Stage culture exploration is primarily made up of two groups—trend setters and trend followers. To suggest that Norwegian theatre-maker and choreographer Jo Strømgren takes cues from anyone else in the marketplace would be a gross error in judgment.
Not only does he have the wily tendency to express harsh political and social content for audiences while walking the fine line of what can and cannot be said, he possesses the entertainment sensibility to go back to the basics for the sake of good ol’ comedy while paying homage to one of the world’s most celebrated pastimes.
The hit offering A Dance Tribute To The Art of Football, what many consider soccer’s first ever stage story, makes a stop at Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage Festival in April. Audiences are in for some fancy footwork along with a few surprises when art and sport collide in an evening of intrepid entertainment.
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It’s widely accepted that every nation approaches art differently than its global neighbours near and far. Would you agree that Norwegians have distinct cultural trademarks it can truly call their own?
Yes, I think individuals in every corner of the world do things their own way.
But sometimes we get a sense of trends and tendencies, national or regional, through what is programmed at festivals. One should always remember that such programs are curated, often giving an false impression of what’s really going on out there. We’re all familiar with Cuban music that is served at festivals but forget that for instance ‘black metal’ has a strong presence in that country as well.
Trying seriously to give a proper answer though, I think perhaps there is a certain irony and wit particular to Scandinavia. What that is exactly I do not know. But my first international review ever, almost 20 years ago, stated “A healthy dash of Nordic scurrility”. That’s a hint of what we can contribute to the world.
You insist that your work is not based on a specific method or ideology. If this is true, how then would you define your approach to creating theatre and dance?/em>
I’m still in my Lego-box actually. I spent many years ‘educating’ myself before I realized that efficient communication is done best with what I call ‘the mean average of general public references.’
So I feel free to adapt whatever tools and methods that are necessary to express the story or the concept I want. As a result, I have been able to work now in multiple genres without being a dilettante. I have learned on my way.
The soccer show is a wild flower on my CV. It germinated from an impulsive period as a fresh out of school dancer.
When comparing ‘A Dance Tribute To The Art of Football’ with your other creations such as ‘The Border,’ ‘The Society’ or even ‘The Writer,’ do you start with a single idea and then push the boundaries of rational thinking or do you expand from a concrete narrative?
It all depends on the project. Directing an Ibsen play on a main stage requires a different process than an abstract ballet to classical music. Likewise puppet theatre has different rules than a feature film.
It’s difficult to see a red line through my work apart from the Lego-box attitude. However, I tend to have a clear vision before I start, believing more in the one-brain-one-vision idea than the collaborative flat structure process.
My background is improvisation, a madman improv dancer since it first started trending when I graduated from college. But I hardly use improv in any of the processes now. Instead I do the improvisations myself in my head at night in front of the ashtray. Then I try to reproduce these visions with the actors and dancers afterwards.
You once had an affinity with the European game known as ‘football’ but not so much anymore, why?
I was a soccer maniac up until I was 17. I got slightly frozen out of the team due to my increasing involvement with ballet.
My overall interest changed with the commercial turns the sport took during the 90’s. I watch the World Cup, but always skip the sport pages in the newspaper.
Football, for the most part, is almost a religion. Why do you suppose it’s succeeded in securing such an allegiance of global followers?
I have no idea. Twenty-two people running after a ball is not really what one would expect to fill the hearts and souls and brains of billions.
Perhaps the variety of tempo, situations and surprises soccer has appeals to us, combined with the usual one city – one team mentality which allows us to be fans and patriots at the same time. It is for many nations the only way to express a nationalist feeling.
As the title of this presentation suggests, you’re referring to the game as an ‘art’. Why do you feel this to be true?
We are trying to make it into art. It’s a postulate.
What art is and isn’t has been discussed for 500 years and we are definitively not trying to make a statement in that debate. But hey—by staging a boxing match at half speed and with some music by Schubert on top and there you have a great choreography already.
It’s a matter of not being intellectual but checking if just a tilt in the viewpoint can justify the word “art”. I think it is more than justified. At the same time the show we do raises a whole lot of questions, with open answers.
This show originated at a time when you and a few of your dancing contemporaries were bored with the craft and wanted to get back to your roots as sport enthusiasts. Who did you sell the concept to next?
The original cast were all previous soccer players. We used to play soccer in the dance studio in the weekends and I remember a few mirrors broke.
I think the idea [for A Dance Tribute To The Art Of Football] came up over a beer.
The first production meeting was in the board room of the local elite series soccer club, they sponsored the show.
