On a stage in the centre of Reykjavík, 15 strangers are dancing. They move to the music in exaltation, arms outstretched, mouths wide in laughter. Hips are swaying, fists are pumping. They are people of many colours, races, backgrounds and ages, and now they are not only dancing—they are singing, in unison. The stage lights go out, and the music stops too, but their voices remain. “You should be dancing,” they chant, quietly now. There is a split second of silence, and then the theatre erupts in whooping applause.
Say the words ‘contemporary dance’ to someone, and they may baulk at the idea. Vast misunderstandings plague this genre of art; the idea that it is pretentious, highbrow, and elitist is certainly a big turn off for many people, but so is the much more subtle belief that it’s for a certain ‘type’ of person.
Behind closed doors, though, many people have a relationship with dance. The doctor who used to study ballet as a child. The pre–teens learning routines from Youtube videos in their bedrooms. The 20–something lad–about–town who loves the dance floor on a night out. The care–home resident who remembers ballrooms with shining eyes.
This shared love of dance that is a commonality between so many people, and yet so rarely given a spotlight, is at the heart of “Ball”, the latest production of Iceland Dance Company (IDC), choreographed by artist duo Alexander Roberts and Ásrún Magnúsdóttir. It involves five dancers from the Company performing alongside ten other ‘amateur’ dancers, all from different backgrounds, who range in age from 12 to 80. Each performer brought a dance from their particular style, and the whole cast worked with Ásrún and Alexander to create a new, cohesive piece. Ball is certainly the right word for it — it’s a jubilant celebration.
Creating in tandem
Alexander and Ásrún have been working together since meeting at Reykjavík Dance Festival in 2012. Early on in their relationship, they saw in each other the common principles and goals that now unify and guide their artistic partnership; ideas of community, challenging norms and accepted ways of approaching art, and crucially, who they wanted to create work with.
“We’re both very interested in working with non-professionals, and making space for different voices to be heard and seen,” Ásrún explains. “Our aim with our work is to bring people to the stage who are maybe not often seen on stage. So this is our common…” — she pauses, searching for the right word.
“Element,” adds Alexander. “Yeah, exactly,” Ásrún agrees. “Our projects always come from this heart.”
Talking to Alexander and Ásrún is like this. They seem to know exactly when to jump into each other’s sentences with a carefully selected word, or when instead to leave a space. They listen to each other carefully, frequently ask each other, “What do you think?” It’s clearly not a deflection either, but a genuine commitment to curiosity. It’s not lost on me that their interaction is in itself somewhat dance-like, in its subtle rhythms and turns.
Different routes to dance
Despite their shared ideologies regarding art participation, Ásrún and Alexander have completely different backgrounds when it comes to their own introductions to dance. Ásrún trained as a dancer from a young age, doing ballet and contemporary classes, and sticking with it through her teenage years until she completed her BA in Contemporary Dance Practices at the Iceland University of the Arts. It’s this, she feels, that is partially responsible for her desire to step outside of the norms she had experienced for the twenty years of her training. On finishing her degree, Ásrún realised she was tired of the word ‘contemporary’, the dance scene she was part of, and even the very specific body shape that typified professional dancers.
Alexander, on the other hand, describes himself as having, “no background in dance at all.”
“When I was younger it was probably my least favourite thing. I could even go as far as saying I probably hated it,” he says, with a tiny sliver of glee just noticeable in his voice. Instead, Alex came to dance through an interest in experimental music and performance.
“Through that I discovered choreography, and I just found what was happening in the dance and choreography field to be something I was really excited about. But my interest has always been in the thing we’ve been talking about already,” he says, gesturing to Ásrún. “The different ways that you can engage in an art context to make space for voices, bodies, stories, or desires that otherwise there isn’t a space for. For me dance just became one of the situations where that was possible.”
“But,” he adds wryly, “I am a complete and utter imposter.”
Considering likely collaborators
Imposter or not, over the past ten years, Alex and Ásrún have built up an impressive CV of work, including many pieces which feature unlikely ‘stars’ — teenagers, disabled people, even the residents of Ásrún’s apartment building. When Erna Ómarsdóttir, the artistic director of Iceland Dance Company (IDC), invited them to create a piece, the challenge was how to do so while staying true to their identity and values as artists.
“There is a question of what it means for two artists like us who are interested in working with, let’s say unlikely collaborators, to then go and work with the most likely collaborators: a group of professional dancers in a professional dance company,” acknowledges Alex.
“Our first starting point was to say, okay, well, could we expand the Company? And an obvious thought was to find a group of people who have one thing in common, which would be their love of dance — but maybe the dance that they speak about is very different from each other.”
