From Iceland — A Steady Heartbeat

A Steady Heartbeat

Published August 22, 2014

Reykjavík Dance Festival is moving to a new, faster beat

A Steady Heartbeat
Eli Petzold
Photo by
Hulda Sif Ásmundsdóttir

Reykjavík Dance Festival is moving to a new, faster beat

The Reykjavík Dance Festival is no stranger to flexibility and experimentation. Founded in 2002, the festival has provided Icelandic and international choreographers an unparalleled platform to showcase their work to an audience that may not have exposure to the world of contemporary dance. In 2012, when the festival turned ten, the coordinating board decided to shake things up and began inviting guest directors to curate the future iterations of the festival. With different curators asking different questions, the festival’s flavour has been distinct each year.

This year’s curators and joint directors, Ásgerður Gunnarsdóttir and Alexander Roberts have lofty, daring plans to keep the festival fresh, exciting and vital during their three-year tenure. Their first move? Split one annual festival into four quarterly mini-festivals to ensure a constant pulse of dance and dance discourse throughout the year. I met with Ása and Alex at Dansverkstæðið (“the Reykjavík Dance Atelier”) to talk about their vision for August’s festival, and beyond.


How will the festival function under your artistic direction? What is your broad vision?

Ása: It didn’t feel right to only have one festival a year in a country that doesn’t really have a dance scene, so we decided to split it up into four micro-festivals through the year. One in August, then November, February and May. We’re experimenting with that format for the next three years, because we feel that Reykjavík doesn’t need one big festival. We need a constant heartbeat, a constant pulse. Also, curatorially, it gives us an opportunity to be more focused on each festival, to bring more diverse pieces to the country and to be more visible. You can attend an art exhibition or a concert or the theatre almost every weekend, but dance is limited to four or five weekends a year.

Alex: The festival is about creating a space for collective activity. There are dance works presented throughout the year—the Icelandic Dance Company does have a programme which runs throughout the year, and there is also independent activity—but the festival offers something quite different, both in terms of the type of work it has licence to present, but also in terms of the culture around festivals in general. Festivals suspend time – and participants in a festival can become collectively cocooned within this suspension. Festivals can create settings for collective action and collective thinking that is may be not so often available in Iceland. And we want to mobilise this type of collectivity with more frequency. For us, it is an experiment of course – but it is an experiment that is well cared for. And, we hope, rigorously thought through.

Ása: It’s so easy to ignore if it’s just once a year. If you see it once, you might assume it’s one thing. But if it happens four times a year and has a totally different programme every time—like with music: you may like classical music but hate heavy metal. Dance is the same. We want to make people aware that the art form is so totally diverse.

The focus for the August edition is Icelandic artists. We wanted to give the first words to those artists that are working here. In this way, this festival edition marks the beginnings of many ideas and artistic propositions that will then be revisited throughout the future edition.


What’s the format of RDF? What can we expect for August?

Alex: The focus is always on performances. We have around 14 new works being presented in August. But we try to have satellite events that generate other learning or discourse. For instance, we’re having this event called “Secondhand T-shirtology,” where we examine this idea that choreographers here have absorbed all this knowledge from abroad, like second-hand knowledge. A lot of the inspirations or vocabularies and principles have not been established here in Iceland, they’ve been established in other cities, where people have studied or observe before bringing it back. So the t-shirt dance is about idols. We’re creating fan t-shirts of choreographers who are probably unknown to most people in Iceland. We’re also collaborating with the radio show Víðsjá: every day for the week before the festival and the week of, they’ll broadcast a ten-minute spoken-word piece by a different choreographer, and then on Saturday afternoon of the festival, all those choreographers will come together in a public forum. Throughout the whole festival, we’re trying to answer the question, what is the choreographic knowledge that this community of artists are working with? And how can it be made explicit? How can it be shared in ways that make it available for others to adopt and use?

It sounds like RDF is a learning venue as much as it is a performance format.

Alex: It’s certainly dealing a lot with a desire to share and exchange ways of doing, and thinking, and making. Two years ago there was an edition of the festival called “A Series of Events,” curated, or as they put it choreographed, by Halla Ólafsdóttir and Emma Kim Hagdahl. They invited fifteen domestic choreographers and fifteen international choreographers to come here together over ten days to make the festival together, with a blank programme. They invited fifteen domestic choreographers and fifteen international choreographers to come together over the course of ten days to create the festival together, starting with a clean slate. There were lectures, workshops, dance classes, barbecues, all sorts of things. That was a real opening for the festival; it polarized people. Some people were quite frustrated, because it wasn’t a format they knew how to engage with. But it assumed a really strong position—it shifted the emphasis away from consumption towards learning, exchanging, learning through doing and making, taking your own initiative. I think that’s something we want to try to carry on. All of this can co-exist I think.


Are the choreographers working mostly within the modern dance idiom?

Alex: I don’t think you can talk about an Icelandic aesthetic yet. You can’t really talk about a shared vocabulary either. That’s why we’re also really interested in the radio series. When you give them a shared format, I think you will really get to hear the contradictions in the scene. They may use shared terminology to talk about things that are totally divergent.

Ása: There’s been a lot of talk about Icelandic dance. I don’t think it exists because of how the scene was formed: one goes to Brussels, one goes to America, and then they come home at a similar time, but what they’re doing and what they’ve learned is totally different.

Alex: For August – we really want these divergent approaches to encounter each other – to push each other off balance.

Do you already have plans for the next instalments?

Alex: Yes! The next festival is exploring something quite specific. We will present a programme of artists that each in their own way appear to us to be drawing strategies that are prevalent within pop culture. Be that radio broadcasting, pop dancing, concert making, or album producing. So we are interested in what happens when pop strategies meets the micro–environments of the theatre stage, the gallery, someone’s living room.

Ása: And February will be a festival of solo works. We will call this edition ‘Dancing Alone’ – and we hope to both celebrate and scrutinize the solo as a format within the field of dancing and choreography.

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