Stine Nilsen, the new director at CODA Oslo International Dance Festival


From company dancer to co-director to CODA: an interview with Stine Nilsen

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Stine Nilsen, the new director at CODA Oslo International Dance Festival. Photo © Mohammad Ataey
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Former co-director of Candoco (UK), Stine Nilsen returns to Norway as director of CODA Oslo International Dance Festival

‘I used to joke,’ says Stine Nilsen, looking back on her quarter-century in London, ‘that I would go back to Norway and become culture minister or something. No, it wasn’t serious! But seriously, I felt that dance was important beyond the studio or the stage. That it was part of the wider world.’

Such an attitude will come as no surprise to those who know Nilsen from her decade as co-director of Candoco, the UK’s pioneering company of disabled and non-disabled dancers. Yet when Nilsen arrived in London from Norway in 1993, her sights were set on simply on being a dancer. ‘There was really only one training course in Norway that was specifically focused on becoming a contemporary dancer, at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts – and I didn’t get in! There were other courses in teacher training, but at the time my one thought was: I’m going to be a dancer.’

Can dance at Candoco

So Nilsen went to study at Laban in London, then worked as a freelance dancer before joining Candoco in 2000, where her Laban classmate Pedro Machado was already performing. Her time as a Candoco company dancer was formative. ‘It really expanded my vision. I was working with international choreographers, I was teaching. But fundamentally, underneath it all there was this constant questioning about dance, what it was and what it could be.’ When company director and co-founder Celeste Dandeker left in 2007, Machado and Nilsen put in a joint application, and became co-directors until 2017.

‘There was lots of learning on the job!’ remembers Nilsen. ‘Commissioning. Running the company. And always questioning. How do we reach the audiences we want to? How do we portray the company? Are we role models? For who? Our shared directorship was really positive for me because we could be in constant dialogue about these issues.’

Stine Nilsen as co-director of Candoco in 2015, on dance, diversity and change

It was a fruitful time for all – Candoco’s record speaks for itself – but for both Nilsen and Machado there came a moment when London was ‘taking its toll’ on their respective lives (any long-term Londoner will recognise this feeling!), and they decided to step down together, in 2017. Nilsen returned to Norway – not as minister of culture, but to take up an important cultural position nonetheless: the directorship of the biennial CODA Oslo International Dance Festival, where founder Lise Nordal was stepping down.

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It wasn’t just Nilsen who had changed. So had dance in Norway

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Forward to CODA

In the intervening years, it wasn’t just Nilsen who had changed; so had dance in Norway. ‘There was so much more happening,’ she says. ‘I had actually left Norway at the very moment when its dance scene started to blossom. In 1993, the cultural ministry initiated a year of dance, and the Norwegian Dance Information Centre was established in 1994, CODA in 2001. Dansens Hus [the national dance house] was founded in 2004, and really got up and running in its current premises in 2008. The new Opera House in Oslo [completed in 2008] has expanded its contemporary work. There’s contemporary dance in festivals right across the country – in Hammerfest, in Bergen, in Trondheim, Kristiansand, Bodø (and Inderøy, Såna and even more places I think!) – and theatre has been involving more movement-based work. And there are a lot of younger choreographers coming through, fuelled by an expansion in education and training. It’s a very different place to the one I left.’

CODA was by now long-established, and Nilsen continued some of its existing, tried-and-tested formats, such as its parallel workshop programme (the idea had originally come from ImPulsTanz Vienna) and its strand of programming directed towards young people. In 2019 CODA initiated The DEN, the pitching sessions for artists, programmers and producers that have become a common feature of festivals and platforms.

But Nilsen also brought some of the viewpoints that had grown with her in London with Candoco. One was her vision of dance as part of the wider world. Consequently, her first festival, in October 2019, focused not only ‘on’ dance but ‘about’ it, including no fewer than 10 seminars covering themes as diverse as the decolonisation of criticism, personal and physical boundaries in dance practice, identity in arts and hip-hop on stage.

Sonya Lindfors’ Noble Savage, retelling the Pocahontas story. Photo © Sanna Kaesmae
Sonya Lindfors’ Noble Savage, retelling the Pocahontas story. Photo © Sanna Kaesmae

Another was an acute awareness of the question of diversity. ‘With Candoco,’ says Nilsen, ‘I naturally came to diversity from a disability perspective. But diversity has many faces, and when I came back to Norway from London, what I felt most strongly was a sensitivity around the lack of multicultural diversity. The stage felt very “Blenda white”, as we say here: whitewashed, you might call it in English. So I really wanted to put diversity on the agenda at CODA – not in a predefined way, but to put it into the mix of the programming.’

