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Closed house – open spaces

Although Dansens Hus is closed to the public, in recent weeks the stages have provided opportunities for continuation, creativity and development.

In 2021, Dansens Hus – like every other performance theatre in Oslo – has not put on a single performance. Behind the scenes, staff have been working furiously to rearrange productions that have been cancelled repeatedly – work that you could compare to building a house of cards in a hurricane. For the field of performance art, the terms and conditions set by Covid-19 are narrow. That is why it is so important and rewarding to make use of the auditoriums in these highly uncertain times.

In March, three choreographers have been working on productions co-produced by Dansens Hus: Mia Habib has been working on her multifaceted project How To Die – Inopiné, Ulf Nilseng is putting the finishing touches to his production Psalm for a Slut and Cecilie Bertràn de Lis has been modifying the production Tumble in The Jungle.

I’ve been talking to the three of them about what it means to work towards the future despite the uncertainty, about motivation and development potential, and about the function of the auditorium and institution in a difficult time.

Ulf Web
Foto: Tale Hendnes

Stage lights in a dark time
Ulf Nilseng

Although Ulf Nilseng describes the time we are living in as “beyond hellish”, he feels that at least it is better being able to go to work in an auditorium rather than in a home office. For a performance artist, working as a freelancer can be liberating, but the essence of the work – interacting with other artists to create and develop, to design productions and not least perform under the stage lights – cannot be taken for granted these days.

“Getting the chance to work on the stage at the moment is incredibly important, because it makes us insist on normality and continuity in our work. Working on the stage is absolutely fundamental to what we do. That’s why it’s so kind and generous of Dansens Hus to allow us to continue working, despite the fact that the production has been cancelled. It makes our project feel valuable.”

Nilseng is on his way to Dansens Hus, where the team is working towards a dress rehearsal and a première with no audience. He has been working with composer and musician Amund Ulvestad, set designer Corentin JPM Leven, lighting designer Magnus Mikaelsen and producer Jorunn Kjersem Hildre.

“The process of working towards a première without an audience is far from pointless, although I wonder whether my focus on the stage will change. The pressure is there, as it always was, and I feel the same tension. What is new is that I need to look at the production as a product that we are creating for the future. Another new factor is obviously that we will be performing to empty seats. I am very influenced by the reception of the audience when I’m standing on stage. So this is making me unsure about how my dance will be affected by the lack of an audience, and interested in whether I will be able to find the same motivation as before”.

During our conversation, Nilsen emphasises how all the work in the auditorium feels alarmingly normal, and describes it as a kind of magical interlude from the daily uncertainty, loneliness and unhappiness.

Psalm for a Slut is the final part of the trilogy Ulf Goes Religious and – quite unrelated to the pandemic – is about loneliness. For the first (and last) time in the trilogy, Ulf is alone on stage, and much of what he portrays is about what it is to be lonely.

“The fact that the background to the production is reflected in our everyday situation is pure chance. The one feeds and shapes the other, although that is of little comfort when the pandemic makes us even more vulnerable than normal. This applies to us as individuals, but also as artists. An awful lot has happened in the last 12 months, and one of the things we have learned is how little performance art and dance art are prioritised by the authorities. We are also seeing clearly in the media that it is people who have never been harassed who are making the most noise about freedom of speech. Artists and marginalised groups have to stand together.

“Thank goodness it will soon be spring!”

Mia Retusjert
Foto: Tale Hendnes

Nourishing the community
Mia Habib

Exactly one year ago, on 12 March, Mia Habib and her artistic team were ready to present the première of the project How To Die – Inopiné at Dansens Hus. One year later – on 12 March to the day – the production was performed at Dansens Hus. But the production still could not be shared with an audience.

Habib talks about how the last year has shown what is really important as a creative artist and person, and how compassionate exchanges and solidarity nourish both the individual and the community.

“As a group, we have talked a lot about the importance of being in contact with our practice in the auditorium. Practice here is defined as a craft, in that it demonstrates how our instrument is connected to more than just the body and the physical. It is also built up from interaction, listening and timing in the auditorium.

