We strive to connect. We crave touch and intimacy. We want to belong and be a part of something. We strive to feel some shared experience. These are not questions to be answered in Þel, Katrín Gunnarsdóttir’s newest dance piece for the Iceland Dance Company (IDC), but situations we are compelled to watch in it.
Katrín is an award winning choreographer who has been involved in the Icelandic dance scene for over a decade, as an independent dancer and choreographer, as well as with events like the Reykjavík Dance Festival and Everybody’s Spectacular. Þel is her first piece with the IDC, and it’s proving to be a mutually beneficial union, one that reflects the compassion and togetherness of the performance itself.
The piece is a dynamic, flowing organism comprised of seven dancers—the largest group that Katrín has choreographed for—allowing her to explore new types of bodily relationships. “With Þel, the aim was to really make a dance performance for a group,” says Katrín. “It’s very much about the group. How the group is interacting, intertwining, listening to each other, creating these embracing, repetitive rituals or images. They’re kind of weaving together this sort of landscape.”
These intertwinements and interactions play a lot with different aspects of physical touch and corporeal connection, tying the movements in closely to the title. The word þel (pronounced thel) itself is rife with meaning. It can refer to the membranes in the body, describe empathy or compassion, and it’s also the name for the thinnest softest layer of Icelandic wool that lies closest to the skin.
“When I named the work, then it was just like, poof!” says Katrín. “It just opened up somehow. All the threads started connecting. The image started to form. That was actually the biggest turning point, landing on this title.”
Touch is integral
From this point, she began to explore the ideas of boundaries and contact—merging and blurring them—in order to build the group movements. “Touch is an integral part of this,” she says. “Working with the space that’s in the periphery of the skin, then really touching and being very close, and then trying to almost get closer than you possibly can. To go even through the other person or for the individual to really disappear into the group.”
The group’s input in this process was integral and hugely influential on the output of the work, as Katrín felt the profound energy emitted from the dancers, who work together regularly. “When I’m working on the creation process, it’s very much a collaborative effort,” she says. “The dancers contribute so much. I give them tasks and improvisations to work on and then we build on that. I’m the one in charge of things, I take responsibility for the choices, but there is still a lot of input from them. There’s more complexity than in my previous work. They work together all year round so there is already a group entity, so that’s also kind of what drove me.”
The word ‘thel’ also has an English connotation, derived from William Blake’s poem ‘The Book of Thel.’ It can refer to desire, wish, feminine frailty and the frailty of humankind. While Katrín was not directly working off this idea, she does see it as a way one could approach the work, and also how some of the interactions in the piece could be interpreted.
“I’m also working with these qualities of softness, fragility, quietness, slowness, and sensitive, intimate encounters,” she says. “That’s also something I really want to amplify and put forward in my work. I think it’s sometimes mistaken for weakness. It’s mistaken for something that’s less interesting than something that’s based on drama or conflict. Even though I’m working with intense physicality, it’s not in a conflict standpoint.”
Katrín prefers the idea and the word ‘entanglement’, rather than conflict, to describe the form of tension in Þel. “It means things that are meeting that don’t fit together at the beginning, this kind of encounter,” she says. “Entanglement is this organic way of dealing with the other. We also can relate this just to relationships. This way of finding a symbiosis with someone. It’s always very complex. It takes time, and it develops, and it’s not without friction. That’s kind of some of the ideas that circulate around in the work.”
The concepts of entanglement and intimacy tie back in with the importance of touch and physical connection between the dancers throughout the piece. These boundaries and the idea the membrane are portrayed as well through the set design and costuming, with lots of sheer flowing soft fabrics, where the dancers spill between the stage and its limits. The sound design uses recordings of the dancers voices manipulated into ambient drones, an entanglement of the organic and synthetic.
A shared experience
For Katrín, the process of creating Þel has broadened into larger existential ideas about group dynamics. “I think that just this exploration of these aspects of quietness, softness, togetherness, is this kind of affirmative act that is very important in a bigger context,” she says. “We’re all facing these questions in our society. How to still be together in this society and on this planet. That’s a very pressing matter all around. I think there is always a relatable way of viewing the content in that sense, even though I’m working in quite an abstract situation.”
While coexistence is a pressing matter for humanity right now, Katrín acknowledges that physical intimacy can still be challenging for people to see. “For audiences to watch people being this close, it’s actually not that common, or it’s something that’s out of the ordinary in a way,” she says. “To kind of heighten and amplify this sensitivity that the dancer has, to be able to manoeuvre so close together and to listen so closely and to be so linked is very admirable to watch.”
“I would be very happy if the audience manages to get a feeling of this softness and get a bit of the vibration from the group,” she says. “When you watch dance, your mirror cells actually start moving. When you give yourself time to just witness this slow unfolding of a mutating flow of bodies, it just starts to move you as well. It would be wonderful if people could zone in and forget about their everyday struggle for a while and have this shared experience.”
Þel will be playing on September 29th, October 4th, and October 13th at Borgarleikhúsið. Tickets are 4,900 ISK.
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