As August faded away into an early winter, the Reykjavík Dance Festival (RDF) and the Lókal International Theatre Festival combined their efforts to stage a fantastic five-day event under the heading “Every Body’s Spectacular,” packed with exciting performances and exhibitions. I tried to take in as much as I could manage, and was glad that I did: Each act was creative, professionally put together and well performed—I don’t hesitate to recommend the festival to any fan of the performing arts.
However, while the production values were top-notch, much of the festival was somewhat inaccessible—much like most contemporary art. Art is a peculiar industry in that it’s not a product that needs to be sold to an audience-consumer, which is good because modern dance doesn’t sell like hotcakes. But, as I was happily going from one show to the next at an amazing festival—one I had to continually remind my Reykjavík-dwelling friends was even happening—I started to think dance could benefit from a bit more popular appeal.
Unlike Michael Bay movies or monster truck rallies, the success or failure of art cannot be judged solely by ticket sales, but rather by factors such as the uniqueness or ingenuity of the work and the narrative it communicates. Yet, success or failure within the art industry is judged by entertainment value, and yes, tickets sold. “Every Body’s Spectacular” was a resounding success filled with innovative and conceptual pieces.
Each audience was made up of dancers, actors and the general public, reflecting the collaborative nature of the festival. Some shows managed to appeal to all three demographics without sacrificing artistic integrity, and it makes me ponder what makes a good dance performance. Is it a show that wows seasoned dancers, while leaving casual attendees amazed? Or is it perhaps possible to find something that both groups will equally enjoy?
‘Opening’ and ‘Milkywhale’
The festival began on Wednesday, with palpable excitement filling the air. About 150 people crammed into foyer of Gamla Bíó for the opening event, which featured a performance by dancer Margrét Bjarnadóttir. Sitting behind a drum kit, Margrét performed in her typical humorous, melancholic form. “Big cities are hilarious when you think about them in relation to death,” she considered while describing her summer in London. Between the jokes and banging on the drums, she described the beauty of music and its use in dance—mostly, however, the performance came across as a caricature of performance art prima donnas. The piece was a good, light-hearted opening, taking a satirical stance on said performance art. This would prove a common theme throughout the festival, leaving a clear impression that this sort of criticism resonates within the dance community.
Like Margrét’s ‘Opening’, ‘Milkywhale’ by Reykjavík-based choreographer Melkorka Sigríður Magnúsdóttir dealt with the relationship between music and dance. Later, I asked Melkorka about her views on the importance of music in dance. “I wanted to make my body equal to the instruments I use on stage and in the music I make,” she told me, adding that that all “instruments” are important.
Knowing that the music was composed by Árni Rúnar Hlöðversson of FM Belfast, I asked a musically savvy teenage relative to accompany me to the performance. She described the music as good pop music, more similar to what you might hear at festivals than on the radio. I also asked her what she thought of the performance as a non-dancer, “It was a bit weird, but I quite liked it,” she responded. This was an unsurprising response, with the dancer at one point gargling water into the microphone to mimic the song of a whale.
In a sharp contrast to watergargling whales, I also attended ‘GRRRRLS’ by Ásrún Magnúsdóttir, which included 20 girls aged 13-16 who did a piece on feminine solidarity among teenagers. As Ásrún told me, “it was not so much about the final performance, more about the process in general. Them coming together, creating stuff, talking about being a teenager, a woman et cetera.” At the end of the performance, the girls seized the microphone and announced that they would now do a piece of their own choosing: Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)”. In doing so, they expressed themselves and their feelings beautifully through their art. The dance was, much like the song, empowering for the girls, and, most of all, a joyous experience for everyone present. With their own added flavour, ‘GRRRRLS’ touched at the true heart of dance.
I also attended a performance by Anna Kolfinna Kuran, based on letters written by Icelandic suffragette and women’s rights activist Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir (1856-1940). Entitled ‘Bríet: Up With the Skirts’, the piece was staged as part of the “Firsts” series, which brings together Icelandic dance and performance makers in the spirit of the RDF and Lókal collaboration.
