View of mountains and sea of Hammerfest, Norway


The wilderness within

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Hammerfest, Norway. Photo © Zbigniew ‘Ziggi’ Wantuch
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What happens when dance takes nature as its stage? A festival in the northernmost town in the world leads to a changed sense of self, culture and existence

We are sitting in a circle, some thirty of us, around a log fire. The gamme, a conical hut of tarred logs, shields us from the wind, but the top is open to the sky. Mikkel Sara, a reindeer herdsman, is singing a joik – a muttering chant that resonates deep between belly and throat. Joiks are traditional songs of the Sami peoples from Finnmark, a territory that stretches from northern Norway, where we are now, across Sweden, Finland, and into Russia. Mikkel sings the joik of his dead grandfather, but joiks can summon the spirits not just of people, but of animals or places. Many evoke nature or the weather: sea, forest, sun, wind. Nature, says Mikkel, gives us everything that is good and vital: food and water, beauty, light. Life itself. It can take it all away too, and make us suffer, even die. And the weather is not all outside, you know. We have weather inside us, too. Sometimes it is good. Sometimes, bad. That simple truth – more valuable than any amount of psychologising – stays with me as we go outside to find a sky stained by a milkiness so slight it might be a trail of mist. My first, faint glimpse of the Northern Lights.

The arc of this evening reminds me of a dance performance we had watched a couple of nights back. We are here in Hammerfest – ‘the northernmost town in the world’, as the brochure proudly proclaims – for the Barents Dance Festival and the annual meeting of Keðja, a Nordic–Baltic dance network. Coming up by coach from the airport, three hours’ drive to the south, we had stopped to walk up a hillside where we formed a kind of human henge around a log fire. Inside were two joikers in reindeer coats, and three dancers, wrapped up good and warm, who dipped and quaked to the music’s murmuring rhythms. The night sky dwarfed us, and the wind flayed our skin as it swept past.

It was a strangely touching performance but I, newly arrived, was still full of the city and the south, and wondered what it was worth. Now, it seems like a foreshadow of this magical evening: joiks, a fire, an enclosure made not of tarred logs but our own bodies. We had left more quietly than we arrived, the coach trundling northwards until we saw the faint lights of our destination: houses, a harbour, oil works.

Dancer and joik singers in Hammerfest, Norway
A hillside performance outside Hammerfest, directed by Elle Sofe Henriksen for Keðja 2015. Photo © Zbigniew ‘Ziggi’ Wantuch

Usually we see dance indoors, within a controlled climate. What is it like to take it outside, to create on a stage as wide and as open as the landscape itself? In Hammerfest, I put the question to Elle Sofe Henriksen, choreographer of that hillside performance. She says that you can only make simple, clear movement. Detail and complexity get lost: nature is too big and we are too small. It strikes me that the circle we formed was not only a way of watching, but a means of demarcating a stage: nature without, culture within. Outside, says Elle – well, you can’t control the landscape, the weather. So you have to allow for it. It is very different from the closed climate of theatre.

I also meet Ólöf Ingólfsdóttir, who had directed a different kind of outdoor performance for Keðja 2010, in her native Iceland. She and co-director Steinunn Knútsdóttir choreographed a kind of nature trail along which the audience travelled in buses, stopping for a series of walks into the surrounding terrain. At different stages they saw horsemen silhouetted on hilltops like centaurs, listened to choirs at twilight and picked paths through pits of bubbling clay. Their first stop was among disused mines where they could see, on crags and in crevices like living extrusions from the earth, human bodies. Naked bodies.

Is there an indelible connection between nature and naturism? Ólöf doesn’t disagree, but her intent had been to juxtapose the roughness of rocks with the frailty of flesh. And any Icelander, she adds, would also think of the Huldufólk, the Hidden People who live invisibly in the landscape. They are like us, but better: more beautiful, more powerful. They can be beneficent but also dangerous, especially when crossed. Like nature, I think. Also: how seamlessly the natural merges with the supernatural. Both are bigger and beyond us. Both out there, somewhere.

