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Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen’s work is about more than (just) our thirst for Nordic culture

The Artificial Nature Project. Photo: Jan Lietaert The Artificial Nature Project. Photo: Jan Lietaert
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What is it with the British obsession with all things Nordic? From Bang & Olufsen and Wallander to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the West End version of Mamma Mia!, we seem to have a real hankering for the sleek, bleak, minimalism of the Scandanavian sensibilities.

Some two years ago, Ikea replaced John Lewis as the nation’s favourite furniture store and the first Moomin shop in the UK opened in Covent Garden a year previous to that. Sales in Scandinavian furniture from Danish Homestore have seen a massive boom thanks to The Killing and Borgen. It seems us UK islanders see Nordic culture as cool, liberalist, impenetrable, stylish and sophisticated.

Scandinavia holds a particularly special place in my heart as I spent a year training at the Danshogskolan (Stockholm’s University’s college of dance) on a Socrates scholarship many years ago. I am therefore extra-delighted that Sadler’s Wells is hosting Northern Light, a celebration of Nordic dance, showcasing a range of artists from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway performing across Sadler’s Wells, the Lilian Baylis Studio and the Platform Theatre in King’s Cross.

[pullquote]I try to think about how to create work for non-humans[/pullquote]

I caught up with Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen, who brought her latest work The Artificial Nature Project, to the Platform Theatre at Central Saint Martins as part of the program. Although born in Denmark, Ingvartsen studied at the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Belgium, has worked in Germany and France with French choreographers Xavier le Roy and Boris Charmatz and considers herself very much part of the European contemporary dance scene.

If I hadn’t spoken to her in depth, I would’ve hailed her piece as the ultimate Nordic creation – portraying a stark, sometimes desolate, sometimes spectacular landscape, calm, white and open. Dancers interact with what looks like molten pyrite, shaping and moulding the elements, before the substance becomes clouds and storms of glittering rain and crashing waves of fireworks.

Photo: Jan Lietaert

Ingvartsen says that Nordic dance can be seen as different from British or mainland European dance to some extent. “I think the difference is in understanding what dance is and can be in terms of technique and training the body in a technical manner,” she says. “I try to think about how to create work even for non-humans (a reference to the ‘matter’ used in The Artificial Nature Project) with materials other than bodies, stepping away from the history of dance and training in a conventional sense.”

It soon becomes clear that her practice, and her piece for Northern Light is based much less on geographical principles and Scandinavian landscapes and more on human nature and natural forces outside of our control. Those hoping for a glimpse of peaceful aurora borealis are in for a shock. In an instant everything turns to chaos: images of man-made destruction, fire and volcanoes, and deathly souls escaping into other realms.

Ingvartsen’s aim is to “step away from the body as the material aspect of dance, to try and extend the choreography into non-human performances,” she says.

It’s about representations of nature, creating choreography not within human control and changing the focus of what we’re looking at on the stage. The bodies are not centre of attention in my work. The material is centre and the bodies are there to set it in motion, to facilitate and operate something outside of themselves.

While it’s clear landscape is important in her work, it’s not the Nordic culture of her youth Ingvartsen’s harking back to. Her concern is kinesthesia and perception: self-awareness and how we experience the world. She explains:

It’s true that in Sweden you have amazing nature, Denmark is flat, nice, but not amazing. Scandinavians experience very cold winters and summer is very hot, but that’s not why I’m making pieces to do with nature. I’m more concerned with ecological crises, the notion of nature falling apart than that of national identity. That’s not the place where my work comes form.

The Artificial Nature Project comes from researching natural disasters including hurricane Katrina, the mechanisms of man-made disasters and the absurdity of trying to control the external environment.

The production is certainly a choreography of unexpected forces we can’t control.

She laughs when I tell her of the British penchant for all things Nordic. “I’ve been living outside of Scandinavia for 14 years,” she explains. “My work is connected to there but I have a certain distance from all the fashions.” While she’s flattered by the compliments I get the sense that this work is a piece to be judged on it’s own merits, rather than where in the world it was made.

Northern Light runs until November 14th

Read more dance columns from Katie Colombus


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