Kitt Johnson and Jo Strømgren would appear to have little in common, except that they’re both Nordic—Johnson a Dane working in Copenhagen, Strømgren a Norwegian based in Bergen. The chill that surrounds the particular works I saw and the intensely austere theatricality are part of the larger if variegated picture of European dance theater. Both artists were making their U.S. debuts at Jacob’s Pillow; it’s worth a trip to see the other unusual offerings (including Akram Khan and Felix Rückert) in the Doris Duke Studio Theater this month.
In her solo, Stigma, Johnson—trained in modern dance and “elite athletics” and influenced by butoh—undergoes a series of disturbing transformations powered by inner states. She appears in a window of light, like a crone emerging from mist in some black-and-white film by Bergman. Barefoot, she’s wearing a black overcoat and hood, a tight veil squashing and broadening her features. As she toddles, flat-footed, stopping to look around, Sture Ericson and Jacob Kirkegaard’s score embeds her in mechanized intimations of nature. Whatever marks of grace or disgrace stigmatize her, they’re expressed through careful, unhurried transactions between her body and the coat. She draws her head into it like a turtle; bending her unseen knees, she becomes a dwarf; flipping it up and over her arms, she turns into a black bird.
Is she expecting—fearing, wishing—to receive some sign? Perhaps it is stigmata (she kneels, opens her coat, and lies down, breasts bared). Perhaps it’s a whiplash she awaits, with Mogens Kjempff’s light shining on her naked, muscular back. What she receives, coat finally shed, is a cascade of sand. She lifts her face to receive it.
While Johnson’s work is elegantly, phantasmagorically minimal, Strømgren elevates everyday behavior into the realms of the bizarre and the extreme. The set for his amazing There is a series of large packing crates and the sofa and chairs they disgorge, plus a flashing, nightmarish radio. This “there” is a liminal space—a border crossing, a train station, a waiting room like that in Sartre’s No Exit or the nowhere of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The program states that There‘s four characters are 1980s “dissidents stuck in the zone between East and West.”
The negotiations among the men and the mostly hostile space out front that they periodically stare at are both funny and tragic. They speak Russian and a kind of Russian gibberish. We may not understand their occasional shouting or muttering, but their strategies are clear as a bell. We don’t need to know the background of the song “Gerri-Gerri”; we can see how wildly exuberant, nostalgic, and affectionate it makes the guys. For a few seconds.
Moods change all the time. Comrades Espen Reboli Bjerke and John Fjelsneth Brungot (who’s prone to obsessive fits of growling) are suspicious of newcomer Thorbjørn Harr—fighting him, shoving him into a crate. When he breaks out, they accept him and let him jump over the broom that Brungot’s sweeping with. Kyrre Texnæs—pale, with a mop of white-blond hair—is pried out of a box, and, at first, they can’t straighten his curled-in body; he keeps trying to get back in a box, no matter how pathetically small. This outsider becomes the butt of their hostility, but in some way they accept him, too—find him better clothes, try to teach him their language, and help him learn to play the sax, so he can tootle mournfully with their impromptu band. He joins in the awkward, dreamlike dance clusters they fumble their way into.
Their explosive anger and simmerings down, their clumsy tenderness, their absurd games, their individual hang-ups no and invade me. The four performers are superb—profoundly so. I don’t know them. I know them. I want them to be somewhere again. In the end, they pack up, pile the crates, and climb aboard. I hope the train is taking them home.