Sjøen for everyone
Ingun Bjørnsgaard has accomplished that which many have attempted before. She has created dance from Ibsen, rendering it thereby renewed for audiences. “Sjøen” is for everyone!
The outcome of the new basic funding scheme for contemporary dance choreographers has arrived. The day that Ingun Bjørnsgaard received the dance critics’ award was also the day of the premiere for her production Sjøen, which is at least equally deserving of an award. Bjørnsgaard has based this piece on “The Lady from the Sea”. As is concisely summarized in the program, Ibsen’s drama contains themes and dramaturgy which are also characteristic of Bjørnsgaard’s expression: Boredom, yearning, the compulsion to disappear, indiscernible transitions between tragedy and comedy, and an extensive use of mirror- and shadow effects. As the critic Annette Mürer established in 1996: many choreographers have burned their fingers on Ibsen. Even Sweden’s great dance-poet Birgit Cullberg did not quite manage to fully grasp the mermaid in her day. Today Bjørnsgaard presents her version, Sjøen, which not only functions as a performance; it seduces the spectators, drawing them forward in their seats towards the pull of the sea.
How do Bjørnsgaard and her team of all-stars achieve this? Geir Jenssen has enshrouded the production with Biosphere, evocative, dramatic, virtually cinematic music. The scenography is heavily influenced by Hans Skogen’s independent lighting design, in green, blue, red. Thomas Björk’s set design is a single, ingenious picket fence, the boards of which also dance and perform. The fence comprises the boundary between inside and out, the sea and land, he and she, emotions and sense. A transparent screen is used for shadow theatre and the projection of exquisite video images. The dancers Erik Rulin, Halldís Ólafsdóttir, Ida Wigdel, Lone Torvik and Mattias Ekholm deliver what are perhaps their strongest performances ever. They are brilliant communicators, clearly chosen exactly for their dramatic and expressive abilities. When such artists pull together, the result must be powerful art.
Old and New
While the movement language seems new and awakens curiosity, it is in a sense somehow reminiscent of Swedish modern dance, á la Cullberg and Mats Ek. The choreography is essentially unencumbered by the reproduction of steps or dance technique in a traditional sense. The movements are restless, staccato, almost spastic, searching for positions of rest. Nonetheless, the dance appears free, fresh, comprehensible and fabulous, in particular due to references to birds and animals. The dancers’ use of text is not an attempt at play acting; lines are pronounced drily and with detachment. The effect is one of dry humour. When the sea washes across the video screen and is mimed by Ekholm in a blue costume, a companion exclaims in boisterous relief. Sjøen is literally recognisable. The inexperienced contemporary dance audience is not accustomed to such, but is clearly appreciative. The dramatic turning point − when Ellida choses freedom, assuming personal responsibility − is resolved through slapstick: loudly and powerfully read from a book while the dancers overact the characters’ movements. This device redeems both the work as a whole and the laughter. The cunning epilogue in which the dancers ready themselves for applause helps with the digestion of the tragicomic. Bjørnsgaard balances gracefully between dance theatre’s illustrative aspects and abstract dance’s self-absorption.
When Sjøen is over, I remain seated in the large theatre of Dance House Norway to collect myself. I have been “taken by the sea” to a place I did not know about, but which appears very familiar. The only thing that I know is that I have to see Sjøen again and hope for the same for others. Send Sjøen on tour at home and abroad! Allow Bjørnsgaard to demonstrate how Ibsen should be renewed and interpreted today!
(Caption:) “Sjøen” (“The Sea”) at Dance House Norway is a good example of why Ingun Bjørnsgaard deserved the critics’ award this week. Photo: Knut Bry/Dance House Norway
“The cunning epilogue in which the dancers ready themselves for applause helps with the digestion of the tragicomic.”
Sidsel Pape, DAGSAVISEN