Out there, the human figure is already dramatic. And the Icelandic scenery (Ólöf can’t help but chuckle) is so very scenic. When nature is your stage, she says, you better think of the frame first. Try to make yourself the source of importance, and you’ll fail. Better to move slowly, simply. Or simply be still. You can add yourself to nature, she says, but you can’t add nature to yourself. That doesn’t really work.

This perspective – with humans as extras, not actors – is so different from theatre; from the drama, indeed, of our daily lives. Yet it has dramatic effects. Many people find consolation in nature, says Ólöf, but it can also be profoundly unsettling, even frightening. We face our fragility, our insignificance. I can picture that in a heartbeat: when the earth simmers and clouds lower, when centaurs descend from hilltops and Hidden People emerge from rocks, we cannot but recognise that our lives root, and flower, and fade, all within the topsoil of this earthly existence.

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She was interested in embodying the emotions of work, home, love, family. The wilderness changed all that.

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The Wilderness Project is a Keðja initiative founded on the belief that dance – that art, that human creation – can illuminate and be illuminated by what lies outside it: the wild. In Hammerfest, I meet one of its participants, Finnish choreographer Janina Rajakangas. Unlike Elle and Ólöf’s works, hers was made for the indoor proscenium. She had begun creating at the edge of the wild, in a rural community in Latvia, where she was interested in embodying the emotions of everyday experiences: work, home, love, family. ‘The usual,’ she says, with a smile.

The wilderness changed all that. While making the piece, she and her performers travelled to Stamsund, Norway, where it was to have its premiere. They climbed a mountain and looked at a landscape stretching to the horizon and beyond. They waited at bridges for the wind to abate, lest their car be blown clean away. They drove to a village called simply Å – the last letter of the Norwegian alphabet – on the tip of a promontory where the land finally cedes to the sea. When they returned to the studio, Janina could not return to the same piece. The human concerns that felt so close had lost their scale. There was so much beyond.

The piece, Of Family and Deer, ended up in two parts. The first was an evocation of human feelings and fortunes. The weather within. Then a curtain lifted and the performers became trees and deer. They were naked. Why? Janina tells me that she had tried costumes, but any clothing at all carried a human story, a cultural imprint that got in the way. So nakedness it was. In any case, the piece proceeded more by exposure than by narrative development. The second section reframed rather than resolved the first. Janina goes further: when the lights came up and audience turned to leave – that was the start of the third part. Beyond any stage, there is always an outside.

Janina Rajakangas, trailer for Of Family and Deer, part of the Keðja Wilderness Project

I go outside, alone. Up the hill to where Mikkel’s gamme sits. Some of us had come here last night to watch the Northern Lights, stronger than they had been before: twisting streamers of phosphorescence hanging like ribbons over the horizon; a long arc that flew and faded like the trail of some passing space-dragon. Tonight they are different again. Luminous skeins plume and warp, and smudges daub the sky as if an unearthly finger were smearing mist from the dome of the world, letting in light from the cosmos.

Outside nature, there is another wilderness – beyond the sky, trillions of times vaster and more unknowable than we can ever imagine. These wilderness dances, then, what do they do? I had thought that they gave us a view – no, a vision – of the world and our place within it. Now I wonder if all art, if all culture, does not so much show the truth as shield us from it. Just as the naked eye cannot hold the sun in its gaze, the spirit can only grasp the wilderness at one remove. These steps, these songs, these stages that we make are like pinhole cameras through which we can bear to look at the world. Culture is clothing, a protection from the outside which, if we even tried to hold within us, would surely incinerate our merely human souls.

Next day we depart before dawn, our little capsule of a coach inching towards the airport through a landscape of haunting emptiness. White-coated mountains rear up to bear a sky now sealed with cloud. They loom ahead, rise to the side, and fall behind as our river of road winds southwards between their slopes – one immense cold shoulder after another, each one monumentally indifferent to our passing.

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Now I wonder if all art, if all culture, does not so much show the truth as shield us from it

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This article was first published in Dance Gazette 2016 Issue 1. Reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.

Theme: Exposures
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