On an international scale, Erna Ómarsdóttir is undoubtedly Iceland’s best-known contemporary dancer. Tickling Death Machine is her most recent project, which she describes as a ‘concert performance’ and collaboration with her partner Valdimar Jóhannsson, the couple’s band Lazyblood and his band Reykjavík! The project is currently touring the world, with performances lined up as far away as Kyoto, Japan.
The text accompanying some of your latest pieces—in the promotional material and on your website—is quite beautiful, poetic even. Do you work that way, conceive of your pieces first in words?
That’s always the problem, you know, putting it into words. Because it’s so much about physical expression: the dance and the music. But to me they have always intertwined, the ugly and the beautiful. The beauty is in the ugliness and vice versa. We use a lot of elements from metal—like the scream and things like that, which people may not think of as beautiful at first. But to me there’s always some beauty to it. I try to find a balance between the harsh and the poetic. I often describe it even as satanic versus angelic. There is always tension there in between.
What about this latest piece, Tickling Death Machine? What are its roots?
It was an idea Valdi and I got in Australia. We went to a concert and there was this one concertgoer who was in such a trance, he was just having such a good time. And it was incredibly beautiful to see, especially because this wasn’t the usual kind of music to be in a trance over. So we started thinking about the spectator, thinking about him as the main focus, without necessarily thinking about doing anything with audience-participation.
Usually I use elements from the concert form, or the music realm, and put them into a dance performance. But now it’s the opposite—this is a concert entwined with theatrical elements. It’s not necessarily dance or choreography. We’re just using that which pertains to the concert format, like head-banging, which is my favourite dance-step of all time and which I have used a lot. And also looking at the idea of the space between songs, what happens there, in the pause.
Does that mean that you started with the music, and worked out from that?
We started first and foremost with the concept. There are new songs and there are also songs that have been done before but put in another costume, so to speak. People who know the music of Reykjavík! are going to recognise some stuff, but the songs are chosen with a certain script in mind and are used in a new way. So this idea became a reality when Valdi and I were doing a little concert in Reykjavík, the town, and the band Reykjavík! was playing after us. There was a programmer there from the Kunsten Festival Des Arts, which is one of the main alternative performance art festivals in the world, really. And he loved the energy from both bands and knew that we were related as Valdi was in both bands and very instinctively he invited us to make a project together and premiere it at his festival.
Also music from you and Valdi in Lazyblood?
Yes. It’s completely mixed. Really I think Lazyblood, our band, came about sort of as a result of this project. Or the other way around. But we’re playing around with the rock’n’roll image. It’s interesting to compare rock idols and prophets. This power or influence that you have when you are on stage, that you can almost brainwash your audience. That’s where the prophets come in. There’s a little bit of tension between the rock stars and the prophets. There are a few of us, and we’re always trying somehow to convince the spectators. We are preaching a certain message, but we’re not entirely on the same page… it’s almost this idea of trying to free the spectator from the oppression of the body, to lift the spirit onto another level. Which music does a lot of the time. Music and dance and the arts, they can save lives, I would say. I believe very strongly in these art forms. That they are often the best medicine.
You said something similar the last time you were interviewed for the Grapevine, that without dance you would have died.
Yes, I’m always thinking the same things. Maybe I would have found something else. But no, I think this was my way. The starting point for me is always dance, but I still find it very difficult to keep to one art form, and that has led me into working with musicians and visual artists and there was a certain freedom for me in discovering how concerts work. Because the theatre is so often nailed down, everything has to happen on cue. With music it’s the same way to a certain extent but then there is this phenomenon of the pause between songs, this space, which is so fascinating to me.
But these prophets, are they all sort of right in a certain way?
That’s the question, whether or not the prophets are achieving that they’re setting out to do, or whether we are false prophets. Mostly they are trying to get people to enjoy all the pleasures of life, but I’m pushing more for the spiritual aspects. Especially this idea of dancing your pain away, dancing your brain away; head-banging yourself headless.
It’s almost like meditation, the movement is a mantra.
We’re trying to exaggerate this feeling one often gets when one goes to a good concert. But like I said, I think it’s incredible how some people are able to reach the masses. So in a sense we believe in it, we hope to be able to free audiences, even if it’s only for a few seconds.