A hot, sunny day in Berlin. Seven women with red bonnets, black tank tops, full skirts and hi-top walking shoes emerge in the foyer of Hebbel am Ufer 1 theatre, megaphones in hand and walking single file through the crowd to lead us outside.
As they sing, their arms reach out in circular motions reminiscent of the Earth’s rotations, voices ringing to the binary stomps of their feet on the warm tar. Gradually, their unison transforms into a more unsettling yet tremblingly beautiful polyphony, prompting the crew to open the back of the theatre. We are led to our seats through the stage, where we discover a sparse forest of hanging fabrics. The light is dark and yellowy: midnight sun or the break of dawn? No matter, we’ve left Berlin. We’ve instantly traveled to Sápmi (formerly known as Lapland), whence these songs and performers hail.
Norway, Finland and Sweden have all been called out for their long-standing discriminatory practices against the Sámi, and choreographer Elle Sofe Sara focuses her work on the social, political and cultural identities of her people and the challenges they face. Vástádus eana – The answer is land is an anthem of indigenous pride, reminding us through traditional yoik singing (translations usefully provided) about the importance of our roots, our land.
The performers aren’t all dancers so the choreographic composition remains fairly simple: emphatically laying down their megaphones, they move steadily in circles around the cloth forest, or in straight lines to address the audience. The few near-silent contemporary dance trios and solos clue us into the difficulties of being perceived as different. Yet what shines through most is how vital it is for these women to keep their traditions alive. In one of the most dynamic moments, their repetitive squatting movements show us they’re ready for battle. The others watch over the dancers, like a Greek chorus, adding to the drama and urgency of their plea. Their heritage must be preserved and they won’t be ignored.