Scandinavian Choreography

The wild and intense beauty of the Nordic landscape is brought to life in Sadler’s Wells new Northern Light season, celebrating dance from five countries in the northern hemisphere.

There is something inherently captivating about countries where the wildness of the landscape threatens to overwhelm human settlement. It offers a reminder of the power of nature and our own small humanity in the face of it. This is particularly true of countries in the far north, where it is said that the quality of the light is much to blame for the myths and legends that abound. These are countries which witness the ever-moving spectacle of the Aurora Borealis, which encounter days where the sun never dips below the horizon and that suffer through long stints of winter darkness.

When the environment is so pervasive, it is impossible to ignore. The new season at Sadler’s Wells explores how this impacts upon the work that is created in these countries: their autumn programme Northern Light celebrates Nordic dance culture and showcases productions from Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark. Alistair Spalding, the Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells, points to the features of the region as influencing the style of dance. He says: “There’s a certain sort of playfulness and a humour, but at the same time there is also some darkness, which, perhaps, you might expect. The work reflects a different way of looking at the world and that’s partly to do with the closeness and proximity of nature.”

Although not all of the works are from rural areas, even the cities in these countries are not far from the sea or from nature. This closeness to water permeates the folklore: many of the mythic beings in Scandinavian tales belong to the water and include figures such as the Huldra or the infamous Kraken. The impact of the ocean on these cultures extends beyond their tales though: in Denmark it is said that the size of the land mass can never be truly determined because it is constantly reshaped by the sea. Transformation in the Nordic countries is both physical and mythical.

This idea of transformation is something that Danish artist Mette Ingvartsen plays with in her practice. Her new piece, The Artificial Nature Project, premieres for the first time in the UK at Sadler’s Wells this autumn. It’s the latest in a series of four works that stage perceptions of nature and fictionalise natural phenomena; she explores the movement of materials and the relationship between people and their environment. Using performers as tools to manipulate objects, Ingvartsen’s work focuses on the inanimate as the centrepiece of the dance and creates an ever-changing landscape. It’s a fascinating work that questions the role of the human body in dance and offers an alternative to a traditional understanding of choreography.

The performers use leaf-blowers and confetti to continually transform the performance space and this is something that reflects the continuous shifting of the Danish coastline in Ingvartsen’s homeland. Spalding explains why this unusual work appealed to Sadler’s Wells: “It’s a very exceptional work. We wanted to show that there is this breadth of content in dance work. It’s almost a visual arts installation. There is movement and choreography in it, but the thing about dance is – it’s very open in that way – it can include almost anything.” The autumn programme highlights the freedom offered by contemporary choreography and the innovative approaches that both young and experienced choreographers are demonstrating in the more northern countries. Here, dance is not restricted to the human body but extends to the movements of other objects.

Another work that manipulates this concept is Jefta van Dinther’s piece for Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, Plateau Effect. This work shows dancers struggling with a huge section of sail-like materia, pulling it and using ropes to control it. The actions and the objects used echo the movement of a ship at sea and again reference the proximity of the Nordic countries to the ocean and the influence that this bears on their art. Alistair Spalding agrees that this has an impact: “Particularly in places like Iceland – you can’t be in Iceland without having a relationship with that landscape – it can be very bleak and barren.”

In addition to the relationship between the people and the landscape, the pieces in Northern Light also explore other relationships. Whilst The Artificial Nature Project focuses on the interactions between the animate and the inanimate, Margrét Sara Guðjónsdóttir and Maija Hirvanen look at the role of the audience in relation to the performer. Showing for the first time in London, the Icelandic Guðjónsdóttir’s Variations on Closer investigates physical proximity and questions the act of watching. Finnish choreographer Hirvanen’s For those who have time also receives its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells and uses direct address to the audience to invite a more profound and closer inspection of the pace of contemporary life.

The relationships between communities and individuals are also given importance, as can be seen in the teamwork inherent in Plateau Effect. This offers an interesting insight into the cultures behind the choreography: the Nordic and Scandinavian countries are relatively wealthy and Denmark has the highest social mobility in the world, something that is channelled into a thriving arts culture. “One of the reasons they have such a strong dance culture is that they are supported quite generously by the states in which they located. In all these countries there is money spent on culture because they think it is an important part of daily existence.”

These dance pieces truly encompass the various cultures of the Nordic nations they represent: showcasing aspects of society alongside the influences of nature, landscape and myth in the far north. Myths and legends are “a big part of the ancestry of that region” and Norse mythology offers a deep mine of gods, dwarves and other beings. One of Norway’s leading dance companies, zero visibility corp., explores both nature and myth with their well-known work …it’s only a rehearsal. This powerful and popular duet takes inspiration from the story of Artemis and Actaeon, where Artemis punishes Actaeon because he sees her bathing naked.

Taking a story rooted in classicism and altering it into a post-modern sensual duet, zero visibility corp. offer new insights into old tales. In much the same way as Guðjónsdóttir’s Variations on Closer, …it’s only a rehearsal explores the idea of the gaze, its limitations and its place in our construction of the world. The work is yet another investigation into perception – something that all the pieces in Northern Light play with – and utilises a powerful combination of traditional and contemporary to offer a new viewpoint on something familiar.

Royal Swedish Ballet also combines the new with the old in their production of Juliet & Romeo. The fourth oldest ballet company in the world, Royal Swedish Ballet celebrated their 240th year last year and to celebrate they are performing a very famous love story. Despite the story’s deep and solid roots, with the help of acclaimed choreographer and former manager of the Cullberg Ballet, Mats Ek (b. 1945), and a score by Tchaikovsky (in place of the more common Provokief), Royal Swedish Ballet bring Juliet & Romeo into a modern world. Ek’s dynamic choreography presents a “quirky take” on the subject whilst Magdalena Åberg’s scenography and set design, in collaboration with Linus Fellbom’s atmospheric light design, adapt it into a dark, urban setting.

In fact, all six pieces showcased at Northern Light are unique examples of adaptation and transformation, playing with classical understandings of choreography and unveiling new interpretations of age-old stories. Reflecting the transformative power of the Northern Lights themselves, Sadler’s Wells new season is a fascinating display of established and emerging artists from five Nordic countries, who bring with them the fluidity, power and drama of their landscapes and channel it into their dance.

Northern Light is supported by the Nordic Culture Fund and runs at Sadler’s Wells from 18 September – 14 November. Productions take place at Sadler’s Wells Theatre as well as off-site at Platform Theatre in King’s Cross. Select performances feature free post-show talks with the artist. Visit their website for tickets and information

Bryony Byrne