Emotional, by Brian Gerke and Ole Martin Meland
The lobby of Borgarleikhúsið is lit up in purple and packed with nicely dressed people, chattering and sipping wine. The line at the bar is long. There is a sense of excitement for the premier of Emotional, a double feature dance performance. The first act is Meadow, choreographed by Brian Gerke, who joined the Iceland Dance Company in 2012. The second is EMO1994 by Ole Martin Meland of Norway’s national contemporary dance company Carte Blanche. When the lights go out, not a seat in the theatre is left empty.
The lights come up, casting a gold glow over a stage floor flecked with colour. A single dancer is in the centre. Her costume is simple: short, tight, Lycra shorts, a tight tank, and a looser tank, all pale, neutral tones. She is curled up and her movements begin slowly and rhythmically, rising with the spacey music by iconic neo-classical composer Isao Tomita. There are strings, synths, and chimes like birds.
More and more dancers join, both male and female, flooding the stage with flexing limbs. There is a single dancer in a dress, the rest all uniformed in the same minimal pastels of the first. En masse, their genders become unimportant as they pair and unpair quickly, freely, and androgynously.
They flit about, leaping and whirling, seeming both busy and playful. The athleticism is startling. The shapes their bodies cast are almost inhuman. The movements have the systemic but wild feeling of insects swarming or birds congregating in trees. The stage is awash with life and wonder.
The lighting grows continually warmer to a sunset-pink and the dance moves with it. When it cools, the dancers slow into a night-like ritual, each inching along deliberately in unison for the first time in the performance. It has the effect of worms migrating in a time-lapse. When the metaphorical sun rises, it is to the Indiana Jones theme song and the strength of movement swells epically. The performance slows to an end like a long, beautiful day.
The full effect of the performance is loving, lively, and full of frivolity. Iceland Dance Company’s description used “lush,” an under-promise that the dance over-delivers. I stand at the end of the performance feeling not only as if I’d just seen something, but almost like I’d learned something.
Upon re-entering, the mid-sized Nýja sviðið (“The New Stage”) stage has been transformed. It has been stripped of all colour and curtains, leaving just a rack of lights on stage right and some lawn chairs facing inward from stage left. The back of the stage is left exposed. The thump of a dance beat rattles the audience before the lights even come up.
When they do, almost uncomfortably slowly, they reveal the dancers clumped in one corner of the stage simply jumping in unison. Everything they wear is black, from ball cap to sunglasses to knee-length tunic. Their feet are bare. As the music reveals itself to be the 1992 dance-hit “It’s My Life” by Dr. Alban, the dancers’ jumping uncannily slides out of sync so their heads bounce randomly. Just as easily, they slide back into unison before they break apart for the next section of the dance.
The performance continues to the fast, heavy beat, mixing the strong lines and taut muscles of contemporary dance with light-hearted club moves like The Sprinkler and the classic pelvic thrust. The pace is frenetic and fun.
The dynamic pace continues but the atmosphere gathers tension. In a moment of stillness, the dancers all sit on the chairs to the stage’s left and face the lights on the right. Their heavy breathing is heard in the sudden silence. The sound of rain gathers force from the speakers.
As the others watch, two dancers in bomber jackets and Converse shoes begin a gripping duet. They shove, pull, lift, and roll together, blurring the lines between sex, fighting, and abuse with unnerving choreography. It’s as erotic as it is frightening. With only the rain for cover, the very human sounds of grunts, gasps, and limbs smacking together are palpable. At one point, one dancer knocks the other the ground and drags her utterly limp body the entire length of the stage by one leg. The dragged dancer’s rubber sole catches along the stage, making the shake of her foot the only movement. Then they are still.
Another dancer appears for a tense final solo, sweeping around the stage. This absorbs my attention and when I look back to the still dancers, I see they’ve all moved from their chairs formations, each performing their own unique pieces. The tension continues to build to a cacophony of action. The performance climaxes with a spectacular flourish I don’t have the heart to spoil by describing it. I sit back, realizing I’ve been leaning toward the stage, mouth agape for the last few minutes.
I can’t remember a time I’ve been brought to the edge of my seat by dance alone, as though it were a thrilling film. And seeing the two pieces back to back adds to each tremendously. They are like day and night, essentially. The effect would not be unlike watching a BBC nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough, then following it up with ‘Fight Club’. The joy and freedom of the natural world brings stark contrast to the swirling manias and depressions of human society. Each is their own brand of “emotional.”
In this behind the scenes video, dancer Einar Anton Nikkerud says, “It’s for almost everyone, I think.” I pity the few who could walk away from these performances without a feeling—and challenge the rest to try.