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Ice Hot Nordic Dance: time to credit dance and controversy?

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Inés Belli, Metasexy. Photo © Tale Hendnes
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The big, well-organised Nordic dance platform returns with performances that are variously emotive, well-crafted, surreal and smartypants

When shown in less prosperous countries and less democratic cultural contexts, experimental Nordic dance works perfectly as a cutting-edge art form: groundbreaking, critical, sometimes even radical. It’s known for its statements on gender and identity and interest in contemporary philosophy; for explorations of non-human worlds and climate change; for never-ending musings on pop culture wrapped in the high-quality scenography and sound design that provide a synthetic theatre experience. So it’s by no means naive or old-fashioned.

Yet when presented in condensed manner at a professional platform such as Ice Hot Nordic Dance (Helsinki, 29 June – 3 July), it can lack the power and meaning to reach beyond polished and well-funded aesthetic experiments. It is extremely well-crafted and intelligent – to the extent that it can become decorative, lifeless, and, as often happens with smartypants art, self-negating. This is, of course, how dance can explore its own limitations, deconstructs ideologies and becomes self-aware – but in my opinion, in the 2020s this can no longer exist as the dominant underlying criterion for curatorial choices. As one of my Finnish colleagues shrewdly remarked, the artistic selection of the platform didn’t respect dance that much – as if dance itself were not relevant.

This criticism might echo the fights of the early 2000s, when old-school critics didn’t understand an intellectual and self-deconstructive turn in dance that was supported by theoreticians and dance dramaturges. But twenty years later, this plea has a different background. A lot has been done to expand dance and choreography and turn them into tools of critical exploration. Today, when the world is falling apart, this baggage should be taken to a new stage by embracing more ‘traditional’ attributes of good dance performance: emotion, playfulness, joy, sensitivity, togetherness, and, no matter how radical it may sound, even dancing.

When self-denial of dance gets tiring, emotional statements come in force

The only time I felt deeply emotionally vitalised during Ice Hot was at its last performance: Vástádus eana – The answer is land by Elle Sofa Sara (Norway; also reviewed in Springback here). Quite traditional in its realisation, with simple but dramaturgically precise composition, it is concerned with content rather than formal aesthetic self-reflection. It was the only show of the platform that started outside the black box, in front of the theatre where passers-by could encounter the performers and the audience and get a glimpse of a closed professional event. Seven women in traditional Sámi headwear, with loudspeakers in their hands, presenting themselves proudly and furiously to the audience on all four sides around them, started the show with stomping and singing, as if trying to connect with the space and take over it. They later moved towards the theatre stage, encouraging spectators to follow them, thus organising a long procession and putting the viewers into a choreographed form of collectivity for the first time during the showcase.

Three kneeling and crouching figures in link arms in knot. Behind them stand a one who looks like she is singing, and a man with a raised arm holding the end of a loudspeaker
Elle Sofe Sara, Vástádus eana – The answer is land. Photo © Antero Hein

With dancing and singing as its main components (wow!), the piece echoes a truly painful narrative around the Sámi’s relationships with the land, colonisation and climate change. So much so that it doesn’t need to deconstruct its own means of artistic expression: it’s enough to give space for breathtaking yoiks (traditional Sámi songs), folk costumes and simple choreography inspired by people’s movement at protests. Refreshing in its simplicity, honesty and soulfulness, it created the space where contemporary dance practices can still be touching and clear for different audiences while dealing with acute problems. The audience, that definitely had seen all kinds of dance shows before, gave it a standing ovation – not for masterful dancing or choreography, but for being sincere.

The same vibe circulated around the first show of the programme, Funeral by Swedish duo Mattias Lech and Lisen Ellard. Like some other performances touching upon death, it works with singing and rituals and explores the body as a space where grieving and emotional transformations unfold through movement on different levels: from breathing, trembling, rampaging and releasing tension to actual dancing. It takes place in muffled light, starting with performers lying on the floor, with microphones resting in front of their faces while they breath and sing, creating the soundscape for the unfolding action. The piece resembles people telling stories of their encounters with liminal life-death experiences through moving and singing: in pairs and groups, embracing different stages of that experience, from unbearable pain to silent humbleness. It also strives to create the space of togetherness through the sound: before the show, the makers encouraged the audience to join them in repeating a simple tune.

