Nordic arts’ blunt straightforwardness is apparent in ‘The Swan’


Hannes Þór Egilsson and Emilía Benedikta Guðmundsdóttir (Golli /Golli )
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic February 28, 2013

The Swan in Lara Stefansdottir’s dance of the same name is nobody’s arm-flapping patsy. We’re talking about the Iceland Dance Company here, and these tall, rangy women are more Viking than victim.

That was the indelible impression they left in Wednesday’s performance at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, where the nine-member troupe from Reykjavik presented the first dance installment of the center’s Nordic Cool 2013 Festival.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Although Stefansdottir, the company’s artistic director, has a background in ballet, her brief, potent duet “The Swan” has more to do with the fierce temperament and muddy might of the real birds than with any “Swan Lake” allusions. In it, Ellen Margret Baehrenz wears a ruffly white frock that resembles a tutu, but her hair is matted and twisted; she has ghoulish black-rimmed eyes and there’s something ominous in the way she appears suddenly out of the shadows just behind Hannes Egilsson, who is having a troubled nap in his underwear. He’s slumbering in a clear plastic swing shaped like half of a spherical fish egg. It’s rather like something a swan could snack on; maybe that’s why Baehrenz seems so menacing standing over him.

When Egilsson starts to pursue her, he finds that she’s a slippery prey, always sliding and spiraling away. He finally grasps her, and she digs in her heels, leg muscles bulging — this bird won’t budge. She gets the upper hand, wrestling him to the stage and smacking him around. Some of her wildness and freedom rubs off on him; he dances a sinuous slow burn of a solo in which he seems to grow wings, rolling his shoulders as if to shrug off burdens while at the same time reveling in his expanded reach.

Now the music switches from the electronic rumblings of Swedish experimental musician BJ Nilsen to the sweet strings of the balcony scene from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” There’s a little shower of snow (in case we didn’t get the romantic shift), and the two dancers sweep around the stage like lovers. When Egilsson climbs back into his egg, he’s not at all the same man.

The music is too obvious here. This wintry fairy tale about the awakening of the soul didn’t need to use one of the dance world’s most recognizable musical love themes in order to hammer its point home. But then again, the charm of so many Nordic arts is in their blunt straightforwardness. I was reminded of this while looking at the exhibit of Nordic chairs, mugs and other functional products in the foyer just outside the Terrace Theater. Well-worked, unadorned design was apparent in “The Swan” just as it was in those sleek housewares.

The rest of Iceland Dance Company’s program wasn’t as powerful, although Frank Fannar Pedersen’s “Til,” a stark duet in which the woman whiplashed her way to some sort of a breakthrough, made a sharper impact than the more dynamic but less coherent group work “Grossstadtsafari” by the Norwegian choreographer Jo Stromgren, which was more interesting for its lighting design than for the random zest of its approach to urban tension. This was its stated theme, but I didn’t buy it. Maybe despair just isn’t an authentic feeling for a 21st-century Norwegian. Lucky him.

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