Published August 28, 2015
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir and Erna Ómarsdóttir are performers who, although their reputations precede them, are too busy making quality work to spend much time bathing in the limelight. In fact, they may very well be the kinds of creative forces that a nation takes for granted—despite them being the backbones of their respective artistic fields.
Halldóra is an actress, director and author who has been on contract with the Reykjavík City Theatre for twenty years, and who has recently earned special public favour for her straight-shooting vision of Iceland’s political future, prompting some to challenge her to run for President in the upcoming elections. Erna is a dancer and choreographer who—after having achieved measurable international success (appearing in music videos for the likes of Björk and Placebo, and collaborating with artists of the likes of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Jan Fabre)—has just taken up her post as the new artistic director of the Icelandic Dance Company. The two will be collaborating on at least one upcoming production this fall. We present to you, the two of them in conversation.
Occupation: “I’m the artistic director of the Iceland Dance Company. I’m also a choreographer, dancer and performer. My job sometimes keeps me locked up in the office, but I’m always trying to blend that with some artistic things. I’m also a mother—but that’s not a job, is it? Or maybe it is! It is the most important and beautiful job, then.”
Background: “I’ve worked as a performer with some world-renowned companies and directors in Europe and Belgium for quite a while. Somewhere along the way, I started doing my own dance works, and touring them, mainly through Europe. I also have a project with my partner, Valdimar Jóhannsson—a company called Shalala—it sits between dance and music, and works around concepts too. We call it a ‘borderline musical’ whenever we have to describe it! I’ve curated dance festivals too, in Iceland and in France.”
Education: “I studied in Europe. I initially did dance as a hobby, and studied in Iceland. I went on to study in Rotterdam and then Belgium at the PARTS school, and got my diploma there.”
Upcoming Projects: “I’ve been working on re-staging ‘Blæði’, for the Iceland Dance Company, a big piece from last year, for some extra shows [catch performances on August 30 and September 8 at the Reykjavík City Theatre]. ‘Black Marrow’, the longest element of that piece, which I choreographed in collaboration with Damien Jalet, to the music of Ben Frost, will then go on tour. We’re also starting the season at the Iceland Dance Company with our new choreographers—it’s going to be a very exciting season! I’m also working on a new piece based on Njáls Saga, which the Iceland Dance Company will stage this winter, in collaboration with the Reykjavík City Theatre. Shalala is also working on a collaboration that will premiere in the Reykjavík City Theatre in May, with the Iceland Dance Company, and the artists Gabríela Friðriksdóttir, Matthew Barney and Ragnar Kjartansson—something very big, exciting and scary! It’s for the Reykjavík Arts Festival.”
Erna Ómarsdóttir: When I started dancing it was just physical, just about moving the body and training the muscles and all that.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: Overcoming the flesh.
EÓ: At some point you start to find that isn’t enough, especially with age. In the beginning, it didn’t even occur to me that dance was something that you could…
HG: Make poetry out of?
EÓ: Yeah, you were just in this kind of show business. But then, when I was a teenager, I saw a show at an arts festival that sort of turned something on in me. I started to understand that it’s possible to use this form to express your views on the problems in the world; that you can use dance to take part in the conversation, so to speak. That it’s just another way to express oneself.
HG: I was thinking about this, because I’m in a production of ‘Billy Elliot’, and I was never in jazz ballet or anything so I don’t know about the body in this way—the angles of the body, that is. And the dance training for this role is the hardest thing I have ever done. I really bow down to those who do this for a living, because I think it’s so incredibly hard, and I find it to be such violence.
EÓ: Yes, it is borderline sado-masochistic. It’s a bit strange, what dancers do; this training of the body and going through the pain to get to the pleasure at the end. It’s a great outlet, but it’s hardcore work.
HG: It’s incredible.
EÓ: It is weird! But isn’t it just like training for a marathon?
HG: Maybe, but not really. It’s the precision in the movements that requires such intense training. It’s more like being a classical musician.
