Nordic Cool 2013 takes over the Kennedy Center

February 14, 2013

Visitors to the Kennedy Center over the next month may wonder whether they have stumbled upon an artist’s vision of the great outdoors. A flock of stained glass birds will be caught in mid-flight on windows inside the Grand Foyer, with wooden elk roaming the grounds outside. A boat made of cotton shirts will sit dry docked in the Hall of States. And Foggy Bottom will have its own set of Northern Lights, transforming the center’s familiar marble facade into a swirl of fluorescent color.

It’s all part of Nordic Cool 2013, a month-long festival beginning Tuesday and featuring 750 artists who will sing, dance, act, cook and exhibit their way to illuminating the cultures of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark, as well as Greenland, the Áland Islands and the Faroe Islands.

The festival will spill outside the center, as even 1.5 million square feet can’t encapsulate an entire culture. And just as the art moves outdoors, elements of nature will seep inside in unexpected ways: A musician will play instruments made out of ice from a Norwegian glacier, and visitors in the South Atrium foyer will feel like they’re standing in front of an Icelandic waterfall.

The blurred line between the outside and inside worlds makes sense. The Nordic region, with a population of 25 million, may not have a single dominating cultural theme, but its reverence for nature is widespread.

Beyond flora and fauna, the festival includes a Lego exhibit, music from the next-big-thing launching pad Iceland Airwaves festival, a cinematic Norwegian thriller, a panel on the region’s ever-popular crime novels and a taste of New Nordic cuisine.

“Nordic Cool will be a way of showing that the Nordic countries are more than Ikea and ‘The Scream,’ which perhaps are two things that many people would associate with us,” says Hadia Tajik, Norway’s minister of culture. “It’s hard to put words on what is specifically Nordic.”

So don’t bother trying. Instead, read on for a sampling of the festival’s sights and sounds, and stop by the Kennedy Center for a new kind of nature walk.

ART

It will be nearly impossible to escape the art of Nordic Cool. One creation in particular will be visible from any number of D.C. bridges and streets every evening of the festival, which runs through March 17. Northern Lights,” by Danish lighting designer Jesper Kongshaug, will re-create the Aurora Borealis on all four sides of the big box on the Potomac River.

The light show may sound supremely splashy, but exhibitions inside will rival it. Over 10 days, Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen will have built a 180-foot boat inside the Hall of States entirely out of shirts; she’s expected to use more about 1,200. Are We Still Afloat? reflects Nordic culture in a number of ways, from the use of recycled materials and the historical significance of Viking ships to the water theme. (“We have many lakes in Finland; everybody goes by boat,” the artist says.) But there’s also something simultaneously sweet and haunting about the massive work, given that each article of clothing once belonged to someone. In one case, a woman donated her late father’s shirt.

“In a way, part of this person is still there,” Kaikkonen says. “[There is] a strong feeling of all these people participating . . . for me they are still present, with their history with their stories.”

But don’t forget to look up, because 90 vibrant, stained-glass birds will take up residence along the huge windows overlooking the terrace. The exhibit, Migration,” is by Faroe Islands artist Tróndur Patursson, who says the bird and flight themes are no coincidence given his native land.

“When you live in Faroe Islands, some small island like Faroe, you always are thinking how you can get out to the world,” Patursson says.

But rarely are flights so enjoyable.

MUSIC

Don’t be fooled by Iceland’s small size. Its population is far exceeded by its reputation in the world of popular music. Part of that esteem is a result of the annual music festival Iceland Airwaves, which began in 1999 and shines a spotlight on up-and-coming talent. That includes chart-topping Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men, which played the festival in 2011.

Despite the folk sound of Iceland’s most recent stateside import, the country’s music often has an experimental feel born of blending genres. The result is both beautiful and eccentric. Think: Bjork and Sigur Ros.

Airwaves alum Soley (a.k.a. Soley Stefánsdóttir), who also plays with bands Seabear and Sin Fang, will perform at Nordic Cool for a free Iceland Airwaves concert with FM Belfast and Retro Stefson. She sees the penchant for experimentation as a product of both the nation’s tiny population and a desire to make music with different groups.

“We’re so small and the music scene, it seems really big, but if you look at it, it’s mainly the same people in three or four different bands,” she says. “If you’re in three bands you don’t really want to be playing the same music all the time.”

Tickets to see some of the more novel music acts at Nordic Cool have already sold out, including Terje Isungset’s Icemusic , in which the Norwegian percussionist plays instruments made out of glacial ice. But tickets remain for many acts in the impressive jazz lineup. The genre is extremely popular in that region, and Nordic jazz artists are renowned abroad, including Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen and his inventive, gospel-infused compositions.

CUISINE

Locavorism. What has become a foodie fad stateside — an emphasis on eating what’s grown or raised nearby — is standard operating procedure in much of the Nordic world. But when Norwegian restaurateur Morten Sohlberg wanted to source his New York restaurants locally and humanely, it was surprisingly difficult. Sohlberg’s cousin, also a chef, discovered this the hard way when checking on a supposedly humane farm that turned out to be nothing more than a mailbox on a dirt road.