“The times we are living in emphasise the value of the exchange that happens between performers. The exchange becomes a way of looking after ourselves and others.”

Habib talks about the nature of the project and how How To Die – Inopiné branches out of the auditorium through the different components that make up the multifaceted project. When I ask about what has been generated as a result of the pandemic, she describes the educational aspect of Displacement Curriculum, which is part of the project, but also a focus on expanding our understanding of what contact and touch can mean.

How To Die – Inopiné was always intended to have different components and a multifaceted framework, but the last year has meant that it has developed in new ways. Coming back to Dansens Hus has brought back the memories from the last working process, and this sheds new light on the interpretation and understanding of what we have been working on since the last time.”

Work on the project has developed in a number of ways. For example, Habib has been working with the choreographer and poet Janne Camilla Lyster to create a choreographic score based on the different components of the project, and which is now being interpreted by different artists in different parts of the world. Earlier this month, as part of the Oslo International Theatre Festival, the walking symposium Displacement Curriculum demonstrated the background themes in the encounter with the sophisticated urban and city centre scenery.

As well as the fact that the relationship to the project has been changed by the pandemic, new questions and challenges have also arisen. Habib describes how it feels to have dance being regarded as something forbidden, and how the result of this is self-censorship and a type of new closeness.

“The value and importance of being to dance may never have been clearer, since in a time that has created new types of closeness, it is perceived as a healing ritual. At the same time, new questions and new challenges have also arisen: High-tempo physical activity now represents a danger. For example, the production involves intense dancing and sweating, breathing, licking and biting materials. We continuously question what is acceptable, censor ourselves and continuously evaluate what it is okay to do on the basis of the control mechanisms in our society."

“Over the last year, collegial solidarity and care have grown,” says Habib, who questions whether we can continue creating dance art at a time when artists are vulnerable and the field is lying fallow. Politically, dance art is low on the list of priorities, which creates major ripple effects.

“The entire field is depressed, including the institutions. How can the institutions show that they care when the field is so depressed? How can we share something without having to operate within the limitations imposed on us by a higher authority?”

Inger Cecilie Bertran De Lis 1
Foto: Kamran Dolati

The opportunities of live production
Inger Cecilie Bertràn de Lis

Inger Cecilie Bertrán de Lis describes working on the stage as like coming home.

She talks about a time that has been dominated by uncertainty and constant change. Tumble in The Jungle premièred at Dansens Hus in autumn 2018, and was to be performed again at the beginning of March this year.

“Since so much is changing all the time, it can be difficult to look ahead. It was wonderful to be able to spend a few days working at Dansens Hus, despite the fact that the production was cancelled. We were still allowed to spend a few days working in the auditorium to adapt the production to an amphitheatre version, so we’ve been working on the choreography and direction, and have made some changes to the set design. Physically working on the stage generates a creative process, an important aspect of which is being together with other people, and working as a team. New and creative ideas are generated, even when the work is about modifying a production that already exists.”

Bertrán de Lis describes how in the original version, the audience was sitting in three places, actually on the set, and very close to the performers, which is difficult in a time when Covid-19 has set the terms and conditions for how performance art can be put on, in and outside theatres.

“The times we are living in mean that we have to be creative, solution-oriented and think innovatively around the circumstances we have been given. At a time when touring and production schedules are changing constantly – and in the worst case cancelled – I have decided to insist on physical performance art anyway, and direct communication with the audience. Digital formats don’t work for me. Live performance art and everything it encompasses generates a very special energy that you can’t achieve in the same way through the screen. But I understand that many artists are trying to explore new digital platforms, both as research into new media, but also just to keep going. However, I don’t believe that digital productions will in any way take the focus away from the unique communication between the live performer and the live audience.”

Finally, Bertràn de Lis talks about what it is like to observe the children who are watching the performances. She emphasises how present they are, and how they become absorbed in what they are experiencing.

“Children notice completely different things than an adult audience. Performance art often acts on your subconscious, and some children come to me and talk about very specific details in the production, that they are wondering about. The experiences that are generated live in an auditorium can’t be replaced by anything else.”

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