A project like “Ball” presents — and is probably designed to present — a number of challenges. From finding people who want to be involved, to the dancers themselves contributing the bulk of the material, to coordinating the schedules of 15 participants, the whole process is completely unlike IDC’s regular productions. The challenges arising from new ways of working don’t just impact the organisation on a structural level, they also extend to the five Company dancers involved in the piece.
“We normally only work with professional dancers in a particular artistic context,” one dancer, Félix Urbina Alejandre tells me. “But there’s also this other possibility, of creating a piece with a different vision.”
“Overall it entices some kind of challenge”
Pivoting from the way you have been trained to work for years, sometimes decades, can be not just exacting, but also emotionally confronting. It’s something Felix seems to take in his stride, however.
“Overall it entices some kind of challenge, for both the professional and the guest dancers. As contemporary dancers we’re having to adapt to different languages, styles and aesthetic visions,” he explains. But ultimately, from his perspective, the project has been a success.
“I think it does work. At the end of the process I see the vision. I see that it’s actually making a nice space to talk about something else.”
The open-minded response to the project from Felix and his four fellow colleagues from the Company was in no small way crucial to the outcome of the piece. When asked about the IDC dancers involved, Ásrún can barely describe her gratitude and admiration for them:
“They’ve been just amazing,” she says, shaking her head in wonder. “Available, generous, inviting, supportive, and so open to learning from the others.”
“Learn by doing”
This learning process, and the process of creating “Ball”, began with the guest dancers each leading a mini dance workshop for the rest of the ensemble. Alexander and Ásrún also took part in these classes themselves, in order to be fully integrated into the experience and to “learn by doing,” as Alex puts it. “We were participating in a lot of dances that I for one was really bad at,” he deadpans, eliciting a big laugh from Ásrún.
To be fair to Alexander, the range of dances the cast brought to the table would present most people with a challenge. Bollywood, Go-go, street dance and ballet are all featured styles that the ensemble have shared, learned, and will soon be performing. “The show is a lot about that experience; about someone bringing a dance and the different ways the ensemble participates in it.” Alex explains.
“When you’re on stage, you’re on stage,” Ásrún clarifies. “There are no ins and outs. So everyone is involved in everyone’s dance, sometimes more and sometimes less.”
“You can be involved by doing the exact same steps as everyone else, or you can be involved by just standing there and watching,” adds Alexander. “But you’re always present.” They both say this last part, almost in unison, apparently not even noticing, as if this happens all the time.
Iceland’s Billy Elliot?
One of the guest dancers participating in the project is 22 year old Luis Lucas Antónió Cabambe. Born in Angola, Luis moved to Iceland with his mother when he was three years old. Growing up, he was sporty, incredibly dedicated to football (he is a semi-professional footballer to this day, playing for KÁ Ásvellir), but always had a fascination with dance.
“I was always dancing,” Luis says. “Whenever the opportunity came, whether it was a festival outside, or a birthday, or at home or just whenever there was a dance scenario, I, you know, I got to it! I started jigging, I started grooving.” With this he lifts his fists and shimmies his shoulders in demonstration with a broad smile and a refreshing lack of self-consciousness, even though we’re sat in the middle of a busy cafe.
Things changed for Luis when his family moved from Selfoss to Keflavík when he was 13. At this point he was seeing more and more dance on TV through shows like “Britain’s Got Talent”. Initially, he wanted to learn how to do The Robot, but unfortunately, opportunities in Keflavík weren’t forthcoming.
“The only dance option I had there was ballet,” Luis tells me. “At first I thought, there’s no way I’m going to do ballet, because I’m a guy, and I was afraid of the other guys in my soccer team making fun of me. But eventually I just went for it.”
As Luis suspected, starting ballet lessons was not an easy process for a 13 year old boy. For a long time he was the only male in the class, and he was indeed ribbed, albeit in a good-natured way, by his fellow football teammates. But there were plus-sides too; Luis’s coaches were very supportive of his decision, and he became firm friends with his classmates, describing the girls he danced with as “like family.” In addition, it quickly became clear that Luis had both the talent and dedication to become very, very good. At the end of the year he performed in the school’s annual show, with his ecstatic mother in the audience filming every move.
Dancing with the stars
Life for Luis took another fateful turn when the family then moved over to Breiðholt, which happened to be the home of the only street dance school in the country. Shortly after the move, Luis remembers watching an Icelandic talent contest on TV, where he was enraptured by the performance of the winning act, dancer Brynjar Dagur. Discovering that Brynjar Dagur attended the same dance school near where he lived, Luis quickly began to take all of the classes he possibly could, practising for hours in front of the mirror in his bedroom.
“It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” says Luis, of Brynjar’s performance. “After that it was like, yeah, I’m going to be like that guy.”
