Book of Songs
Ingun Bjørnsgaard’s choreography frustrates –but to a good end
By Örjan Abrahamsson
Visibility must be considerably better in the North Sea than in the Baltic. This is my conclusion after Norwegian choreographer Ingun Bjørnsgaard’s visit to Stockholm with two new pieces. Although I hesitate to reduce the work of an artist to a single word, I am still struck by this: her remarkably high visibility. Only a very few choreographers make such a conscious use of more than one perspective simultaneously presented on stage. Or rather, only a very few do it with the skill and intelligence of Ingun Bjørnsgaard, who for the last decade has been running her own dance company, Ingun Bjørnsgaard Prosjekt.
The visibility is most obvious in the choreography of “The Afternoon and the Others”, which first opened during the Primo Festival last autumn. The stylized language of ballet is repeatedly mimicked and parodied, and contrasted against the abruptness of bodies in everyday life. When a man lifts up a woman, it is hardly graceful, but done rather heavily, almost desperately, for both of them. However, toying with the classical patterns of movement – and particularly the female, but also the male stereotypes of ballet – is really just a starting point. Bjørnsgaard urgently attempts to strip the bodies of all kinds of culturally controlled and socially learned behaviour.
The audience is thrown between the elevated and the everyday, between the artistically “natural” and self-conscious posturing. The interplay between identities, and between different fictions, is even more apparent in the choreography of the new production “Book of Songs”, in part inspired by Ibsen’s play “When We Dead Awaken”.
Three dancers, one violinist and one cellist are on stage. They are all part of the same action, and all are different exponents for the same fundamental idea about identity and are extremely aware of the fact of being present on the stage.
“Book of Songs” is a performance where, as the audience is repeatedly drawn into an interpretation of what is happening, the drama is suddenly exchanged for another. At one point, the cellist is performing a movement of Bach’s 3rd suite for cello, while the others sit quietly down to listen, just like an audience. Suddenly one of the dancers starts poking the musician. He takes his cello, and lies down on his back in the middle of the stage while continuing to play, but now the dancer is also taking up musical space with his movements. “Book of Songs” is filled with similar breaches of illusion and contrasting effects.
The music is fundamental. On the one hand full of strings and classical harmony (Bach), on the other electronic and artistically contemporary (Henrik Hellstenius’ “Book of Songs”, from which this choreography has borrowed its title). Now and then sparks fly, as the live strings meet the prerecorded electronics.
Intellectually, the performance is thought provoking, as well as frustrating, in the good sense of the word. For one second, I wonder whether the repeated occurrence of fractured surfaces is Bjørngaard’s main objective. What do we look like in all our nakedness? But this is also a humorous and enticing piece, largely due to the enormously strong, individual performances and the close, dynamic ensemble play. The dancers, Torunn Robstad, Christopher Arouni and to an even greater degree, Halldis Olafsdóttir, do not perform their characters; they are their characters. As are the violinist Frode Larsen and the cellist Emery Cardas. It is impressive, and it is stimulating.
Between Play and Passion
By Margrete Kvalbein
Yet another fresh, intelligent and titillating performance from the hand of the master choreographer, Ingun Bjørnsgaard
Is play childish and simple, while passion is something grown-up and complicated – or are they two sides of the same coin? Three dancers and two musicians play in all seriousness on the Black Box Theatre stage when “Book of Songs” finally comes to Oslo. The premiere took place in Düsseldorf in January, an indication that this Norwegian choreographer has won greater acclaim in the rest of Europe than at home. Could this be because Bjørnsgaard is a master at playing on the conventions of the theatre, and meets greater success with a more “educated” audience?
Nevertheless, her latest performance is a further exploration of the dividing line between the private and the public, and between the abstract and the narrative. When Halldis Olafsdóttir at the onset of the performance comes centre stage, it is as if she’s on the verge of speaking to us. And she does, by means of a dance where the tension between control and lack of control sketches a figure we can both chuckle at and take seriously at the same time.
Torunn Robstad’s female figure may seem cooler and more grown-up, but she takes both herself and us by surprise when passion takes over. The three outstanding dancers use solos and duets to tell each other, the musicians and us their little stories – or they simply give vent to their movements. Christopher Arouni is not as “theatrical” as the women, but on the other hand, as a dancer he can send shivers down this critic’s spine with his agile and dynamic physicality. He is a new member of the Bjørnsgaard company, and supplies a kind of energy and precision which occasionally can be lacking in Bjørnsgaard’s curious world.
The music is present as a tense backdrop for the dance, but is occasionally brought in focus – not least by the movements and agreeable stage presence of the musicians. The small infusions of Bach music, together with Thomas Björk’s simple scenery, weave an element of calm and beauty into the whole, nicely balancing the more bizarre parts of the work.
This is dance with the ability to lay bare both itself and the life it reflects – in a grown-up play with conventions.