A marathon of extraordinary dance: Sacrifice by Iceland Dance Company

Nordic Matters Festival, Royal Festival Hall, London
August 18, 2017

Maggie Foyer

Iceland is an extraordinary place. Home to the oldest democratic parliament, first convened around 930 CE, it is also an island still experiencing birth pangs as volcanoes spew lava, glaciers shift and geysers erupt. This dichotomy is reflected in Sacrifice, Iceland Dance Company’s programme at the Royal Festival Hall where ancient myth is explored in cutting edge modernity. Subtitled ‘a festival of common things made holy’, it was a stimulating evening of multimedia art: dance, song, music, film, visual art, pottery and even a session of ‘hate yoga’ in the interval – a whacky idea I can highly recommend. Much of the material was disturbing and left feelings ranging from annoyance to delight, but there was very little that did not stir emotions.

Icelandic performance artist, Ragnar Kjartansson, recently the subject of a major exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, is a man who has a genius for combining the ordinary in a way that hits the emotional spot. His extreme minimalism is at times maddening but likewise he crafts moments that cut deep into the memory. So it is with No Tomorrow, created with choreographer Margrét Bjarnadóttir, to a song written by Bryce Dessner. The concept is devastatingly simple. Eight young women with eight guitars, all alike in blue jeans, white socks and T-shirts and flowing hair, who strum a haunting tune as they step in unison through changing patterns. The lighting, by Björn Bergsteinn Guðmundsson, is unassuming but splendidly effective. The work is an exercise in minimalism to challenge Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Steve Reich’s Fase, and has similar potency. It is however, a different sort of post-modernism. Despite their work-a-day clothing, the dancers step with elegance and grace, each assured and self-contained, exuding an aura of womanly beauty. As the repetitions continue and reshape, the audience is drawn into a blissful meditation lulled by siren voices – and yes, they sing too! The work forms an enchanted island of romance, in juxtaposition to the ritual madness that surrounds it.

Iceland Dance Company in Shrine, part of SacrificePhoto Jónatan Grétarsson
Iceland Dance Company in Shrine, part of Sacrifice
Photo Jónatan Grétarsson

Madness there is aplenty in Shrine, the opening work, choreographed by Artistic Directors, Erna Ómarsdóttir and Valdimar Jóhannsson. There is darkness and humour in this search for something beyond and outside of our human existence. A huge pile of black rubber tubes, as alive as Medusa’s snakes, and wigs of black hair become part of the ritual, creating images both terrifying and weird. Compere and host, Friðgeir Einarsson, a master of the inept in the style of Tommy Cooper, gives a deadpan explanation of the seven phases of death as a chirpy monologue. The lighting, also by Guðmundsson, was striking. A powerful beam shines on the apron of the stage then sweeps up, temporarily blinding the audience, to form a shelf-like shadow. It later sweeps down and forming a triangle of darkness which is punctured in strange patterns by dancers tossing their black wigs in the air. There is space for individual expression as performers bring in their stylistic preferences with everything from vogueing to ballet on display.

The intervals gave the opportunity to view a short film, Dies Irae, choreographed by Ómarsdóttir and Jóhannsson from an idea by Gabríela Friðriksdóttir. Built on learned texts, it viewed death as a transformation rather than an end as dust covered figures rose out of the earth before sinking back to become, again, one with the planet. The cinematography by Bjarni Grímsson and Frosti Jón Runólfsson focused on the raw elements – the sand, stones and water – in exquisite detail.

The final section was a 75-minute film, Union of the North, set in a Reykjavik shopping centre and presided over by a cuddly-cute pink goddess, Nammu (Sofia Jernberg) who performs the marriage ceremony as each couple presents themselves for unification by the Dunkin’ Donuts stall. The rituals are performed with fervour, the females performing the bloodier, fiercer rites as in Ancient Greek tradition, while the men, equally odd, were slightly more constrained. It was quirky and manic and would have benefitted from selective editing. It was also unfortunate that history collided with art making it difficult to see images of blood-soaked, screaming women in the context intended; that of an orgiastic ritual, rather than relating them to recent terrorist atrocities.

The four-hour marathon, even longer than Einarsson’s marathon time which, as he constantly reminded us, he was hoping to improve upon, was a feast of innovation and ideas and while uneven, it was seldom dull.