In true Icelandic fashion, the show began a few minutes late, so when the doors opened the whole audience was assembled in the lobby of the small black box theatre at Iceland Academy of the Arts. We shuffled in, leaving no seat unclaimed; clearly I wasn’t the only one interested in the piece.
As we filed in, the four performers were already stood like statues on the stage, surrounded by old suitcases that would be used as props. They were dressed in simple turn-of-the-century clothing—think Downton Abbey maids on their days off.
The show began with soft yet dramatic violin music. For me, this was a welcome choice, being both period-appropriate and lacking the pounding rythm popular with many other performances I had caught at the festival thus far. The movement was subtle and breathy, and it made use of flocking patterns. The first act had the dancers moving around the stage with suitcases, moving the bags from one spot to the next: a less than discrete symbol of 19th century women’s baggage.
The set design for the section detailing Bríet’s founding of Kvennablaðið, a women’s newspaper in Reykjavík, was visually very interesting. The performers pulled long pieces of parchment paper out of the suitcases and painted a simple version of the pattern found at Bríetartorg, based on a sewing pattern designed by Bríet herself. In my opinion, this was a great outcome of the dance-theatre collaboration, one that would likely not have been executed so well were the show distinctly one or the other.
The show had a few other highlights, including a section where three Bríets taunted the fourth performer, now dressed as a male editor, with paper airplanes, as well as two segments that drew connections to #freethenipple. I wondered what Bríet herself might think of the campaign, and later put the question to Anna Kuran. “It has come up a lot in our time working on the piece. Although her ideas were very progressive at the time, she also held tightly onto tradition, and was in a way quite conservative,” Anna Kolfinna told me after the performance. “I don’t think she would understand the #freethenipple movement, as its values really speak for and to the feminist ideals of our time.”
‘Bríet’ dealt with an interesting topic and incorporated good choreography, music and set design. At times, however, it could be a bit… well, dull. More than once, I was distracted by the snoring of a man sitting a few seats away, and I couldn’t exactly see anyone sitting on the edge of their seat. My companion called the show “confusing,” and I found myself surprised that only 45 minutes had passed when the house lights came back on.
‘Song of Cranes’
On Saturday afternoon, my husband and I drove out to Seltjarnarnes for Ragnheiður Harpa Leifsdóttir’s ‘Söngur kranans / Song of Cranes’—the only piece that he was interested in seeing with me. I was pretty excited myself. Performed by construction cranes rather than dancers, the piece promised to be innovative and beautiful in its simplicity. This was not going to be an interpretive dance about the harmonic energy of the vagina set to the sound of a washing machine cycle; it was going to actually try for something truly unique.
After the performance, the choreographer told me that the piece was inspired by the recent return of the once omnipresent constuction cranes which once again dot the Reykjavík skyline (after having all but vanished in the immediate aftermath of 2008’s financial crash). They are both a symbol of hope and fear, Harpa said, as they remind us of the economic growth (read: bubble) that preceded the crash. “The movements of the giants were so delicate and precise. I thought about what it would be like just to give them focus, without any other reason than to dance.”
I expected an ‘American Beauty’-style plastic bag floating in the wind, but left feeling like the bag blew straight into a puddle and stopped. What should have been a grand spectacle used to spark dialogue about development or the urban landscape turned out to be two construction cranes seemingly aimlessly swaying in the wind to eerie ambient music. They did not interact, move in sync or even pick up objects.
I was not the only one who was unimpressed: much of the audience did not last through the performance’s mere twelve minutes before heading back to their cars.
I asked Harpa what she set out to accomplish with the piece. She told me that “the idea of the crane—a tool we use to create, and an extension of ourselves—is important. It’s in what we want to create in tune with nature, the responsibility we have toward building our world in the future. It’s in how we build, and how we move in tune with nature, through space and time, in dance and in motion.”
Perhaps the strong wind on the day affected the cranes, and thus the “dance”—reminding us of the elements around us.