Funeral by Lisen Ellard and Mattias Lech (Sweden)

Although performances on this theme can sometimes be similar to each other (I recall Michiel Vandevelde’s Dances of Death recently shown in Helsinki), this does not detract from their merit, as the theme itself is not necessarily an arena of searching for novelty. When contemporary choreographers deal with life experiences from which dancing rituals initially appeared, they often choose to go in one of two directions. They either contemplate how our highly technologised reality is essentially mystical, irrational and ritualistic (hence eccentric shows such as Eden Detail by Estonians Jette Loona Hermanis and Johhan Rosenberg, which I covered recently at the Baltic Dance Platform) or they sincerely work with intense emotions, trance and liminal states of consciousness through the body, leaving critical distance behind. The first exposes cultural mechanisms behind our emotions, affects and beliefs, the second gives us a unique experience of something we will all go through, regardless of how sceptical we are. The directions reveal different artistic intentions; at Ice Hot, the second one was almost missing, and I felt its absence.

Smart and hilarious: still some excitement to share

Let’s dive now into good old ‘expanded dance’: self-reflective, deconstructive, smart and non-dancey – favoured in this platform over more movement-based forms though at the end of the day it may tire spectators with its tediousness, elitism and detachment from the world’s problems. However, I found a couple of pieces successful in combining movement research with conceptual background and emotional infectiousness.

Fluids by Finnish collective WAUHAUS

The hilarious Fluids by WAUHAUS (Finland), already touring for some time, shared the joy of interacting with lube with always excited and slightly jittery spectators. Not really working with dance in the traditional sense, it explores how bodies adjust to unusual material conditions, being unable to keep steadily grounded or totally control their movements. The show challenges the idea of decorative scenography: on the contrary, the arrangement of space becomes the main partner for performers. The floor is covered with lube, so almost impossible to walk on, and the performers slide, sometimes gracefully, sometimes awkwardly, focusing on adjusting their movement to the unusual environment rather than purely to gravity. The mysterious liquid also seeps from above, as well as from the performers’ clothing, adding a new dimension to human-lube relationships.

Fluids is successful in at least three ways. First, it presents a visually compelling, explicit movement experiment in which the materiality of space has a direct, obvious impact on bodies. So much so that the task of the dancers is not just to move on their own (embodying their will or that of the choreographer) but to initiate movement through pushing, then transmitting the impulse through their bodies as they adjust to the capricious lube. It creates a different hierarchy between humans, the space, and the quality of its materials, revealing the agency of things that we usually perceive as inanimate and passive. The second advantage of the show is that this almost hackneyed theoretical topic really gains power by becoming embodied and explored through the dance performance. Third, it’s just hilarious! While diving into the sensuality of the lube, it does not neglect its images: look at this proud, stately man floating through the liquid trying to keep a fragile balance with a thoughtful look; or a greasy huddle of bodies which one performer uses as a children’s slide – just to enjoy the very moment of momentum, rushing through the space and scaring spectators by almost bumping into them. However, although the show maps these opportunities for exploration, it does not realise even half of them. A more precise and elaborated selection of these human-lube encounters would probably make it a contemporary dance masterpiece.

BamBam Frost’s YES (Sweden), probably the most powerful and catchy show of the whole programme, is compelling in terms of costumes, scenography, movement material, pantomime (!) and humour, and bears the familiar imprint of one of its co-producing venues, the small and famous MDT theatre in Stockholm. Of course, it deals with pop culture and the strong emotions it strives to stimulate, with references to street dancing, pleasures, playfulness, sex-positivity and shining, dangerous young femininity. YES! But first of all, it’s visually fascinating. The space is taken over by a huge piece of furry fabric made of colourful flaps, hanging from the ceiling and reaching almost to the spectators’ feet, resembling a frozen waterfall of thick and fluffy substance. This landscape seems full of potential yet stays uninhabited and virgin, until it is discovered and explored by a strange female creature who seems to have learnt some Krump dancing in past lives, which she uses to joyfully attune to her environment.

BamBam’s changing outfits are another work of art: fringed cowboy pants, sequinned denim jackets, radiant colours. All work as huge lego pieces that create an experience of being astonished and seduced by young powerful energy. The show doesn’t create a coherent visual ‘narrative’, rather working in a serial logic, surprising the audience with new ‘entrance moments’ and then interrupting the pleasure of gazing. Towards the end, however, it gives the spectators what they want: a synchronised duet dance of two beautiful young ladies enjoying themselves in their shining seductiveness. It’s probably a good attempt to take over a symbolic space of capitalised pop culture, appropriate it and embody its pleasures to redefine the rules of the game. The tension between the pop and the artsy also appears in its timeline: interrupted pleasures, a prolonged finale, dramaturgy that does not follow the audience’s expectations.

