Ultima Oslo Contemporary Dance

October 4, 2001

Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival

Various venues
Oslo, Norway

October 4?14, 2001

Reviewed by Octavio Roca

It is a sign of just how radical things got in Oslo this fall that the most conservative dance work in town was the Norwegian National Ballet premiere of Mats Ek’s The Sleeping Beauty, with a star-making performance by Kari Freyr Bjornsson as the gun-toting Prince Desire. All over town, as part of the annual Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival, the dance events projected a veritable rainbow of the avant-garde.

Knut Mork Skagen’s Erotogod, billed as a “techno-religious” installation at the Henie-Onstad Center overlooking Oslo Fjord, attempted with some success a virtual dance experience with audience members outfitted with electronic sensors in strategic parts of the body: Where anyone touched himself dictated what electronic music played and also the electric impulses relayed back to simulate motion and other stimuli.

At the Black Box Theater, Un-Magrit Nordseth’s choreography for Pia Myrvold’s live-and-video musical for children kept tots spellbound, while the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus cast their own spell for peace as they moved to the sounds of the Koran.

At Oslo’s Cinemateket, works-in-progress on film shared the bill with Wim Vandekeybus and Batsheva Dance Company retrospectives.

But the big hit was a piece of Norwegian butoh burning at the heart of an electroacoustic opera-ballet. Øyvind Jørgensen choreographed and danced in Cecilie Ore’s new A: a shadow opera, and a masterpiece was born. Ore is best known in new music circles as the composer of both austere and outrageous electronic works, and the prospect of her first opera sent more than a few eyebrows north even in her native Norway. Jørgensen, a budding modern dance choreographer and dancer blessed with blonde good looks and an almost angelic stage presence, is not the usual butoh performer. Their collaboration worked. Ore and Jørgensen’s A was the audience favorite. And with German and English versions already in the works, it may turn out to be Ultima’s first international hit.

A stands for Agamemnon, as he turns his backs on the crumbling walls of Troy and walks around the shadows of history through centuries of war and destruction. The libretto by Paal-Helge Haugen was to have been an opera by Iannis Xenakis, who did not live to finish it. Samples of bells from a Xenakis score are buried as tribute in Ore’s own electroacoustic sound-world, but the whole affair might have shaken and challenged even the venerable Greek avant-gardist. Whatever else it may be, A: A shadow opera is an almost insolently original work.

The plot, such as it is, is a meditation on historical and personal responsibility. “It had to be,” Haugen’s poem says. “It was higher powers. It was Artemis. It was the wind that wouldn’t come. It was swords. It was revenge. It wasn’t me.” Thus Agamemnon washes his hands clean of the sacrifice of his own daughter, and thus war after horrifying war is justified through the ages. The rhythmic litany comes mostly in Norwegian?in Nynorsk, actually?but also in English, German, Japanese, and Greek. Ore has set it for low male voice and what she calls a female shadow, recited by Joachim Calmeyer and Anneke von der Lippe. Their insistent Sprechstimme is in turn surrounded by a female chorus that itself seems to float on an aural tapestry of gongs. The human voice, transformed electronically and distorted by loudspeakers, is nevertheless the basis for virtually all the musical textures in A.

All of this is invisible to the audience, whose attention remains focused on Jorgensen’s progress through an hourlong dance that is a miracle of control. The minimal action, intensely felt in the intimate upstairs house of Det Norske Teatret, is entirely that of a lone figure: Carefully calibrated moves through the audience project at first an implacable design, then suddenly an almost mystical abandon only partly hidden by superhuman control. Jørgensen, as both dancer and dancemaker, provides the inescapably human, heartbreaking presence in the midst of all the abstraction.

The dialectic at work in the piece is gripping: the dancer’s wordless body and the eerie, disembodied voices; the musical echoes of tradition from Monteverdi to Xenakis and the foreshadowing of something radically new; the mechanics of mass murder and the obscene renunciation of responsibility. Facing vital questions the world cannot afford to ignore, Jørgensen and Ore have created an ambitious and powerful stage work, difficult to classify but even harder to ignore. It is also ineffably beautiful.