This Is Not a Metaphor…But This Other One Totally Is

Although Mark and I have certainly not been suffering for cultural experiences here in Reykjavík, there are certain inherent limitations to which cultural activities we can participate in without speaking Icelandic. (We’ll leave music out of this conversation for now–a lot of Icelandic musicians sing in English, and even if they don’t, music is on one those forms of artistic expression in which linguistic clarity is frequently not the point.)

Performance-based art is difficult to see and understand in another language, though. Theater is generally out, for instance, and although we’ve actually been to a lot of movies lately–thanks to the recent European Film Festival (different from the Rekjavík International Film Festival) and a whole host of American movies of interest which have made their way to Iceland–foreign/non-English language films generally only have Icelandic subtitles. (The one main exception to this is that Icelandic movies and animated movies generally have two versions playing simultaneously at the theater–one in Icelandic and one in English, or with English subtitles.)

So what about dance performances, you ask? I’m glad that you asked. Because, after seeing ads all around town for the Icelandic Dance Company‘s piece “This is not a metaphor,” we went to see our first Icelandic dance performance at the end of November.

Now, the title “This is not a metaphor,” was compelling enough to me that I didn’t really do any further research on the performance. (Mark did, but I went into the whole thing blind.) It was a delightful, short piece with three dancers accompanied by a pianist on stage (playing a John Cage composition), and the whole thing was surprisingly narrative and very funny.

The “story” centered around two of the dancers–a man and a woman–dressed in simple, street-style clothes in neutral tones who were very seriously practicing a dance piece, only to be frequently interrupted by an enthusiastic girl (herself dressed in vibrant colors–lots of sequins and tulle) who, after watching them in adoration for a short time, keeps trying to insert herself between them. The pair was lithe and sophisticated, the girl was gangly and infantile. Their dance involved a lot of mirrored movements, modernized balletic motion, and body contact, and and the interloper–the literal third wheel–just kept getting in their way and trying to participate where she was clearly not wanted. There was also a legitimately funny bit in which the girl tried to act out a sequence that she watched the other two dancers perform with an inflatable orca whale pool toy.

Here’s a video preview of the piece from the ÍD website, as well as the company’s own description of the piece:

A straightforward and clear exploration of movement, time, space, and performance. A lighter perspective on dance than people are used to seeing, yet sensitive if not always sensual. A revisit to some of the major themes and art movements of the 20th century.

Following this short performance there was an intermission and then, before the house lights were dimmed the next piece–“Hel haldu síni,” or “Let Hell Hold What She Has”started. The audience was still chatting happily away when  a dancer in a nude bodysuit covered in what looked to be long sinewy black hair creeped and crawled and eerily, acrobatically rolled and nudged her way across the stage in front of the curtain, like one of those freaky girls in J-Horror movies who crawl out of TVs, twist their heads and appendages around at weird angles, and generally scare the bejezus out of anyone watching. Again, I hadn’t read about either performance (I didn’t even realize it was a double billing) and so this change of pace was rather abrupt and startling. Take a quick look at the preview/description before I proceed:

…when brothers and sisters will rot from an extinct day, swallowed by incandescent waves; from this howling ride will gush out the white hair of a new sun, of a new dawn.

A new piece inspired by nordic mythology, choreographed by the French choreographer Jérôme Delbey. The poetry, complexity and richness of the Eddas has often in history been shadowed by the Greek-Roman mythology. Let hel hold what she has tends to reexplore the creation and destruction of the world according to the ancient nordic faiths.

The best I can describe what followed is that it was the sort of dance piece that you’d see included in a Rom-Com movie where character A is all artsy and cultured and Character B is a bit bumbling and less erudite and then they go and see a dance performance together that is like, super-duper artsy and weird, and involves a lot of opaque allusions and sexual imagery and generally stuns Character B but then he (probably he, right?) has to pretend that he totally understood and loved it when it ends so that Character A will think he is smart and understands art. And you, watching the movie, have a good chuckle, because it looked like a crazy dance piece and you didn’t totally get it either. That is what it was like. Archtypally and–nearly, not totally, but nearly–farcically artsy.

Because okay, that first piece was not a metaphor, but guys, this second one most definitely is.

(Rebecca Louder, writing for the Reykjavík Grapevine, understood the subtext and mythological representations in this piece much, much better than I did. Her short recap of the piece explains the “what” of the thing much better than I can, and she is also better at describing movement. I would recommend reading it.)

Anyway, the whole piece was set to guttural rumblings counterbalanced with an opera score, and there was a lavish amount of sex and death and end-the-world auguring and it was all kind of intense and made me occasionally feel a bit stilted and prudish and gah, so super Uncultured American, but while the overall milieu was just not my thing, the movement was really, really amazing. The dancers of this company have incredibly expressive bodies, if that doesn’t sound strange to say. And they (or at least, the choreographer Jérôme Delbey) employ(s) a really interesting blend of classical dance movement with more contemporary, gymnastic sort of motion. They spent a lot of time rolling around and contorting themselves on the floor, but the movement itself was really emotive and beautiful to watch. (It also made me very aware of how not-flexible I am, but this is beside the point.)

Anyway, it was a fascinating evening and an engaging introduction to the Icelandic Dance Company. I may not have always loved what I was watching, but I was definitely wowed, and certainly fascinated. I am already looking forward to seeing their next set of performances (they’re rather prolific)–“On New Ground“–which is a quartet of dance pieces by different choreographers that is being performed through mid-December.

But perhaps I’ll do a little more research into what the pieces are “about” before I go this time…

2 thoughts on “This Is Not a Metaphor…But This Other One Totally Is

  1. Yay! So glad you made it to a dance performance and got something from it! I totally dig your recap, coming as it does from someone both foreign and (correct me if I’m wrong?) basically foreign to dance. The American intellectual dance critic Ann Daly had this great quote about how for all of her experience and expertise, she thought she preferred the new viewer’s totally fresh and uncluttered perspective more. I’d be really curious about your thoughts if you do make it back to another performance. And thanks so much for including the local’s view English language review. Oh, to be writing about dance and comparing responses with other writers! I digress. Here in New York. We’ve barely been to any shows in a while, since we’re busy working/taking finals/planning a wedding. But I think the drought has lasted long enough! There was a theater piece at BAM from Iceland that I was curious about, and it has certainly made me wonder what sort of performance opportunities you had there.

    • You are not wrong at all about the ” foreign and foreign to dance” statement — that is me to a tee. And I appreciate the idea that my perspective on dance might be necessarily “uncluttered,” which is a much more generous and empowering way to think about responding as a newcomer to a form, rather than simply “I’m out of my element.”

      I was actually thinking about how you might respond to this piece when I was watching it and also later when I wrote the blog post. If you get a chance, I’d be interested to hear what you think about the Icelandic piece at BAM–it’s a Faustian sort of performance, I think, and I’ve heard interesting things about it…

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