After craning my neck watching that unconventional crane piece by Grótta, I arrived at Tjarnabíó for a sold-out performance of ‘Schönheisabend’ with Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek. Entering the theatre I was struck by the size of the crowd. It seemed like Tjarnarbíó had expanded, but really I had just never seen it more than half-full before. Packed houses might be nothing special for music festivals or plays at Borgarleikhúsið, but contemporary dance doesn’t usually get this much attention. Later, I learned that this sort of turnout isn’t anything special for Florentina and Vincent. “We always say: we want everybody to get in, even if we have to place out rows of pillows in front. Don’t refuse an audience,” Florentina told me.
The show had three acts, respectively based on ‘Scheherazade’ (1910), Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1919 final performance, and ‘Afternoon Of A Faun’ (1912). Each act started from the Ballets Russes classic, and went on to update it for a modern audience. At the turn of the century, these performances were considered wildly erotic and violent, but with today’s theatregoers jaded by HBO and other uncensored media, they do not elicit the same shock as they once did. Florentina and Vincent’s choreography was able to stay true to the fundamental quality of the original works through choreography, music, costume, and intended effect on the audience.
Before reserving a seat for this performance, I noticed the odd disclaimer on RDF’s website: “Attention: This show has explicit sexual content. Audiences under 18 years are not allowed.” As a sexually liberated twentysomething and a supporter of #freethenipple, I assumed this message was quaint reminder to older generations and mothers of seven-year-olds wanting to see ballerinas in tutus and pointed shoes that this performance would have nudity and suggestive movements—much like the shows it was based on did.
Boy, was I wrong.
During Scheherazade’s duet with the freed slave, Florentina and Vincent diverged from Fokine’s original choreography when Scheherazade donned a strap-on and anally penetrated the slave on stage. Apart from being shocking and sexy, it was actually one of the better duets I’ve seen.
As a dance-loving teenager, the balcony pas de deux from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ruined me for duets—I decided I’d rather watch paint dry than one more of the kneeling squats Prokofiev called a lift. However, this was a very good duet, penetration and all. Both dancers were obviously amazingly strong and technically gifted, and the strap-on created a dynamic where the dancers were forced to remain connected at all times (literally). In the third act I was equally surprised to see a nymph tie the naked faun up in complicated bondage. But again, it was a technically and visually interesting duet that essentially had the same effect as the moment in the original choreography when the faun tangles himself up in the nymph’s veil.
I was left wondering how art like this performance, which includes explicit sexual acts, is received in a country where strip clubs and pornography are both (technically) outlawed. “People seemed pretty open-minded during the show and comfortable with sexual references or pornographic imagery. We really felt most people went along with it and got the chance to look behind it too,” said Florentina.
Every Body’s Spectacular. Truly.
“Every Body’s Spectacular” was truly spectacular, and wish I didn’t have to wait for the next festival to see new and interesting dance in Reykjavík. The festival provided an eclectic mix of performances, largely due to the interesting collaboration with Lókal. But it is always a risk inviting outsiders (read: not dancers) to contemporary performances. ‘Crisis Meeting’ by Kriðpleir was more of a Lókal piece than an RDFone, leaving the dance critic in me confused and alienated at times. I am sure that this is how outsiders feel watching modern dance performances that slant heavily towards the abstract end.
The final performance I attended was ‘Love And Lack Of It’, a part of the ‘Eternal’ series by The Professional Amateurs, led by Steinunn Knútsdóttir. Starting with a one-on-one scripted interview between an 11-year-old and a woman reading mediocre love letters for 40 minutes, it was an epitome of the sort of unapproachable performance art satirised by many of the festival’s other works.
While these sort of performances can be neat and interesting for those deep into the theatre or dance community (or those who don’t understand it and want to pretend they do), they are indeed extremely unlikely to find favour among the general public. As choreography has developed and evolved as an art form it has become less about stunning an audience with impressive steps and lavish sets, and more about the choreographer’s artistic vision and journey. Often this yields a unique performance that incorporates interesting journeys, such as the vision for ‘Song Of Cranes’, but too often they can’t see over the lip of the stage and fall prey to the cliché that all pop art must be bad art.
Florentina put it best: “Popularity in dance is very relative… yes people from the scene know you, but still the ‘scene’ is pretty small, even quite elitist. We always wonder about our audiences, whether and how to reach other people than just the ‘in’ crowd.”
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