Ever-changing and always surprising: these words could be the tagline of dancer, singer, choreographer and creator Melkorka Sigríður Magnúsdóttir. The artist defies every label and genre you could pin her down in, pushing outside the box of traditional art forms with every new project she produces. From her dance-performance-turned-party-band Milkywhale to her recent pop opera Vakúm, Melkorka, in one word, innovates.
In person, she’s just as captivating. Animated and often silly, her thoughts are non-linear, meandering through ideas until eventually circling back in an “aha!” moment, where you realise that everything she said was related. It’s a trait that makes her seem more like a scholarly intellectual than an artist—but really, she’s both.
“I started studying dance when I was around six years old,” says Melkorka, as we sit in Kaffibrennslan. It’s sunny outside so we have the place to ourselves. “I think it was a way to deal with my hyperactivity. I definitely would have been diagnosed today with something if that diagnosis was around then,” she laughs. “But it shaped me, and sold me on ballet.”
It’s interesting that ballet education—which is notoriously rigorous, strict, and physically challenging—was what calmed her down. Perhaps it was the concentrated accomplishment of the discipline; the unrelenting focus on perfecting minute movements. Dedicating your time and body to that creates a thirst for detail, which can easily be seen in her artwork nowadays.
“Ballet is about discipline,” she tells me. “It is an art form that you start the earliest and end the earliest. You have such a short life in dance and you get the most criticism and the lowest salaries, so you have to be super passionate about it.” She pauses. “It’s a complex subject that I could talk endlessly about.”
Inside/outside the box
After graduating, her studies took a non-traditional turn for a ballerina, taking her at age seventeen to an experimental choreography study program in Amsterdam.
“Everyone was so different there and it was just an explosion,” says Melkorka. “Ballet is a high art but sometimes you can see the best dance in someone’s apartment at a party. I had never experienced that before.”
While it was technically a choreography study, Melkorka explains it was more akin to performance in a wider sense. “You learn how to be a maker there,” she says. “For me, it was perfect. I had always been in the box, and this was completely outside the box, so it made me look at things differently.”
Having now learned about the fringe and alternative sides of dance, she enrolled in a more orthodox ballet program in Brussels, later joining a dance company there. “It was a very hardcore school,” she says in a more sombre tone. “It had been a longtime dream of mine to go there and be in that company, but I was very unhappy.” She gives a small smile. “It wasn’t for me.”
Melkorka then took up the life of a freelance choreographer, which often meant spending up to 8 months of the year travelling. “It’s a strange life,” she says. “You never really know where home is.”
Casio & Chinese dances
Melkorka found stability with a group of her Amsterdam classmates when they formed John The Houseband in 2008. The project is pretty meta, aiming to blur the line between a band and an art installation. While the group does go on stage and play concerts, they hope to mix the idea of musical performance with performance in general. All of the members are trained performers rather than musicians, so the project questions what being a musician means. Of course, all of this is overshadowed by the fact that were you not familiar with their artistic aims, you’d just think they were a great band.
“On our first gig, no one really knew how to play music that well,” Melkorka explains. “We had this little Casio piano that when you pressed it went…” she pauses then sings a cheesy keyboard tune before laughing. “It got a great reaction, and it was so different from the contemporary dance world where everyone just sits there in the audience super silent and focused like…” she puts her hand under her chin, and furrows her brow. “We’re all musicians that have never been trained in music. But we are also just a crazy group of people who do crazy projects together.”
Most recently, the group joined up with the NorrlandsOperan Symphony Orchestra for a production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’. Instead of following Tchaikovsky’s take on the tale, they decided to create their own story and perform cover songs from the ballet. “So we would do a cover of ‘Chinese Dance’ and then the symphony orchestra would play the original version,” she says. “For me, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I was very nervous, I’m not going to lie.”
Life imitates art
With her experience in John The Houseband, it’s clear that Melkorka’s next musical collaboration didn’t come out of a vacuum. The project is called Milkywhale, and it premiered as a dance piece, or rather a choreographed concert, at the 2015 Reykjavík Dance Festival. Melkorka wrote the music with Árni Rúnar Hlöðversssoni of FM Belfast.
Like Spinal Tap or Dethklok, Milkywhale tentatively walked the line between mediums, forcing the audience to constantly ask: Is this a real band or not? While they started as a dance piece about band performance, the group quickly started performing at musical festivals, and later released an album. To an outside observer, they’d be considered a real band. Life imitates art.
Her next project, “Vakúm” was even more ambitious. A pop opera, the recently debuted performance has taken Iceland by storm, creating perhaps the first buzz surrounding a musical in Iceland in modern memory. Everyone from classical musicians to hip-hop heads attended the premiere. The cast was equally diverse, featuring everyone from a recent dance graduate to a popular R’n’B singer.
“In the story, we start out in this void, this unknown place that is full of emptiness,” Melkorka explains. “So we have to create a new world and all we have are each other and these aluminium isolation blankets on stage, hundreds of them. It’s a story of creation.”
She pauses. “I find it so interesting that there’s this idea that once upon a time there was one person who made sound, and that was the first sound in the world,” she says. “There was the first time someone saw sunlight, or had a conversation, or even had sex. We’re exploring that. We are discovering laughter and movement and war on stage.”
Melkorka’s ‘Shark Tank’
It’s here, talking about discovery and ideas, that Melkorka gets passionate. “You know, the lightbulb was invented in three places around the world at the same time,” she says. “It’s so interesting that ideas can spout up in many places at once.”
Her passion is understandable once you know she just finished a Masters degree in innovation and entrepreneurship. we sidetrack into discussing innovative ideas throughout history—how the Mayans discovered the wheel, but only used it for children’s toys; how gunpowder existed in China for hundreds of years, only being used for fireworks.
“It’s funny,” she says, “in dance and art, an idea is so valuable, but in innovation, it is a very small part of the process. Having an idea is one thing but getting it out there and working in a company is 90% of the work.” She talks about how popular, mass-produced inventions must have seemed crazy when they were thought up. “A few years ago, it would be unimaginable that the biggest car rental corporation in the world would own no cars, or the biggest house rental page in the world would own no houses. Completely new work is rare, but it does happen.”
Melkorka has now turned her focus towards the concept of creation. “For me, what’s most valuable is our ideas,” she finishes. “In a world where AI is taking over jobs and such, ideas are the biggest function we have in art, and in innovation.” She keeps mum on her plans for the future, but says her next work will continue mixing and innovating concepts. “I am a bit of an unwritten paper, but I have the next ideas… and they’ll be very different.” We’ll stay tuned.
Vakan is showing at Tjarnabíó April 21, 26, and 28 at 20:30.