Brogan Davison, Pétur Ármannsson and Ármann Einarsson talk creative collaboration, artistic growth and family ties
In early 2012, 49-year-old Ármann Einarsson, a music school principal with a potbelly that he frequently, fondly, pats, sent a Facebook message to Brogan Davison, his son Pétur’s girlfriend, who is also a choreographer and dancer. “It said, ‘Hæ, Hæ: This is a formal request,” recalls Pétur, himself a theater artist and director. Having nursed a life-long dream to dance on stage, Ármann asked Brogan if she would be willing to help him achieve this goal. “I’d been thinking about dancing for so many years,” he says. “When I was sixteen years old, I loved going and dancing at balls. I’ve been dreaming about it since then. But then I got my belly, got fat. Got old. And I wondered, could a normal person perform in a contemporary dance?”
“He put it in our hands,” Brogan says. “And we had to. We couldn’t not follow this.”
By the next year, the trio had staged a well-received performance, called ‘Dansaðu fyrir mig’ (“Dance For Me”), in Ármann’s hometown of Akureyri. This initial success snowballed: they were invited to take the show to Egilstaðir in East Iceland, where Pétur grew up and where he and Brogan met and co-founded the experimental theatre group Tilraunaleikhús Austurlands. Shortly after, they were asked to debut the show in Reykjavík as part of Lókal, an annual international theater festival.
“When we started, all the technical aspects were set aside,” says Pétur. “So kind of by accident, we found that it is really suited to traveling and festivals. You just rip it down in one place and put it back up in the next. There are hardly any props or anything on stage.”
“Just my grandfather’s armchair,” Ármann interjects, explaining that he just moves his well-worn, red upholstered chair, bought sometime around 1940, out of his living room and into his car before driving to wherever the next performance is.
“We thought the first show would be it,” says Brogan. “We didn’t push it, we got invited. Now we’re taking it abroad—we’re following the demand.”
Becoming a great dancer
I arrive early at Tjarnarbíó for our interview, sneaking into the theater to watch a bit of the rehearsal for the upcoming show, just days away. Pétur is sitting in the front row, handling the musical cues and making suggestions as Brogan and Ármann practice a new dance sequence that is being added. Pétur turns around as I take my seat. “We always have to have some new material,” he laughs. “We don’t want to make it too easy for him.”
From the look of the practice on stage, “making it easy” is definitely not the primary goal. Brogan demonstrates the choreography and then asks Ármann to repeat it. He does this with varying levels of success and seriousness, punctuating his attempts with self-deprecating jokes or little teasing digs at his teacher, who is losing patience.
“Ármann, do you know what you’re doing?”
“Yes… Nei… No. Wait.” He thinks for a moment.
“No. You don’t know. You haven’t taken it in.”
“I can talk you through it.”
“Yeah, but the hardest thing is doing it.”
She demonstrates the sequence again, and he repeats it after her, adding some hand gestures.
“Lose the thumb. It’s a bit too James Bond. Do it again.”
He runs through it again, this time with music. Pétur suggests that it’s lacking energy, so Ármann repeats it, although he doesn’t remember all of the choreography.
“Just do it right, Ármann,” says Brogan. “If you want to be a great dancer you have to apply the directions.”
They work a bit more, adding in some movement which, as far as I can tell, is based on Ármann’s bored fidgeting in a post office earlier that day. It’s a funny moment—he suddenly freezes, closes his eyes, and then begins to twitch his arms like he’s getting some sort of shock.
“I like that, with your eyes closed,” Pétur says. “You’re going inwards.”
They run the full sequence from the beginning again. Mistakes are made, and Brogan gives Ármann some notes.
“I should teach you the clarinet,” he jokes.
“I don’t want to learn the clarinet. Again.”
Pétur restarts the music. “It’s so hard,” Ármann says, in Icelandic, before starting over.
“This is your dream, baby,” says Brogan. “Again.”
Learning to improvise
After a few more run-throughs, they decide to call it a day. Ármann looks tired, but still relatively jovial; Brogan looks somewhat sceptical of their progress. Pétur makes peace: “It’s a lot to remember, and we’ve been working on this all day. We’ll fine tune it tomorrow.”
We head out to the lobby and I ask about the choice to integrate new material so close to a performance. Brogan explains that most of the choreography is set and has basically been perfected. “But we really want to push him as a dancer. To learn to improvise takes a much longer time.”
“I don’t need to rehearse—I’m a star now,” Ármann jokes. After a look from Brogan, he clarifies. “I need to practice, but not too much. I’m getting old. If I practiced every day, my body would just give up.”
This is not to suggest, however, that he doesn’t take the project seriously. “I’m 100% dedicated,” he says. “You can always do better. The show is our baby. We have to nurse it. Feed it.” He shakes off the suggestion that it must be difficult to not be able to master certain techniques or moves. Holding his arms out from his sides, fingers pointed, he says, “What I can contribute is to maybe stretch my arm a little bit more.”