Those that have experienced ‘A Dance Tribute To…’ are blown away by both the playful comedy and arousing musical composition. Is it true both of these elements have curious back stories?
The best jokes are told in dialect between people from the same village. Just one line and the joke is there. The further away the theme is, the more difficult it is to hit spot on.
Thematically, the soccer show humor came natural. We all played soccer and knew the potentially funny moments very well. One might say that the humour in the show is a bit daft, but hey, one cannot expect soccer humor to be too intelligent either.
My personal favourite in the show is hardly audible. There is a recording of hooligans shouting at one place in the music. I told the original dancers to scream out in nonsensical German to give it a sharp tone. Afterwards I realize that they are all screaming “Harry Klein, Harry Klein.”
All Europeans know Harry Klein. He was the silent assistant to the never-ending crime series hero Stephan Derrick on German television throughout the 70’ and 80’s.
Another is the music in a long scene of changing still pictures. It’s actually the remains of an MC music cassette found in a ditch in an Italian village. Completely ruined, the magnetic tape still had some magnetism left though, which became the music heard in the show. Have no idea what the music originally was, but it sounds great.
So much has been said about ‘A Dance Tribute To The Art of Football.’ You must dwell on the piece fondly considering it represents a first of its kind in some respects?
It is a rotten sketch for a great show that could have been performed large scale for decades in London’s West End.
Andrew Lloyd Webber sat in the first row at our London premiere and scribbled notes. I didn’t understand why until two years later when he premiered ‘The Beautiful Game,’ his soccer musical.
It is also a document of what a group of Norwegian nobodies took four weeks back in 1997. The show was only meant to be a happening in Bergen and Oslo but some intellectuals in Germany saw it as highly “groundbreaking” and soon we were stuck with soccer as our image.
It is also interesting to mention that it was made at a time where, at least in Scandinavia, the male dancer was not seen as hooliganesque. Audiences appreciated seeing some Neanderthal energy on stage for a change.
Smartly, you chose not to alter the production at all since its debut. How do you explain its ongoing appeal?
It still surprises me that people like the show; I don’t know what their thrill is. Perhaps I’m blind to it now after living it for so many years.
I have learned that it has qualities beyond my own taste—a doorway into contemporary dance for those who have never been in a theatre before, being a great way to meet young audiences and a perfect kick starter for discussing the relationship between sports and arts, and an inspiration for choreographers who struggle to have confidence in their own ideas.
Within this breathtaking dance presentation exists a physical theatre framework with a ‘humanistic’ quality that some people get while others just don’t. Are you bothered by this appreciation gap?
I have chosen not to pay much attention to research on developing the art form itself. And to not relate myself to dance history or current issues on the dance agenda.
The approach today is more theoretical than ever, which has its positive sides. Perhaps the old fashioned reason for sitting down in the theatre is getting lost. That is the desire to get transported away from the chair, to be taken on a ride, to be captivated by an illusion.
One can say that Jo Strømgren is not a cool company and hopelessly untrendy. Since we have been crisscrossing the world with multiple productions every year, we must do something right.
I think audiences worldwide crave for more ‘humanistic’ content, even though they are not able to admit it.
You’ve received so much ego-stroking praise for this work in particular. When did you realize how important the show was?
I sort of rejected the show personally for many years. I thought it was too easy to get an audience when suddenly choosing a populist theme. It was just a bit depressing to realize how the entertainment world works.
But as long as the company has a great variety of shows on the repertory—from slapstick humor to completely incomprehensible question marks—it became easier to accept it.
I think the best feedback I received was when four dancers approached me. They said they had seen the show with the original cast 10 years earlier and it’s what made them start dancing. These four dancers are now the ones performing in the Toronto tour.
Given that your name is synonymous with some pretty way-out-there creations, do you feel you have presented your best work yet?
Still working towards it, of course.
I’m 42 years old now. In my family they never die, but pass 100 years one by one. So I still have almost 60 years left to think, create and discover.
And as long as I don’t follow the trends with subsequent fatigue when they change all the time, I am sure I will have the right drive including my curiosity.
If there is one show I’d consider the greatest work so far, it would be ‘There’ from 2000. The only North American performances were at the Jacob’s Pillow even I Massachusetts where the standard feedback seemed to be: “Oh my God, you are sooooo European.”
We were all being very strange at the time having long beards and smoking a lot.
A DANCE TRIBUTE TO THE ART OF FOOTBALL * Apr. 10 – Apr. 13, 2013 Fleck Dance Theatre 207 Queens Quay W., Toronto Tickets $28.00 – $35.00 * 416-973-4000