Accordingly, CODA 2019 included performances that spanned the faultlines between the ‘third’ and ‘first’ worlds (Robyn Orlin’s And So You See…), or between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ worlds of Europe and the Americas (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Orbo Novo). But as well as bringing in such international works, Nilsen wanted to show diversity within Norway and the Nordic region. Hence the performance of Noble Savage, a retelling of the Pocahontas story by Finland’s Sonya Lindfors – but also, importantly, the Untaming Tradition programme, a day-long event where Nilsen gave curatorial control to three very different Norwegian artists: Elle Sofe Sara, from the marginalised Sámi people of the Finnmark region of northern Norway; Mia Habib, with her familial connections ranging from Norway to Israel; and Sudesh Adhana, originally from India and resident in Norway for twelve years.

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In Norway we love our national day and our national costume… but there are lots of currents and undercurrents

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‘I realised I was interested in artists who had mixed backgrounds in terms of culture, who are dealing all the time with a mixture of references,’ says Nilsen. ‘It was important for me that they were Norwegian artists, living here in Norway, with interests and experience that are part of the Norwegian art scene. Because in Norway we love our national day and our national costume and we can have this straightforward idea about celebrating Norway and how great we are – but actually there are lots of currents and undercurrents.’

Untaming Tradition

I managed to catch Untaming Tradition; it turned out to be dark in mood but illuminating of such complexities. Elle Sofe Sara presented a sketch for her forthcoming Juohkke nubbi (One in Two), on the prevalence of rape within Sámi communities, chillingly using live performers among dolls, model houses and toy cars to suggest both its normalisation and the silence that surrounds it. She also presented a revised version of her 2010 Don’t Judge a Dog by its Fur, a bruisingly physical work for three women whose self-punishing pain was almost palpable.

Sudesh Adhana’s Untamed Donkeys also dealt with rape culture, but here focusing on toxic masculinity in India. Originally performed in outdoor settings across India, it was conceived as a work of raw activism performed by and targeted at men; within the enclosed theatre space in Oslo, with a largely female audience, I wonder if its punches landed wide of their mark. Still, it certainly disabuses Western audiences of any romantic notions of India as a land of yogic gentleness and spirituality, and I am all in favour of muddying those waters.

Elle Sofe Sara’s Juohkke nubbi (One in Two), on silence and sexual violence in Sámi communities. Photo © Elle Sofe Sara
Elle Sofe Sara’s Juohkke nubbi (One in Two), on silence and sexual violence in Sámi communities. Photo © Elle Sofe Sara

The most intriguing piece for me was Mia Habib’s film installation The Movie Concert, which interwove footage from family home movies with documentary excerpts from choreographic projects and newsreels from warzones in the Middle East. The unexpected echoes and dissonances between these strands meshed the very personal with the very political, the individual and iconographic, suggestive of ties that bind the local to the global – an example of how big ideas can fit inside a small frame.

A coda to CODA 2019

Is there a danger that ‘diversity’ can lead to tickbox programming? ‘Yes!’ says Nilsen. ‘My experience with Candoco made me aware of how one disabled person can get lumbered with representing disability as a whole, and we see in Nordic countries too how readily one person of colour can be asked to represent all people of colour.’ To counteract this all too common tendency, she has two main strategies. The first is to programme diverse artists – but to leave their artistic subject matter up to them. ‘I’m not so interested in being representative in terms of content. It’s more about an awareness of who gets to be on stage, not what they represent.’

The second is a curatorial instinct to try to balance any work that might be tickboxed with a contrasting piece that might fit the same tickbox. Adhana and Sara’s utterly different pieces on rape culture, for example; or Cherkaoui’s piece on the New World with Lindfors’ retelling of Pocahontas. ‘Programming is never truly not tickboxing,’ sighs Nilsen, but at least this strategy shares out the curatorial burdens of representation – something that I suspect she learnt not only while working with Candoco, but through sharing her directorship there.

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Caisa-Stina Forssberg in Henriette Pedersen’s PEER/BITCH. Photo © Sveinn Fannar Jóhannsson
Caisa-Stina Forssberg in Henriette Pedersen’s PEER/BITCH. Photo © Sveinn Fannar Jóhannsson

‘Diversity’ is of course just one theme in CODA’s far more diverse programme, which included pieces for youth dance, family-friendly spectacle, site-specific and outdoor work, and a blisteringly witty confessional standup by virtuoso soloist Caisa Stina-Forssberg in Henriette Pedersen’s Peer/Bitch (catch it if you ever can). Yet for Nilsen, diversity remains key. ‘I guess this first year I felt a bit like the kid in the sweetie shop, wanting to have something of everything. We will have to balance ambition with resources, but my excitement around diversity will definitely not be a one-off. This has to continue. It goes back to Candoco: always questioning what dance is, what it can do, and appreciating that it takes a diversity of forms. One reviewer said there was a political ‘sting’ in this year’s CODA. Actually, I don’t see myself as politically driven, but I’m aware that this desire for diversity may have political results.’

I hope the minister for culture is listening. 

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Oslo, Norway
Theme: At work
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