Dark materials

Clare Wiley speaks to Iceland Dance Company artistic director Erna Ómarsdóttir about creating repertoire influenced by current affairs.

Next month Iceland’s national dance company will stage a brandnew work about the long dark nights of the country’s notorious winters. What will we sing about (?) is by Belgian choreographer Pieter Ampe with music, composition and voice coaching by Jakob Ampe. Touring at the company has ramped up in recent years with Black Marrow by Erna Ómarsdóttir and Damien Jalet and SACRIFICE by Erna Ómarsdóttir, Matthew Barney, Ragnar Kjartansson, Margrét Bjarnadóttir, Bryce Dessner and Valdimar Jóhannsson, both receiving four and five star reviews in the international press.

“Ampe has been working with the dancers on a very personal level,” says Iceland Dance Company (IDC) artistic director Erna Ómarsdóttir, who has been sitting in on rehearsals. What will we sing about (?) draws on the real-life stories of eight IDC dancers, ranging from simple, funny everyday tales to more difficult emotional toils. “A small example is the child who never told her parents that she loves them. They are quite personal stories, sometimes very touching.”

Uniquely, the choreography is a collaborative, almost diplomatic joint effort between the Ampes and the performers. “Sharing responsibility” is how Ómarsdóttir puts it. “One of the starting points was to sing everything,” she says. “They’re singing conversations, and singing how they feel. They’re constantly coming up with melodies. It’s almost like a musical, but different.”

The resulting vulnerability then, comes both from this development method as well as the revealing stories themselves. “Singing is almost like being naked, feeling naked on stage,” Ómarsdóttir adds. “The dancers have to process [their feelings] and they’re sometimes doing something they don’t feel comfortable with.”

The Best of Darkness © Jonatan Gretarsson
The Best of Darkness © Jonatan Gretarsson

For the audiences coming to see (and hear) What will we sing about(?) at the company’s home base in Reykjavík City Theatre from 8 February to 10 March, there will be an element of the unexpected. Because of the semi-improvised nature of the work, each performance promises to be slightly different.

Launched in 1973, IDC dedicates itself to building repertoire from Europe’s top dancemakers, which includes Ohad Naharin, Johan Inger, Jiří Kylián, Ed Wubbe, Alexander Ekman, Rui Horta, Jo Strømgren and Ina Christel Johannessen, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet, Anton Lacky, and Steinunn Ketilsdóttir.

IDC also fosters work from homegrown choreographers. Ómarsdóttir has been at the helm of the troupe since 2015 but has been creating for them since 2005. She’s made a name for herself, as both director choreographer and dancer, at companies across Europe and farther afield.

Under Ómarsdóttir’s leadership, she says, there’s been more of a focus on experimental, unexpected and less conventional productions that are not commercially focussed. What’s more, many of the pieces blur the lines between dance and other artforms.

In November and December last year, IDC staged The Best of Darkness, a work by Ómarsdóttir and Valdimar Jóhannsson, with original music by Icelandic stars Sigur Rós. It’s the fourth and final piece in a series of danceworks that looks at darkness (a prevailing theme in Iceland, it seems) and the vulnerability of the human body.

“That was where our inspiration started from: what is the darkness?” explains Ómarsdóttir. “We were inspired by this period, by this time of year.” There was another influence at work in The Best of Darkness – though #MeToo. The pioneering anti-sexual assault and women’s empowerment movement was gathering momentum worldwide as the work was being created. “Indirectly, it did definitely influence the work as we were developing the piece during those dark times, though it was not the starting point.

“It was a very difficult period. It became a piece about dealing with our shadows, getting rid of old ghosts – or trying to come to terms with them, even trying to embrace those old ghosts. It was very much about the ability of the body, and it became almost like an exorcism, a healing and cleaning.” The artistic director says The Best of Darkness went down well with the audience, and that there was a feeling of catharsis.

Does Ómarsdóttir believe it’s important to reflect pressing social issues, even politics, in dance? “Yes we do that, and I think it’s important. It does depend on the work a bit. Many of the artists we’re working with feel strongly about political situations. There are some issues we talk about more than others.” She adds that dance shouldn’t tackle thorny current affairs just for the sake of it, or in a misguided attempt at ticking the politically correct box.

The company’s efforts to broaden the audience for contemporary dance in Iceland include the usual (social media, traditional marketing) and the less ordinary: collaborations with institutions and creators representing different artforms are big priorities for Ómarsdóttir. So as well as Sigur Rós, past collaborators have included some internationally well-known composers and visual artists such as Ragnar Kjartansson, Matthew Barney, Ben Frost and emerging composers such as Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. There are plans afoot to collaborate with Gothenburg Symphony.

IDC regularly takes events into public spaces such as art museums and galleries; dance, music and cross-cultural festivals; and children’s festivals. Ómarsdóttir says this is an important way to reach audiences who might not previously have considered going to see a contemporary dance show.

It also has an eye on the next generation of audiences, and has staged work aimed at young people, though Ómarsdóttir is keen to point out that productions such as The Great Gathering directed by Ásrún Magnúsdóttir and Alexander Roberts are “theatre with children rather than for them”.

“The choreographers and young people create material on a common ground, from a conversation, that is on the same level. That’s not easy but it’s a beautiful experience.” Ómarsdóttir points out that this approach has benefits for the company as well as the young participants, in that it helps break dancers and dancemakers out of their usual patterns of development and staging.

“Working with young people is a lot about the act of creating work, not necessarily the final result. The performance is of course important but the process is even more important. We learn a lot by taking that approach.”