Book of Songs (2002)

Book of songs

“A man tries to convince a woman that they met last year at Marienbad and that she promised him then that she would leave her husband and run away with him. However, she doesn’t seem to recall anything about either him or the promise and tells him that it must have been someone else. At first the seducer’s advances manifest themselves as a somewhat novel and interesting way of approaching a woman, as he entices her to ‘go into character’ according to his prearranged story-line and create an actual story, in which everything she does, even her refusal of him, takes on meaning in relation to what might have happened at Marienbad.

At first, this ‘game’ of going in and out of character seems to be reminiscent of the focal point of Alain Resnais’ film from 1960, Last Year at Marienbad. This ‘game’ is also the main underlying theme of Ingun Bjørnsgaard’s Book of Songs. But the film and the ballet have even more in common: a deeper investigation of Alain Resnais’ film as a whole reveals that the seduction strategy mentioned above constitutes a too simplistic explanation. As you attempt to figure out the story, you realise that the scenes do not unfold in any logical sequence, but jump freely in and out of the past, present and future, and that what happens in one scene runs counter to the direction the story was about to take in the previous scene. Alain Resnais has even made it impossible for the spectator to determine from which point of view, if anybody’s, the film is told.

Ingun Bjørnsgaard’s way of addressing her theme in Book of Songs – as well as in her previous productions – has something in common with the non-chronological dramaturgy in Resnais’ film and resembles the way that fantasy operates. Instead of letting events progress and allowing the actions to have consequences, fantasy repeatedly returns to its central axis of fascination and assumes a new variant, or plays itself out in a new context with new preconditions. Fantasy’s manner of operating is thus more analytical than causal.

The literary reference employed in the development of Book of Songs stems from an entirely different source: When We Dead Awaken, by Henrik Ibsen. In 1898, having passed the age of seventy, the Norwegian dramatist wanted to write one more work, an autobiographical text that would tie his life and work together. This book was never completed; direct confessions from the soul were never Ibsen’s forte. He was unsuccessful in achieving any comprehensible unity of the contradictory tendencies inside him. Ibsen’s true gift was transcribing human traumas into plays. In When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen allowed the different characters in the play to assume different sides of his personality and fight out the internal traumas of his life amongst themselves against a backdrop of the Norwegian mountains.

In Book of Songs, this partitioning of Ibsen’s personality into a spectrum of different roles has been turned upside down. The pastoral drama has been transformed into a kammerspiel, where the dancers, in solos and duets, move into, and try out, different characters that attract them. One particular character exerts a special force of attraction on them and bears a resemblance to Irene in Ibsen’s play as well as to certain aspects of Alain Resnais’ portrait of the woman in Last Year at Marienbad. This figure cannot be assigned a definite ‘place’ in the structure of the story or in the circumstances in which she turns up. She has her origin in Sophocles’ play Antigone.

She becomes attractive by virtue of being a well-known and easily identifiable prototype. At the same time, she fascinates us because her actions frequently do not correspond to our usual patterns of behaviour, making it hard to get a clear grip on her. She is an unpredictable character who symbolizes total freedom and evokes uncanny feelings, while at the same time breaking normal conventions and stepping out into territories that are socially unexplored.

The musicians, seated on stage on benches positioned alongside the dancers, are involved in a similar ‘game’. Sometimes they try to take over the composition while developing their own solos, only to fall back – eventually – into harmony with the others. The music provides the terms upon which these fantasies – ranging from joy to horror – can be acted out. When the music comes to a stop, it leaves the dancers stranded on stage, in a situation of exposed vulnerability.”

– Staffan Boije af Gennäs

When We Dead Awaken, by Henrik Ibsen
Last Year at Marienbad, directed by Alain Resnais

Choreographer: Ingun Bjørnsgaard
Dancers: Halldis Olafsdottir, Torunn Robstad / Marianne Albers and Christopher Arouni.
Original music: Henrik Hellstenius
Cello: Emery Cardas
Violin: Frode Larsen
Stage design: Thomas Björk
Sound design: Morten Pettersen
Light design: Jean Vincent Kerebel

Produced by: Ingun Bjørnsgaard Prosjekt in co-production with tanzhaus nrw, Düsseldorf, Dansens Hus, Stockholm and BIT Teatergarasjen, Bergen.



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.


tanzhaus nrw, Düsseldorf, Tyskland
Brotfabrik, Bonn, Tyskland
Ludwig Forum, Aachen, Tyskland
BIT Teatergarasjen, Bergen
Black Box Teater, Oslo
Dansens Hus, Stockholm, Sverige
Ålesund Teaterfestival, Ålesund
Avantgarden, Trondheim
Hebbel Theater, Berlin, Tyskland
Kampnagel Hamburg; Tyskland
Teatro Comunale di Ferrara Ferrara, Italia