Copenagen— Director Kirsten Dehlholm is not happy. Her Chinese Compass has been striking: 40 children identically dressed in business suits and yellow wigs, moving en masse through an elaborate theater-of-images meditation on China. In the middle of the show, a huge, sunlike sphere begins slowly descending from the rafters, seven feet in diameter and glowing from within. It’s beautiful, but suddenly something snaps, and the globe plunges to the ground, bouncing (harmlessly) off one child and rolling to rest a few feet away. The action continues, but the orb continues radiating brightly, disrupting the elegant picture all around it, exerting its newfound will. At a scene change, two black-clad stagehands clip its electric umbilical cord and usher the rogue element off.
It’s a glorious moment, really, but Dehl-holm sure doesn’t like it. Understandably so— her theater company Hotel Pro Forma has made a career out of carefully constructed stage imagery, and this accident at Copenhagen’s Kanonhallen theater doesn’t quite fit with the program. The full house is forgiving, though— Hotel Pro Forma is both a critical and popular favorite. Well-known in Europe, the Danish avant-garde company has never performed in the U.S. That changes on October 20, when the company presents Operation: Orfeo at BAM as part of the Next Wave Festival.
Hotel Pro Forma is one of two Danish theater companies in New York this month. The venerable, Grotowski-inspired Odin Teatret, helmed by Eugenio Barba, returns to New York for the first time in 15 years, for a three-week run at La MaMa. While both companies are Danish institutions, they couldn’t be more different.
It’s rather shocking that Hotel Pro Forma has never performed in America. Dehlholm is an avowed aesthetic daughter of Robert Wilson— she was converted after seeing his epic Life and Death of Joseph Stalin in 1974. Her intricately composed, visually playful theater pieces seem a natural for New York audiences. Dehlholm founded Hotel Pro Forma in 1985, after working eight years with the Danish group Billedstofteater, another theater-of-images company.
“I want to play with perception,” Dehlholm says, sitting in her frighteningly spacious Copenhagen loft. “As an investigation of the world and reality.” Over the past 14 years, she’s created 20 Hotel Pro Forma productions. “Each is different because I work with different people, musicians, architects, site-specific locales. Though I come up with the original concept.” She also has a pleasing knack for titles: among her shows are Monkey Business Class (1996), Dust Wow! Dust (1995), and Nine If One Is Sick (1987).
Operation: Orfeo, originally produced in 1993, takes its title from the myth of Orpheus and Euridice. Well-mined territory, to be sure— which is exactly why Dehlholm likes it. “The story is so well-known,” she explains, “you don’t have to tell it.” The show was her first commission for a proscenium stage, something she’d previously avoided. “A proscenium is loaded with expectations,” she says, “so I thought of film, something flat.” Her impish goal was to use optical illusion to make three-dimensional space look two-dimensional. She pulls out a booklet and shows the meticulous sightline charts she had to devise. Operation: Orfeo is being mounted in BAM’s Opera House, but only a limited number of seats are available. The balcony and sections far to the sides have been nixed, because the illusion can’t be sustained from those directions.
Not that there’s much to see for the first 20 minutes, which happen in the dark, reflecting (as it were) Orpheus’s descent into the land of the dead. The score comes from two places: John Cage’s 1979 Hymns and Variations and pieces composed by collaborator Bo Holten based on Renaissance choir music. Orpheus and the lights do eventually come up, making for the rest of the 2-D extravaganza.
While an avant-gardist, Dehlholm’s prominence in Denmark has also led her to direct productions at the very mainstream Royal
Theater— though not without frustration. Conservative subscribers walked out on one performance, and the board of directors nixed some of her ideas for this year‘s Holger Danske. The traditional Danish folk opera is “too long,” she argues. Her proposed solutions: perform some of it during intermission, or have the music for the second act played by a boombox rather than by the orchestra— in order to create sonic contrast. Both wonderfully idiosyncratic notions, both no-go’s with the powers that be. Her most prominent future plan is a show in Malmö, Sweden, commissioned to honor both the millennium and the opening of the Øresund Link— the 10-mile tunnel and bridge project that will connect Denmark and Sweden. Titled jesus-c-odd-size, the 60-person production will be a kind of avant-garde Jesus Christ Superstar, featuring, of all people, shock cartoonist Mike Diana. “Better do Jesus,” Dehlholm says with a smile, “because it’s his birthday.”
Eugenio Barba is rather like Jesus himself. The founder of the veteran Odin Teatret, he leads an apostle-like group of actors, frequently takes theater to the poor, and, through his extensive theoretical writings, is quite the preacher. Toss in a beatific grin and some nice sandals, and— well, enough of that simile.
The Odin Teatret hasn’t been seen in New York since 1984, making the return of the seminal group something of an event. Barba’s story is fairly well known: an Italian, he spent three years with Grotowski in Poland in the early ’60s, then went to Norway, where, after being rejected by the National Theater School, he created his own successful company with other passed-over applicants. In 1966, the troupe was invited to settle in Holstebro, Denmark, a small city in Jutland. This has been the home base ever since for what Barba calls his “Third Theater”: not the mainstream institutional theater, not the avant-garde, but an art, as he’s described it, “on the fringes, often outside or on the outskirts of the centers and capitals of culture. It is a theater created by people who define themselves as actors, directors, theatre workers, although they have seldom undergone a traditional theatrical education and are therefore not recognized as professionals.”
Odin is marked by both the intense physicality of their training and performances, and by their world travels, during which they mount shows and “barter” performances with the local populaces. At La MaMa, the company will offer demonstrations of their work process— for dollars, not trade— and present seven different plays: Mythos, Ode to Progress, Doña Musica’s Butterflies, White as Jasmin, Itsi Bitsi, Judith, and The Castle of Holstebro II.
Though the two companies once created a performance together, Hotel Pro Forma’s dreamy visuals and the Odin’s more earnest physicality draw quite a contrast. Direct comparisons aren’t exactly fair, but casual conversations around Copenhagen indicate a current drift away from the Odin, which is seen by some as representing Danish theater’s past more than its future. Thirtysomething Danish playwright Jens Albinus, who once studied with the Odin, describes the group as “like a monastery” and believes Danish theater has moved on. His History of Infamy— a sharply acted riff on bourgeois complacency recently performed at Copenhagen’s downtownish Kaleidoskop theater— shares some of the Odin Teatret’s physicality, but has a clear ’90s edge. Well-regarded playwright Astrid Saalbach says the Odin Teatret “reminds me of how naive we once were.” With both companies in town, New York audiences have the opportunity to make up their own minds— though longtime Odin actor Jan Ferslev offers his own analysis of the state of Danish theater: “If you only go with what’s fashionable,” he notes, “you’re fucked.”