HG: In a dance like I’m doing in ‘Billy Elliot’, or in any classical dance, there’s no room for creativity. Except for maybe inside of you, but there’s no room for creativity in the steps. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a mover. I can show up and ooze energy on a dance floor. But that’s not the same thing.
EÓ: That’s very important too, though. I’m very fond of people who are untrained but who just have their own personal…
HG: Have access to something.
EÓ: Yes, because when you’ve trained a lot it’s difficult to find something unique, because everyone’s moulded into a similar form.
ROCK ME AMADEUS
It’s interesting how you describe classical dance as being a strict formula that is perhaps a bit didactic and creatively restrictive for the performers. You say it’s the same for classical musicians, but is it true also for actors? How much freedom do you experience within the frame of a theatre piece?
HG: I have very rarely felt that I was on railroad tracks. And I experience freedom in just stepping differently to the ground each time I say the same sentence. I experience a lot of freedom within the frame of the play, but I perhaps didn’t experience as much freedom when I was starting out in drama school. That’s maybe something that you realise later—how to allow yourself to expand into something that at first seems very simple, even constricting. Then, slowly, you find an opening. As the years go by I feel like I’m more and more trained in that opening. And feeling free. And then it’s just a question of who’s in charge, whether they allow you to feel free or not—whether he or she wants results immediately, or senses an active exploration and finds that to be interesting. And the only time, really, that I don’t feel free within a role is if the person directing me is always waiting for a result. Then I feel suffocated.
EÓ: I‘m the same when I’m working for someone, I can’t just start with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I have to have time to improvise, often for a long time.
HG: It can be difficult for whoever is acting opposite me, if he or she is waiting for a prompt or keyword, because they often don’t come, because sometimes I mess up the words. I always say the right thing, though—I just often say it with different words.
EÓ: But it means the same.
HG: In the end it means the same.
I wonder what you have to say about the difference between theatre, dance and music performance, especially considering your background in music, Halldóra, and your work with the concert form in your dancing, Erna. The last time I interviewed you, Erna, you mentioned how in traditional stage performance, there is no pause—that is to say, everything pretty much has to happen one thing after the other. But in a concert there is this sort of breath between songs, a break.
EÓ: Yes, it was definitely freeing for me to experience the concert form, and this pause between songs. I love that pause, because it’s like a window. It’s a place where you can preach, and say all sorts of things.
When you’re making a dance piece, it’s usually such a hassle in a way, nothing can go wrong. If you mess up the steps it becomes this big problem. But in the concert structure, if the song gets messed up in some way you just start over. And you’re allowed to do that. It’s somehow more permissible. Maybe it’s also because I’m a visitor when I’m using the concert form, and then I allow myself to break the rules and am less aware of the taboos.
HG: I was in a rock band before I started studying theatre, and I’ve always said that the easiest thing in the world is being a rock star. You’ve practised the song, everybody knows the song, and you can start over if you have to. And then in between songs you’re allowed to say whatever, you can take up all the space you need. There is this incredible freedom.
EÓ: I agree.
LET IT GO
You mention the pause as being a kind of “window,” Erna. You used the same metaphor, Halldóra, when you accepted a Gríma [at the Icelandic Theatre Awards] earlier this year. You said that when one is presented with a window one has to use it to say what one feels has to be said. Are there things you feel you have a responsibility to express given your positions or prestige?
EÓ: When I realised that dance was not just about moving your body, that it was possible to use it to express everything that one wanted to say, it became really important to me to pursue it. Because I’m so bad at talking and at expressing myself with words. So this was my way.
HG: For me it’s that as I get older I’m realising more and more where I need to shoulder responsibility. It’s also because I’ve been raising a bunch of kids, and I’ve been learning to teach them to take responsibility and also learning when I need to step in and when not to. I feel like those things go hand-in-hand. But I also have a very strong need to do things that are just for fun. Just nonsense.
EÓ: You have to have both.
HG: And I just say: The more nonsense the better. There is so much truth in silliness, so much unexpected truth that sneaks out. And if you don’t allow yourself to get a little mixed up and mess around a bit, you’ll stop surprising yourself.
