The beach is open, the deckchairs are out and summer’s in full swing at Southbank Centre. With it comes Summertime, our programme of art and performance featuring dance, music, theatre and more from a flock of international artists.
Beneath the stunts, high-flying acrobatics and humour, these performances carry strong messages, ranging from explorations of masculinity to the refugee crisis and personal interpretations of religion.
Many of the events overlap with Nordic Matters, our year-long celebration of the unique cultures and values that put Nordic countries at the forefront of human rights and social change.
Sara Veale spoke to some of the Nordic artists receiving their UK premieres at Royal Festival Hall this August.
Sunday 13 August - Wednesday 16 August
From Scandinavia’s leading contemporary circus troupe comes Limits, a show exploring the refugee experience and broader issues of displacement and migration. The production is centred on the personal accounts of 27-year-old Qutaiba Aldahwa and 20-year-old Javid Heidari, who respectively fled Iraq and Afghanistan during the migrant crisis and now live in Sweden, training with Cirkus Cirkör at its school in Stockholm.
‘In 2015 we established a transit residence next to our circus hall, and that was soon full of new arrivals,’ Cirkus Cirkör founder and creative director Tilde Björfors says. ‘We collected stories from them, and Qutaiba and Javid’s ended up as the primary focus of Limits. Other voices are included... newly arrived artists from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Palestine are actually part of the cast’.
The troupe is famed for rich, unconventional fusions of theatrical expression, and Limits is no exception, featuring aerial acrobatics, teeterboarding, live singing and on-stage painting - all blended into a fearless choreography that challenges limitations ‘both mentally and physically’, according to Björfors.
‘There’s a fairly cemented picture that circus is simply entertainment,’ she says. ‘But to me, circus is about crossing borders and making the impossible possible. It’s a physical exploration of what human beings are capable of, and it has the power to explore and challenge the outside world. We felt we could not be silent while the peace project of Europe, which is supposed to be about open borders, closed its borders to the rest of the world in the most inhumane way.
‘We want to spread hope and encourage people to feel like they can do something about it.’
Friday 18 August - Sunday 20 August
Iceland’s national dance institution takes over Royal Festival Hall for three days with Sacrifice, a new series of performances contemplating the relationship between art and religion. The programme includes works from Iceland Dance Company artistic director Erna Ómarsdóttir and her partner, composer Valdimar Jóhannsson, as well as visual artists Matthew Barney, Ragnar Kjartansson and Gabríela Friðriksdóttir.
The four theatrical creations on show unite dance and visual art, music and expression, with some presented conventionally and others more immersive. ‘Together they form a festival,’ says Ómarsdóttir, who conceived and directed the project with Jóhannsson. ‘Each piece complements the others with a kind of floating but connected element.’
The idea for Sacrifice grew out of a personal discussion between the couple about getting married. ‘That made us think about the possibility of “customising” the wedding ritual to create our own personal version of the rite,’ Ómarsdóttir explains. They were also inspired by the broader way ‘art has been used throughout history to elevate religion and help people get in touch with their spirituality. Our conclusion was to regard creativity as our own personal religion, seeing it as a driving force and a motor for things in everyday life.’
Ómarsdóttir has choreographed two works in the series, including Shrine, which she describes as ‘dark, humorous and painful, with a lot of rhythmic breathing, screaming, ballet and hair.’ In it, a 12-dancer ensemble examines life, death and existence against a vivid moodscape set ‘somewhere between purgatory, the tourist experience and the biology research room.’
‘I hope the audience comes away filled with creative inspiration and the understanding that we can all find a way of expressing our personal beliefs and desires and become the masters of our own existence,’ she says. ‘IDC is a small company, but we’re a strong group of people who work passionately to make things happen.’
Thursday 10 August
‘Resolving issues by doing rather than talking.’ This is how dancer Jarkko Lehmus describes his experience working on Morphed, a 2014 contemporary dance work from celebrated Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen. The piece grapples with masculinity, addressing themes like change, renewal and sensuality as it considers what it means to be a man.
‘The creative process was really about sharing information, experiences and learning from each other,’ says Saarinen. ‘I think the whole perception of manhood has been under scrutiny for a while now, and rightly so. As a contemporary male dancer, one does not need to be provocative and shocking to enhance one's manhood. By daring to be sensitive, responsive and alert, we men can ultimately ”bloom” in more poignant ways.’
Like much of Saarinen’s work, Morphed is a layered composition of contemporary dance, classical ballet and other styles, including street dance. ‘My aim was to [create] a tightly knitted choreographic entity, but with individual voices and talents within that,’ Saarinen says, ‘there’s something animalistic and primitive as it dives into the depths of dance and music rituals.’
The seven-strong cast ranges widely in both age and background - ‘one of the most exciting parts’ of the show, according to dancer David Scarantino. ‘We have people as young as 21 all the way up to 45. Some of us have been in ballet companies, some are freelance-based, some have studied classical modern techniques in the US. There’s even a breakdancer.’
‘In many ways Morphed is about the boxes and cages we set ourselves in,’ Scarantino continues, ‘but also how we can break, mould and love those cages and fully become ourselves as human beings. You’ll see seven different and strong characters develop throughout the journey on stage.’
by Sara Veale
Our Summertime programme at Southbank Centre lasts until 28 August.