So Sohlberg, the owner of New York restaurants Smorgas Chef and Crepes du Nord, bought a farm. Foraging for mushrooms and berries is popular in his native country, but farming was hardly in his blood. Still, the labor at his Catskills property, Blenheim Hill Farm, has been worth it in the piquant payoff.

“One of the assets that came out of actually doing it, which I hadn’t anticipated to this degree, was how much better the food became so quickly,” Sohlberg says. “That’s a side effect we appreciate still.”

At the Kennedy Center, the chef will be on hand for a free New Nordic cuisine demonstration with Sweden’s Ulrika Bengtsson and Mads Refslund of Denmark. The chefs use regional ingredients to re-imagine old Scandinavian favorites, including gravlax and pickled herring, but without the bells and whistles (and foams and molecular gastronomy) of some “Top Chef” challenges.

Tickets have been snapped up for the big dinners showcasing Norwegian and Swedish food, but there will be other opportunities during the festival to explore Nordic flavors. Both the Roof Terrace Restaurant and the KC Cafe will be revamping their menus and serving new Nordic Cuisine.

THEATER & DANCE

When traveling abroad, Americans often express surprise at the age of churches and other buildings, but theater companies also can claim longevity. Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, which is staging the U.S. premiere of “Fanny and Alexander” at Nordic Cool, was created in 1788 by King Gustaf III.

Fanny and Alexander,” about the misfortunes of two siblings and the redemptive properties of theater, seemed a no-brainer to director Stefan Larsson, who adapted the production from the Oscar-winning Ingmar Bergman film. The show has been one of the most popular in the company’s history, selling out consistently for more than a year.

“This is a Swedish national treasure,” Larsson says. “If we come with something, we should come with this, because Bergman is one of the most famous persons in Sweden.” Not to mention that many of the company’s best actors are involved in this production, Larsson says.

Tickets to the Nordic Cool dance performances are being snapped up quickly. The sold-out show by Iceland Dance Company includes a program that features “The Swan” by the company’s new artistic director, Lára Stefánsdóttir, along with other examples of Nordic choreography. Dancer Aðalheiður Halldórsdóttir, a member of the company since 2003, is delighted that American audiences have been so receptive to both the art form and a foreign company.

“You have over there [in the United States] so many brilliant, technically strong dancers. That I know just from watching television or watching YouTube,” she says. “We are 320,000 in Iceland, so we also have capable people, but I think we also go very far on passion.”

KIDS

Who knew that one of the most popular toys in America, the Lego building block, was of Danish origin? These celebrities of the kiddie world have reigned supreme for decades, and they’re finally getting their due at Nordic Cool. Along with two impressive Lego murals, built with about 387,000 blocks, there will be a play station where kids — and, let’s face it, adults — can have fun making their own creations.

Young audiences also can get a taste of Nordic theater. Sweden’s Backa Teater will present the U.S. premiere of “Little King Mattias,” which sounds like every kid’s dream: An 11-year-old ruler puts the power of his kingdom into the hands of children. Brownies for breakfast likely follow.

FILM

For the curious eye, Nordic Cool offers no fewer than 10 Scandinavian films, all curated by Richard Peña, the former program director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. “People coming to this series have a chance to catch the next generation of [Scandinavian] filmmakers,” he says.

There’s no singular style of Nordic cinema, save perhaps a fondness for utilizing its distinctive landscapes. But its movies tend to address complex social and interpersonal issues with nuance.

“ ‘The Almost Man’ is a troubling portrait of a man refusing to grow up,” Peña says of the film by Norwegian director Martin Lund. “It’s very funny at times and a little scary.”

Unlike many American films, which are typically resolved at their conclusion, “The Almost Man” — like so many Scandinavian films — doesn’t provide closure.

That said, the series shouldn’t intimidate unfamiliar viewers. “There’s nothing in them in terms of references or situations that would lose an American audience,” Peña says. “There’s the idea that foreign films are difficult in some way, and I don’t think these are necessarily difficult. There’s a lot of relevance to our lives. Sometimes, these are films taken from a different point of view, but that’s what makes them interesting.”

Even the silent Swedish classic The Phantom Carriage,” directed by Victor Sjöström in 1921, isn’t particularly inaccessible. The special-effects-laden film inspired Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick alike, predating “The Shining” with a scene of an enraged husband hacking apart a door to get to his wife and children. Pianist Craig Taborn will provide accompaniment to the screening in the Kennedy Center’s Cool Club.

Other standouts include the Danish film Teddy Bear,” about a bodybuilder searching for love in Thailand, and the Finnish movie Naked Harbor,” which wrestles with the xenophobia outsiders face inside a welfare state.

— Ryan Little

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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