HG: A year ago I decided my motto would be: More nonsense. Don’t take everything so seriously.
EÓ: Often when we’re working in groups, the best things happen during the coffee breaks, when everyone’s just relaxed and goofing around.
HG: The nonsense seems like it doesn’t come from a deep place but it does. The truth seeps through.
EÓ: I think that once you start working with people who allow themselves to be silly, you get this feeling of freedom. You just realise suddenly: Yes, this is allowed.
SHAKE IT OFF
The two of you are working together in a upcoming production of Njáls Saga which will be a collaborative effort between the Reykjavík City Theatre and the Icelandic Dance Company this fall.
EÓ: Yes. It’s not going to be Njála by the book, more like speculations out from the text.
Occupation: “I’m an actress, a director and an author. And a mother. And a wife! And a brother and a sister and a friend. A very good friend!”
Background: “I was born and raised in Reykjavík. I studied music from the ages of six to twenty—flute and saxophone. I was an au pair for a year in Berlin when I was eighteen—before the wall came down. I played in a rock band as a teenager, until I was 22. It was called Risaeðlan. Then I went into theatre school at age 23—I had to quit the band, because the school enforced a strict performance embargo—and have been working in film, theatre, television, radio, as a clown and a host of parties, and as a director and author, ever since. Most of my work is at the Reykjavík City Theatre now. I’ve won some nominations, and some awards. I’ve been to places, and come back… I fell into a cult once! And then came out. I’ve fought to be happy. But I am happy.”
Education: “I studied acting and theatre—I learned improvisation, which can be quite helpful!
Upcoming Projects: “I’m working on ‘Billy Elliot’ now. I went the world with my family, you see, and when I got back, I thought this would be an easy job… but it is the toughest job I’ve ever taken! I have to dance and sing and act, working with children. I’m also rehearsing ‘The Seagull’ by Chekhov, working with a director named Yana Ross—she’s very interesting, one of the hottest things in Europe at the moment, as a director. I’m very excited about it. And of course, I’m doing Njáls Saga with Erna this winter. I’m very good at losing my child in films and theatre—it seems to come up a lot. There’s some tragedy in me, I think, that directors link to.”
HG: Whatever speaks to us.
EÓ: I think that could be quite interesting.
HG: And I think it varies quite a lot what Njála inspires in each and every person.
EÓ: Yes, exactly.
HG: And maybe there’s some freedom in not letting the Njáls Saga specialists tell us what’s in Njáls Saga. There’s already been a lot of that. So this is more like, where does Njáls Saga turn on our creative juices? And isn’t that also completely valid? Instead of always just being on a strict literary level. To see what other parts of the body it speaks to.
So the performers will be very involved in making up the show?
HG: Yes, that’s the idea. When you go into this kind of project, you first realise how incredibly little you know about it, and kind of want to talk about it as little as possible because you’re supposed to be an expert before you even begin.
EÓ: I feel that when one does this kind of project, it’s most often because one is curious, and, yes, maybe doesn’t know all that much about it. So it becomes like a research project. Often something that one is a little bit afraid of.
Njáls Saga is a very exciting project, and a little different than what the company has been a part of before. We’ve collaborated with the theatre in the past, but then it’s been more like musicals, ‘Mary Poppins’ and the like. This is a new kind of collaboration.
HG: There’s more creative energy, somehow.
EÓ: Yes, and everyone a part of the creative process, the actors and the dancers are all part of that.
HG: I can’t wait.
EÓ: The process is almost more exciting than the end result. Of course it will be great if the result is something interesting but it’s also important that the process be something juicy.
They are so fun, these processes that are not just about doing exactly what the director tells you.
HG: You don’t know when you set off what the result is going to be, you just know that there is something you have to get off your chest.
JOHN, I’M ONLY DANCING
It hasn’t been all that common recently to mix theatre together with different art forms like dance and music. Not on the stages of major theatre institutions in Iceland, at least. With the exception of some musicals.
