For this year’s Reykjavík Arts Festival, Iceland Dance Company presents ‘Blæði: obsidian pieces,’ made up of four works by Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet. The premiere met with overwhelmingly positive reviews from dance aficionados and rookies alike. It’s an outstanding overall performance, but I’d wager the response is also because Damien’s pieces have a clear narrative; a characteristic often lacking from contemporary dance.
The first piece, ‘Les Médusées’ is a story about the mythical Gorgons, performed by Halla Þórðardóttir, Hjördís Lilja Örnólfsdóttir and Inga Maren Rúnarsdóttir. Like Medusa, they cannot look at each other without becoming petrified, forcing them to dance as a synchronised trio without seeing one another. From a technical standpoint, the perfect timing and spacing the dancers used to accomplish this was impressive. But technique aside, this was also a very well-staged piece, with the dancers performing in white stringed costumes – reminiscent of Medusa’s snakes – to a rhythmic percussion score.
The second set of two works, entitled ‘Sin’ and ‘The Evocation,’ are both taken from a collaboration between Damien and Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, entitled ‘Babel(words).’ ‘Sin’ is a powerful and beautiful duet about the primordial couple. Diverging from the traditional template for a duet, the man (Einar Nikkerud) danced alone first, then the two danced together, ending with the woman’s (Þyri Huld Árnadóttir) solo, signifying a transfer of power. The incredible strength of the dancers was clear, giving the impression of effortlessness in both their lifts and partnering.
But again, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the costuming. Both dancers were clad only in a pair of black trousers. It’s not unusual to see the rippling muscles of professional male dancers, but without a top, Þyri’s raw strength was visible, adding to the idea of a transfer of power.
‘The Evocation’ was a fine group piece about ritual and worship, filled with travelling movements across the floor, but didn’t hit the impressive peaks of the other works.
‘Black Marrow’, choreographed jointly by Damien and Iceland Dance Company’s artistic director Erna Ómarsdóttir in 2009, was presented as the second act. This piece is unquestionably the best work I’ve seen by the company, telling the story of the decay of civilisation, and of society’s addiction to oil. The dancers worked with a black rubber-like sheet that enveloped the stage. When they were held beneath it, we saw them struggling to break free; when they danced over it, the sheet became an ever-present puddle beneath their feet. The apocalyptic feel of the piece is enhanced by cold, dim lighting and eerie clouds of dry ice.
‘Black Marrow’ is broken up into roughly six sections, with the performers developing from their primal/animalistic origins to cogs in a societal machine, to the ultimate demise of civilisation. In an interview before the premiere Damien thoughtfully said, “Some people consider oil like the balm of God, and other people consider it like the shit of the devil, and I think it’s both.” So rather than preaching about the evils of fossil fuels, the piece gives the impression that people are the real problem onstage, there is something quite beautiful about the glistening rubbery materials and oily black paint.
In stark contrast to certain taboos of modern dance, the choreography has dialogue, is occasionally driven by props, and includes a wonderfully camp dance scene. But these elements are so gracefully woven into the work and the larger narrative that they never feel cheap. The movement quality changes from section to section, which both keeps the piece from feeling repetitive, and highlights the strengths of different dancers. Einar Nikkerud and Elín Signý Weywadt Ragnarsdóttir gave particularly excellent performances. Einar, a Norwegian dancer who joined Iceland Dance Company in 2013, showed such stage presence and versatility that it was difficult to take your eyes off him regardless of whether he did slow, controlled, contemporary technique or lip synced to Danzel. Elín, a guest artist with Iceland Dance Company, delivered a particularly moving and emotional performance as she tried desperately to communicate with the other dancers when the oil began to engulf them, proving her prowess as both dancer and actor.
I really cannot recommend this show enough.
May 25 and 28 at 20:00
Borgarleikhúsið (Reykjavík City Theatre)
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