From Iceland — Dance At The Arts Festival

Dance At The Arts Festival

Published June 22, 2011

Or: Life of a Reykjavík dance fan

Dance At The Arts Festival

Or: Life of a Reykjavík dance fan

Last fall, Alexander Roberts described the Reykjavík dance scene and its potential in glowing terms in these pages. Pointing to talented Icelandic dance makers, an expanded number of dance events in the coming months, and plans for a city-funded theatre devoted solely to dance…well, the future shone.
Viewing the same territory, I see a few clouds. Sure, astonishing work can be seen; at the same time, the quantity and range of dance on offer are limited, and ho-hum work abounds. Five events from the Reykjavík Arts Festival—enriched this year for the performing arts—can help explain.

‘The Journey of the Phoenix’, a theatre-dance-music hybrid created and performed by María Ellingsen (actor), Reijo Kela (dancer) and Eivör Pálsdóttir (singer), stood apart from the typical Reykjavík dance(-theatre) work. To see the piece, you climbed onto Borgarleikhúsið’s big stage, where an impromptu theatre-in-the-round was set up. Two rows of chairs and a row of risers surrounded Snorri Freyr Hilmarsson’s stage set: a circular maze inscribed in sand and, hanging from the rafters, three pipes moulded as tree trunks and lit from within. The performers— costumed by Filippía Elísdóttir in a casual dark suit and sneakers (Reijo), a voluminous long white dress with a train (María) and a gigantic long black dress (Eivör) —waited in the first row.

What ensued was a strange journey/love story/death quest, simultaneously everyday and other-worldly. Reija attempted to negotiate the maze but, finding it non-negotiable, retired to the side. María tried next but quickly gave up and ran over to beseech Reija instead. A little persuasion got him to roll slowly across the stage with her until, unsatisfied, he threw her off.

The pattern of seduction and rejection, accompanied by percussive sounds and vocalisation without words, continued—though things got weirder. He appeared in a fur coat and antlers, they climbed the trees, he had her on his tool belt, he rode her giant train as she pulled him around the maze on her hands and knees, destroying any remaining labyrinth pattern. In the end, Kela ran a victory lap and María was replaced by Eivör, singing a passionate song.

Love, death, rebirth, contradictory desires—so it goes. The work appealed because of its ambiguity, unexpectedness, subtlety and detail. Rather than going for shock and awe (run for the smoke machines), the creators kept it human-sized.

If there is one artist you can count on appearing in any collection of dance and dance-theatre works in Iceland, it is Erna Ómarsdóttir. For the Arts Festival, she presented ‘We Saw Monsters’, which, like many of her works for her own group of performers, focused on contradictions, inside us and in the world. Good/evil, self/other, creation/destruction, life/death—these are her big themes (she also has a healthy interest in the grotesque). But just because Ómarsdóttir returns to the same ideas—and re-uses many of the same dramatic devices—doesn’t mean her most recent piece isn’t worth seeing. In fact, ‘We Saw Monsters’ turned out to be one of her strongest works, filled with luscious imagery and boasting a clear structure.

The work began with two blond girls outfitted in pink dresses and white stockings, a good sign that bad things were about to happen (they also contorted their bodies in unladylike ways). A protracted death scene followed. The death scene was accompanied by sweet lullaby music, meaning that screeching guitars came next (the music was by Valdimar Jóhannsson). Accompanying the ear-splitting music was hair spinning, throwing one’s body around, sex and screaming; the smoke machine too. Later elements included prosthetic hands and copious fake blood.

All this demonstrated Erna’s un-paralleled skill at image creation. But what really made the work (or, more accurately, much of Erna’s body of work) sui generis was the marriage of the intellectual and the visual/dramatic. A scythe becomes a phallus, a butcher a butterfly—at a good Erna piece, you don’t need a programme to tell you what the piece is about (and it is about something, or many things).

Erna also appeared in ‘Six Pairs’, an evening of original work commissioned by the Festival and RÚV (to be included in a series of TV programmes next year).  A half-dozen Icelandic choreographers (all the usual suspects, except Margrét Sara Guðjónsdóttir) were matched with the same number of Icelandic composers, and each came up with 10 to 15 minute work. The pieces fell into two camps: clever concepts (Margrét Bjarnadóttir set two performers a-play with mirrors; Steinunn Ketilsdóttir cast a spell; Erna showed us her Icelandic tongue) and traditional dances works (Helena Jónsdóttir, Sigríður Soffía Níelsdóttir, Lára Stefánsdóttir).

The clever concepts worked better, but none of the pieces was substantial, perhaps an impossibility with this format. The only piece with any narrative momentum was Steinunn’s ‘Galdur’. The music for that piece, by Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, also stood out—the sole composition, I think, without an electronic element. (The remaining music was by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Ólöf Arnalds, Þórarinn Guðnason, Áskell Másson and Daníel Bjarnason.)

Beijing Dance Theatre showed ‘Haze’, a piece inspired by economic and environmental crises, circa 2008. Choreographed by Wang Yuanyuan and set to music by Henryk Górecki and Biosphere, the work was performed on a stage-sized mattress thick and spongy enough to allow the dancers to fall flat on their backs and spring back up again. This was in pursuit of a metaphor: the dancers’ difficulty in getting their footing on the soft surface was supposed to mimic the struggle of finding one’s way in uncertain times. In practice, the effect was more prosaic—a severe limitation of movement options.  Delicate or quick steps were impossible, and a single phrase—striking an exaggerated arabesque, then falling over and rolling on the mattress—was performed repeatedly.

The lighting of the piece was also meant to convey something about economic/environmental problems. But the stage elements failed to merge with the dancing which, except for a few mime sequences, was made up of generic, repetitive steps with little relation to the piece’s ostensible subject. The burden of giving the unremarkable movement  “meaning” fell to the young, earnest, slightly-raw performers—who did manage to convey a certain generalized angst.

The second imported work, Les SlovaKs’ ‘Opening Night’, featured five dancers (Martin Kilvady, Milan Herich, Milan Tomasik, Peter Jasko and Anton Lachky) and a musician (Simon Thierry) from the Balkan countries. To music supplied by the violinist/electronic technician, the dancers did moves from street dance, various modern idioms and traditional Slavic dance, demonstrating their extreme proficiency at all. But the piece was bland: the performers joked around with each other and the audience, but never really let go of themselves, genuinely interacted or did anything surprising.

Results from the series, then, were mixed. There were two exceptional dance-theatre works, but no arresting work from younger artists, and no good examples of works that spoke primarily through movement. Perhaps the Arts Festival isn’t the place to see younger artists, but a project like ‘Six Pairs’ would be more exciting if it managed to get at least a few fresh faces involved.  With so little imported work shown in Iceland—the two works described here are a substantial fraction of the foreign work that will be shown here this year—more care needs to be taken in choosing it. Adventurous dance of many types is flourishing in continental Europe right now—shouldn’t we be able to see some of it? Alongside, of course, the best home-grown stuff.

‘The Journey of the Phoenix’, May 24 and 25, the City Theatre
‘We Saw Monsters’, May 20 and 21, the National Theatre
‘Six Pairs’, May 31, Tjarnarbíó
‘Haze’, June 4, the National Theatre
‘Opening Night’, May 22, the City Theatre

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