This experience marks a triumph for Ármann, but he doesn’t have any illusions about dancing becoming his full-time occupation, or really any desire for the show to be anything other than what it already is. Just by virtue of trying at all, he’s accomplished what he set out to do and been an inspiration for other people.
“There was a lady in Akureyri who saw the show and then three months later, she had put up her own photography exhibition,” he says. “She said, ‘I want to do something for myself, I want to live my dream.’”
It occurs to me that having now realized his dream, the more difficult realities of being a dancer, even in the short-term, might have taken some of the fun out of the process.
He disagrees. “I don’t allow it to be ruined by stress or anything. Like with practicing: if I need to every day for a month, then okay… I don’t want that all the time. It has to be kept…”
“On your own terms,” Brogan interjects. “What you do is just for you.”
Ármann shakes his head. “You have to compromise,” he says. “You do.”
So much talking
Each performance of “Dansaðu fyrir mig” is unique, incorporating improvised monologues as well as a series of spontaneous questions that Brogan poses to Ármann during the piece. “The show takes in whatever new circumstances,” she says. For instance, “if we had a drunken night out before, we might talk about that.”
There aren’t really any boundaries, any prohibited subjects. “If the topics don’t serve the show, then they don’t come in,” says Pétur. “It’s not just drama for dramatic purposes. When you put that stuff into a theatrical context, it flattens out, becomes synonymous with something out of ‘America’s Got Talent.’ Everyone has their tragedies. So we focus more on everyday experiences.”
All the same, Brogan says, they don’t shy away from personal things that might be con-sidered more “dramatic.” “We talk about my depression,” she says. “And that’s full-out cliché, emotional-porn therapy. But then Ármann starts playing the clarinet over me. It’s what we do with it.”
“The challenge for you,” Pétur says to her, “was to speak and put yourself on stage with-out any facade. The challenge for Ármann was to learn the choreography.”
This opens up an obviously familiar and on-going conversation between the pair, which they begin to discuss between themselves, as much as with me.
“I was so bored with going to the theater and not connecting,” Brogan says. “I wanted to be vulnerable—I didn’t even want to dance. Ármann just wanted to dance. I just wanted to talk. Dancing has been a lot of pain for me; I’ve been doing it every day since I was five. It’s not just ‘dance and feel free and the whole world dances with you,’ it’s not that way for me. So let’s get real, let’s talk about things.”
I suggest that it has to be doubly exposing and complicated to be working through these deeply personal topics on stage alongside one’s partner, one’s parent—or one’s partner’s parent, as the case may be.
“I’m like a parent to both of them,” Pétur says. “There are a lot of role reversals, negotiating of power. It can be really fragile. But I think we’ve done a really good job with this. If it isn’t fun, then we can’t do it. As soon as it becomes your job…”
“But this is my job,” Brogan says. “I want this to be my job.”
“But do you want this to be your family?” Pétur asks.
“What do you want more?”
“That’s a good question.”
Ármann laughs and excuses himself for a moment. “It’s always like this. So much talking.”
Space to develop
Constant communication and debate is clearly an integral component of Brogan and Pétur’s collaborations, as is the opportunity to apply their own differing influences, perspectives, and experiences. Although they continue to work together—their next project, a theater piece called “Petra,” about Pétur’s great grandmother, who spent 80 years amassing an enormous mineral collection in her garden, will debut at this year’s Lókal—they also have a number of independent projects.
Outside of the dance classes that she teaches, Brogan, who was born and educated in England, recently spent a month performing in a piece in Norway, completed a residency in Lithuania, and keeps up a steady stream of choreography projects and performance roles in Iceland. After graduating from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts in 2012, Pétur spent six months completing directing internship at Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin and was the assistant director of ‘Bláskjár’ (“Blue Screen”), a production staged at the Reykjavík City Theater in the spring.
Going forward, their plans remain very open and flexible. “We’re so young. As we’re starting out, it’s good to have a lot of time and space to develop,” says Pétur. Coming back to ‘Dansaðu fyrir mig’, he notes that, “What we have been doing up until now has been an exploration. We don’t really know if this is a dance piece or a theater piece—we haven’t had to decide. Whatever can best convey what we’re feeling or thinking, that’s what we’ll do.”
Since its debut, “Dansaðu fyrir mig” has been performed in Canada as part of the Núna/Now festival, as well as at the Mousonturm theater in Frankfurt, Germany and Norway’s Bergen International Theatre. Upcoming shows will be at Tjarnarbíó in early September 2014. Brogan Davison and Pétur Ármannsson’s next collaboration (also in English), “Petra,” will debut on August 29 at this year’s Lókal International Theater Festival in Reykjavík. See their website for all future dates.