of 25, he got his own weekly column in Politiken, "The Jazzmosphere", through which for the rest of the decade he became the pen that jazz enthusiasts followed if they wanted qualified information. And compared to his fellow writers, he had the advantage that, by virtue of his status as a constantly traveling tennis player, he had access to places, environments and people that others could only dream of experiencing for themselves.

With the music expert and well-written Torben Ulrich, you could read about all the new things that had not yet reached the country. And when the tennis trips went to more exotic destinations, it also spread to the Politiken column, which could cover everything from classical Indian music to the local jazz scene in South Africa or a dive into the secret dissident milieu in the Soviet Union. Thus, Torben Ulrich also became the one who, in many cases, was the first to introduce new phenomena here at home, whether it was beat literature, Jazz & Poetry or a young American named Elvis Presley, who wiggled his underbelly into the limelight and set the hormones boiling in an entire generation of young people. And when in 1958-59 he published the magazine Bazar together with the poet Jørgen Gustava Brandt, he expanded the field further by translating Japanese haiku poems, Hindu texts and the like, which were then largely unknown material in these latitudes.

Parallel to all of this, the tennis activities continued at full blast, but not without various kinds of crunch in the machinery. The encounter with the tradition-bound Wimbledon tournament accentuated Torben Ulrich's aversion to the white-clothed conservatism of the sport of tennis, where in particular the almost aristocratic snobbery beckoned him. And that by this time he had built up a contempt for authoritarian systems was confirmed when his summons to military court in 1954 turned into a painful circus that included both arrest and hospitalization with a nervous breakdown — all closely followed by a curious press.

Back in freedom, Torben Ulrich continued his multifaceted work with an intensity that from time to time sent him for a walk around the County Hospital, where his brother-in-law, who was a doctor, took him under treatment for exhaustion. And towards the end of the '50s, the body couldn't take it anymore. During a tour in Pakistan and India, Torben Ulrich experienced a physical breakdown, which caused him to change his life, so that in future he took better care of himself, among other things to a greater degree than before to focus on one thing at a time.

It so happened that at a relatively mature age he trained to be in better physical shape than ever before. Among other things, he was part of the Danish Davis Cup team right up until the at the age of 49. Like him, he was also for a number of years one of the main attractions in the troupe of older tennis stars who toured the world and played matches under the name Grand Masters. And when the tennis activities finally began to ebb, Torben Ulrich turned his attention to other areas — writing, art, music, film — where he in various ways continued to work with the experiences he had gathered through a long life within the world of sport. A kind of artistic, aesthetic, philosophical and spiritual aftermath, where the moment when the ball comes — "when the ball comes" — was turned and turned and examined in depth and in the light of the wisdom of age and experience. A process that spawned many projects, culminating in the book "Boldens øjne, værens ben: Notater fra drættens spalte (n)de veje" (“Eyes of the Ball, Bones of Being: Notations along the divisive ways of athletics”), a kind of poetics or philosophical testament consisting of two parallel tracks, one in Danish essay and a series of English-language Songlines. The book was published in connection with Torben Ulrich's 90th birthday in 2018, an event which also marked his last visit to Denmark.

If all of the above leaves the impression of a fast-paced life, that is both right and wrong. Torben Ulrich took full advantage of the day and enjoyed more than most. But at the same time he insisted on doing everything at his own pace. A pace that was dictated by presence (another of his own words), thoroughness, thought and respect. Respect for the subject, the situation, the interlocutor, the outside world. If you were lucky enough to know Torben Ulrich personally, you knew that a telephone or Zoom meeting required that you set aside at least half an hour, not for the actual conversation — it could last for hours — but for to say hello and goodbye. You couldn't force Torben Ulrich.

When, in the first years of our acquaintance, I visited Torben Ulrich in Seattle and for periods stayed with him and his wife Molly, I noticed that he relatively rarely went out. And when we developed a little community tradition of going down to Pike Place Market, which was just below the property where the couple lived, to have a cup of coffee or something, I also noticed that a such an excursion couln't easily be done in less than half an afternoon, because Torben Ulrich insisted on talking to everyone we met on the way. Or at least everyone that he knew by appearance, or stood by in any other way that they felt called to contact.

It could be the doorman, the shopkeepers, other residents from the upstairs, etc.

When you yourself live in a more conventional time zone, it could be challenging for the patience, and I also thought that Torben Ulrich thereby somewhat limited his own freedom of movement. But it could not be otherwise. A long life of thinking, in combination with Buddhist practice — and perhaps also a certain inherent slowness — had eventually settled into the personality and shaped it into something that could well be described as authentic. And precisely this authenticity was noticeable and contagious to everyone who came into the presence of Torben Ulrich. He simply affected the rooms he was in with his person, his presence. He changed the people who knew him. And he thus left a noticeable and lasting imprint on the world.