Inés Belli: Metasexy

Inés Belli’s Metasexy (Norway) is the inevitable show in the programme that deals with sexualised aesthetics through repetition – the topic is ubiquitous in our times but artistic approaches to it differ from piece to piece. Metasexy deals with fashion shows, glamour magazines and commercial aesthetics, and the type of sexuality and femininity promoted there. Since nowadays this doesn’t feel like such a powerful tool for creating or imposing certain types of identity any more, the show loses a critical layer. This is for the better: this work is much more powerful aesthetically than ‘critically’. As often happens with well-crafted repetition-based pieces, it presents carefully selected movement patterns – waves, hips sways, shaking, shifting weight from one side to another – that add up to slow-paced travel along the catwalk. The more rigid the structure is and the clearer the movement boundaries are, the more intense is the movement, and the performers do an excellent job to keep it contagious. Metasexy definitely stays in the viewers’ bodies, long after the show ends – a sign of profound movement work, catchy sound design and decent dramaturgical choices.

‘And Then… Nothing Happened’

This phrase is occasionally repeated by big bulky dreamy Herman Nyby – one of the most charismatic performers in Sonja Jokiniemi’s ÖH (Finland) – precisely catching the impression that this action-packed piece intentionally builds up. For more than an hour, a strangely ‘homey’ space occupied by seven performers (including Jokiniemi herself) is constantly transformed by multiple, simultaneous and seemingly ordinary activities that nevertheless fail to fit into an image of a recognisable action. A performative installation rather than a dance piece, ÖH deals with the aesthetics of the ordinary, constantly undermining the semantics of the familiar, thus transforming it into the uncanny. Performers disassemble the wooden wall of their imaginary ‘house’, organise a place for having tea, polish objects with a stiff shoe brush, play with fabrics, settle down for a silent conversation, jump on each other, repeat short movement sequences, constantly reorganise the space but never do anything that would ‘make sense’. Common objects and action patterns put together in unfamiliar logics create a space of ever-unfolding absurdity in which the physical effort makes for a huge contrast to the inner emptiness and lack of motivation. ‘And then… nothing happened’, repeats Nyby, and the show takes another turn, making the audience’s minds struggle to create meaning again.

A large bulky man wearing a loose white shirt and bare legs. In the foreground, two other figures turned away to the sides, also in loose white shirts. A structure of birch branch, wood planks, rope and coloured cloth hangs around them
Herman Nyby in Sonja Jokiniemi’s OH. Photo © Katri Naukkarinen

It actually requires a lot of creativity to fight the mind’s drive to make familiar images out of performative nonsense. The puzzle gets completed just a couple of times when one of the multiple scenes is suspended, letting the viewers enjoy the fragile stability of the image – for example, when Nyby makes a sculpture out of his body, pouring milk and holding an elegant saucer, and freezes letting the audience contemplate the milky waterfall, reminiscent of a renaissance fountain.

ÖH surprises with its contrast between effort and purpose, its well-planned choreography of multiple simultaneous actions that requires an enormous amount of self-control, physical power and devotion while creating nothing but a state of ongoing absurdity. There is something sad, disturbing and profoundly wise in this very principle, and it makes ÖH as powerful as it is hard to watch.

This show gave me a key to how I actually experienced the Ice Hot programme in general: as a complex, extremely well-crafted and well-organised venture that felt closed in on itself, slightly detached from the audience and the world around. Initially announced for February rather than June, the whole thing had been programmed before the new war in Europe started (indeed some of the works were from well before the pandemic), yet that made it feel like a glimpse of a bygone time: choreographers busy with their own scattered artistic interests, works that don’t make space for participation, inclusion, community-building, discussion or even the practice of dancing. Instead, the prevailing formats were smartypants theatre performances behind the traditional fourth wall. It looks a bit insensitive, with time-honoured topics now appearing as a broken record, without challenging any public or professional consensus. But times, and the world, have changed.

Maybe – at least here, and for the moment – dance theatre has become a safe place for self-centred artistic processes, based on professional consensus that tolerates ‘radicality’ to the extent that it loses profoundly-needed components such as controversy and conflict. 

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29.06.22-03.07.22 Helsinki, Finland
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