EÓ: That’s true. But there are a lot of individual artists who do cross-disciplinary work. Although it seems to confuse people and even make them angry if an artist tries to step out of his or her main genre. We are always trying to put things into boxes and keep them safe in the boxes. But the three visual artists who we are collaborating with on the show that will be the opening performance of the next Reykjavík Arts Fesival, ‘FÓRN’ [“SACRIFICE”]—Gabríela Friðriksdóttir, Matthew Barney and Ragnar Kjartansson—all of them are freely stepping in and out of their genre. So I thought it would be great to collaborate with them on something that we don’t know what to call, but for now we’re describing it as a borderline musical.
This piece [‘FÓRN’] is very much about these main rituals that we have and what they mean to us today. And at the same time, it is simply an ode to artistic creation.
Because it’s, well, kind of important. Art and religion used to be very connected from the beginning, but now the two have separated. Before, all the artforms served different religions to make them more powerful and fill them with spirit, but what if it could be the opposite? There is so much spirit in the art itself, and it can even save lives. I would say, at least for me, that it saved my life to find dance or to have found myself in dance. When people talk about art as some kind of worthless thing that shouldn’t be supported financially by the state, I don’t understand it. It’s hard to understand something like that when one has always experienced art as something so important in one’s life.
FOUR MORE YEARS
There is a sort of complicated relationship between politics and the arts, because there needs to be someone making and safekeeping artistic space. And it’s perhaps a bit counterintuitive for artists to think about their art from this perspective—that is to say, not from a creative, but rather a sort of practical standpoint. Do you think much about the political dimensions of art? Perhaps with regard to recent debates about gender quotas in certain artistic fields?
HG: I’m up for trying out gender quotas wherever. If we’ve been around for a couple thousand years and we’ve always tilted to this one side, then I say: Can’t we be the generation that tilts to the other side for just a hundred years? Don’t we have the endurance for at least that? I say: Only women now in the upcoming presidential race. There’s been a man for twenty years, let’s just say: Only women can run. Isn’t that just all right? I’m up for having only women in positions of power. Only women in Alþingi. Why not? What have we got to lose? We’ve got nothing to lose.
I don’t understand thinking only in terms of four years. Everyone’s just thinking as far as four years. When the economic crash happened, people were complaining after two years that things hadn’t gotten better. I say: :et’s think about the country in terms of one hundred years. That’s why I don’t understand Kárahnjúkar [a highly disputed dam project in east Iceland that was built despite mass protests in the mid-aughts] and I don’t understand aluminum smelters and I don’t understand people who need jobs by tomorrow. Can’t we think things a little more long-term? Do we not have any endurance? These things don’t even have to happen within the life-span of my children—I’m ready to think in terms of my grandchildren. Can’t it take thirty or forty years? Just as long as we know where we’re headed and we know what we want, I think we can stand for things to take a little time. We are in such ideal conditions here, we should easily be able to make an enviable, long-term vision for the future.
Would you run for president?
Halldóra: Me? I haven’t figured out yet a reason why I should want to. But that’s just because I haven’t plunged myself into thinking about the position. If I got this role in a movie or a play, I’m sure I would find something interesting about it and find freedom within the frame, you know. If I were to do it I would have to have a very clear vision of what I was going to do with it. Because I have no interest in what it appears to be.
I saw the other day someone writing that Jón Gnarr had been a clown of a Mayor. And I just thought, where did this person get that from? I can’t see that Jón Gnarr’s mayoral term was anything but eye-opening, for everyone.
Sort of like what you were talking about earlier, humour leading one towards some truth. That’s maybe what he was doing in a way.
EÓ: I never imagined taking on a position like the one I am in now, but something about how he did things and tried to discover new ways of do things was very inspiring to me. To see that shouldering this kind of formal responsibility doesn’t have to just be limited to a certain way. It’s like that for me to be in this position I am in now. I’m thinking, Ccan I do it my way, or do I have to do it like the people who came before me…”
HG: Like it’s supposed to be done.
EÓ: Right. And what exactly is that? Like it’s always been. Can’t it just be done a little differently, maybe? That must also be the reason I was asked to do this in the first place. To do things a little differently.