Published November 26, 2016
Katrín Gunnarsdóttir’s bare feet pat the plexiglass mirror on stage. It’s the only sound in the theater. The patter quickens with her pace, she starts to breathe louder, louder, louder, faster, and then cut. The movement changes. The theatre goes gentle again.
Katrín has spent the past two years digging into her own history as a dancer. After her 2014 piece, Saving History, she felt that she had more to discover. She began studio work for a follow-up show, Shades of History. She spent time in Scotland at an artist’s residency researching the piece, and countless hours alone in the studio developing the dance. The process by which Shades of History came to be sounds more like a lesson in the scientific method than the choreographing of a dance piece.
“Your history has influence on your perspective,” she tells me. “For example, most people have an idea of what a ballet is that includes the big theatre, the costumes, the music.” She started with distillation. Katrín assembled a vocabulary of movement derived from twenty-six choreographers and her own previous performance. She grouped the collected words into categories of movement, and worked from this list to examine transitions that occur between one movement and another. “How simple can a movement become without its context?” she asks. “Can you recognize a hand movement from Beyoncé?”
Back in the theatre, on her plexiglass stage, Katrín has untied her hair and is down on all fours. She sways lightly, her hair pendulums in front of her face like a tired grandfather clock. A force from the base of her neck starts to propel the swing. Soon she is thrashing her head around an all-but-perfect circle. The stage doesn’t seem to host a dancer anymore as much as a broken machine. The former movement, the sway, has surrendered to this all-out mechanical possession. “When does that transition occur?” Katrín asks.
She insists that the stage performance itself is not physically demanding compared to the grueling hours (and hours and hours) spent alone in the studio working out each movement. “Through working the dance out you find your way through the piece,” she says. “You learn how to navigate it, where to find the rests.” Though I find it hard to believe that the 45-minute, soundless, continuous solo performance is not physically taxing, I will take her word that she has figured out a way to “navigate,” as she puts it.
By allowing the research to react to itself rather than set an end goal and try to achieve it, the process of the dance becomes poetic. “With research, you can’t force an end product,” she says. But her end product certainly doesn’t lack force—from the winding of her joints to the quivering in her legs, down to the pitter patter of the pads on her feet.
Shades of History will be performed November 26 and 29 at Tjarnarbíó. More information and tickets can be found here.