Luis excelled. Not only did he become good enough to form a duo with his hero, Brynjar Dagur, but the pair then travelled together to Portugal for The Dance World Cup — which they subsequently won. Still only in his early twenties, Luis has now won several awards, performed on TV numerous times and travelled to multiple countries to take part in dance workshops and competitions.
He’s a self-described yes man. Although he is currently focussing more on his football career than his dancing, he tries to fit in dance projects whenever he can. “I want to meet new people and I want to be part of a project that’s fun,” Luis tells me.
“I’ve realised that in the dance community, there’s not a lot of money in this work,” he says honestly. “So I’m doing what I do for the love, for my passion for dancing.”
Covid, and the great hiatus
It’s this passion for dance that Ásrún and Alexander have spent the last two years of this project trying to both explore and corral, somehow. Of course, it goes without saying that the timeline for this piece was never intended to be two years long. When I ask the choreographers if they had to stop at points because of Covid, Ásrún sighs and replies, “many times.” The cast was first put together in early 2020, and they’d even gathered for a couple of meetings and an initial photoshoot before the first hiatus. But Ásrún also points out that there were silver linings to this unplanned extended process:
“You don’t start from scratch. We keep everything we do in our pockets and then we bring it back. Sometimes it can be fine to have these breaks, actually, because you have time to rest in it and think about it and realise what parts are better than others.”
In some ways it feels particularly fitting that this piece that so specifically celebrates the joy of bodies and movement in space together, and the unspoken relationships between strangers, will come into being just at the moment of the great re-opening of the world. Those who attend “Ball” will have the opportunity to meet the joy of the dancers on stage with their own joy at being finally able to once again attend cultural and social events, to rub shoulders with a stranger in a theatre.
Who is dance for?
But there is still the question of who this piece is for. As a collaborative and participatory piece, it is clearly open and accessible, and this is something Alex and Ásrún have thought about in detail when designing the project. But when it comes to the performances themselves, will potential audiences be able to look past the word ‘contemporary’, and find something that reflects themselves?
Felix hopes so. “There are always going to be some things that are more open to everybody than others. ‘Ball’, since its inception, has always been about society, community, and people. So I think it is really accessible. Also, it’s really a showcase of many styles, so people can just come to enjoy very beautiful dance.”
Ásrún and Alexander share similar sentiments. “I just hope people will see this is possible,” Ásrún says.
“I see a lot of beauty in the people on stage,” adds her partner. “There’s a lot of honesty and sincerity and they’re giving a lot of themselves to the audience, and to each other as well. What you’re going to get is this experience of seeing a group of dancers that are having this ‘ball’ together, they’re really having this party on stage together. And the audience are kind of being invited to join in on that situation and that atmosphere. So that special energy has been created between that group of dancers on the stage is one that in the course of the show, kind of envelops the audience and the audience are invited into that experience too.”
A little bit for everyone
It’s a beautiful idea of symbiosis between the dancer and the watcher, but I wonder if it’s one that Luis, and his footballer friends, would connect with. When I ask him if the other players on his team could come and enjoy this performance, he thinks hard before answering me.
“I think so,” he says, slowly, still considering. “Yeah, I do. What makes this different is that there are so many styles. There’s so much flavour. So I think that whoever comes, there’s a little bit for everyone.”
“We’re so flexible, we’re all so different,” he adds, beginning to gesticulate as he really gets behind his answer. “It’s like going to a music festival with a lot of different artists. Maybe not everyone will enjoy every single part of it, but I think everyone will at least enjoy some of it.”
He admits, however, that despite his own love of dance, he’s not always sure how to encourage people who don’t feel a connection with cultural activities to attend performances like this. But he is adamant that dance has changed his life, and he strongly feels this connection with fellow dancers.
“I just really think that dancers in general, no matter where they come from, they have this advanced range, they have this better way of understanding things,” he says passionately.
“You know, some people say dance is a sport, but really, for me, it’s art. It’s a way of expression, it’s a way of connecting emotionally to whatever that is that you feel.”
“Dance is like fingerprints”
Luis is waving his hands so wildly now that he accidentally sends his mobile phone flying off the table, and I am trying to subtly secure my wobbly coffee cup with a vice-like grip. He catches the phone before it hits the floor with predictably good reflexes, and shoots me a beatific grin as he pulls his thoughts together.
“A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Luis, I wish you could teach me how to dance in the club.’ But the moves that I teach you? You won’t necessarily connect to them in the way I do when I’m dancing at the club.”
“Dance is like fingerprints,” he lands on, finally. “It connects to each person in their own way. Nobody has the same understanding, or feeling through dance because you kind of have to make it your own. But what we all have in common is this possibility of connecting to it, you know? You have to just explore it.”
Ball premieres on May 6th, 2022 at the Reykjavik City Theatre. Tickets available here
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