Straight from the heart - An interview with Erna Ómarsdóttir, dancer and choreographer

06. Jul 2011

From the show The Talking Tree. Photographer: Luc Massin This month, interview is with one of Iceland’s leading dancers and choreographers. Graduating from PARTS in 1998, Erna Ómarsdóttir quickly started to get work with the likes of Jan Fabre (co-creating and dancing the solo My Movements are Alone like Streetdogs), Les Ballets C de la B and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (co-creating and performing Foi). It was not long however before Erna’s own work took centre stage.

Working almost always in collaboration with musicians, directors, fine artists and other choreographers, Erna’s work has travelled Europe, making waves at some of the continent’s most prestigious festivals and venues. She has been nominated several times in the Ballet Tanz as an Outstanding Performer and Choreographer. She won the Iceland theatre and dance award ‘Gríman’ in 2003 and 2005, and she was also selected as the artist of her town in Kópavogur, Iceland in 2008.

Among her recent works is the performance band Lazyblood with her fiance Valdimar Jóhannsson, The Tickling Death Machine (in collaboration with the band Reykjavik!), which premiered at Kunstenfestval in Brussels, We Saw Monsters, created by her own company Shalala and Transaquania - Into Thin Air (in collaboration with Damien Jalet and the Icelandic Dance Company). But her name was made with works such as IBM - 1401, A User’s Manual; The Mysteries of Love (both created in collaboration with the composer Jóhann Jóhannsson); and We are all Marlene Dietrich FOR (in collaboration with the director Emil Hrvatin for the Iceland Dance Company).

Erna is in the middle of a career that seems set to continue to blossom, with exciting projects planned both at home and abroad. met with her to find out how it all began, and to talk about contemporary dance both as it in Iceland and in Central Europe.

I thought we might start by going back to the very beginning. You were in the first class that graduated from PARTS, and many of you went on to be considered very successful. Do you think PARTS was very significant to your development?

It mattered a lot, and I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Before PARTS I was studying in Rotterdam. I was not happy there, and I began to doubt what I was doing. It saved me to find PARTS and at this time, the school was not as structured as it is today. When I was a student there, we had a lot more freedom and we participated in creating the course.

So being in the school helped your career?

Yes, for sure. Brussel was a big boiling pot at this time, and I met many people working in the dance field. That helped a lot after graduation. I think it is very hard to come there today as a professional dancer or as a choreographer without having connections in the city.

You started working with Jan Fabre very soon after graduation, how was that?

Yes, about half a year after graduation I started working with Jan, and after that I started working with Les Ballets C de la B. Both these projects were important for me. But I enjoy working now, more than I did back then. Today I get the opportunity to create my own performances and to collaborate with good, fun, wonderful people. It is more hard work, but I gain so much more from it as a person and as an artist.

From the show IBM 401, A User´s Manual. Photographer: Laurent Ziegler Well it has been thirteen years since then, you have collaborated with many different people, and made a lot of work, would you now consider yourself a fully developed choreographer?

I do not think that I will ever be fully developed. Over time my need for creating my own work has grown bigger and bigger, and I feel like I am getting stronger creatively, but it’s an endless evolution and a research that never stops.

What are the big influences on this evolution?

The people that I spend time with influence me more than the pieces that I see. PARTS had a big influence on me, and the teachers of that era. For example Jan Ritsema. He’s a director, who taught me theatre. I am also influenced by people that I work with. For example Gabríela Friðriksdóttir, Damien Jalet, Jóhann Jóhannson, Valdimar Jóhannsson and other collaborators. Then of course my friends and family. All of these people have been just as influential as Jan Fabre and Anna Theresa De Keersmaaker. In terms of performances, I will always remember May B by Maguy Marin, which I saw at Reykjavík Arts Festival when I was 17 or 18 years old. At that performance I discovered that I could express myself with the body. Dance isn’t just about moving the body and performing steps, the body can be a tool to say what is happening within me. I am also influenced by other art forms – especially by movies and music. I am also influenced by the extremes in life, and things that happen around you and within you. I believe that what you create is something that you have experienced or felt, but at the same time it is put into an extreme theatrical context, and what I do is performance, and not everything that I create and do is a manifestation of my opinions or feelings. 

When you look over your career, are there any performances that are more memorable than others?

I never seem able to be completely happy with my pieces, there is always something that I feel like I could have done better. But I have a feeling, that these new pieces, We Saw Monsters, Transaquania – Into Thin Air and Lazyblood, are a step in the right direction. But I love all of my projects and the collaborations that I have had, even though it wasn´t always a smooth sailing.

From the show Transaquania - Into Thin Air. Photographer: Golli

There is a lot of talk about the Icelandic energy and the connections Icelanders have with the nature. That is a description that has been used about Björk, but also to describe you and your pieces. Do you think it is a cliché? Or is it true?

I think it’s true and I think that it can effect you to grow up on an island in the north. We have so much nature and so much vastness, but at the same time we live in a very small society. Therefore you can experience claustrophobia and agoraphobia at the same time. Extremes are also dominant in nature, for example all the brightness in the summertime and the darkness in the winter. I feel very lucky. I would not have wanted to grow up anywhere else. I am very sentimental about all of this. I think it is wonderful working in Iceland, and being in Iceland, but it is of course, also great to be able to work abroad.

Do you think there is such a thing as “Icelandic dance”?

There’s an energy that the dancers have here, something Icelandic, if one could call it that. Icelandic dance artists have also been very successful abroad, which must mean that foreigners think there is something special about Icelandic dancers. Icelandic pieces need to be paid more attention locally. Dance is an international language and we should be able to do something amazing, but the industry needs more financial support to keep going, but hopefully that will change in the coming years.

You have been working a lot in Iceland lately - is there less work in Europe? Or do you want to work in Iceland?

Right now I want to be in Iceland - and work in Iceland. I want to be close to my family, but I also think there is a very good energy here and a good place to work. Sometimes I have thought about moving from Brussels, but it is dangerous for me to move completely away from Central Europe. It is necessary to keep the connections with the scene on the mainland, firstly because there is not enough work in Iceland, and secondly because my pieces are also supported with foreign grants and theatres.

From the show We Saw Monsters. Photographer: Nanna Dís

But here in Iceland 90% of resources to performance arts goes to institutions and 10% to the independent performing arts. What do you think about that fact?

This of course not good enough. The independent theatres are doing amazing things for very small budgets and they should be supported much more. I feel a lot of difference in attitude towards performing arts in Iceland and in Belgium. There, there is a lot of respect for the performing arts and a big emphasis on experimentation and evolution, much more than here.

But what do you think of Icelandic dance audiences? Have they become more open towards dance than when you started out?

There is still a lot of prejdudices towards the artform, and I feel that people have not yet discovered how open and different it can be. It is an artform where you can express things sometimes better than you can with words, and it is also an artform where different genres can come together and create a wonderful whole. 

I also think that the fear of going and not understanding is still dominant. That is a fear that people need to get rid of. They do not need to understand, just experience and enjoy! The scene is young in Iceland, but I feel that there is more interest and more curiosity. And when you manage to get new audiences interested in dance, it’s absolutely wonderful. That means a lot to me.

Could you imagine starting a company based in Iceland, if you had funding and proper facilities?

Yes, that would be my dream and hopefully it will come true one day, but it is expensive to be based in Iceland. I can feel it now, since few of the dancers that I work with are based here. It is harder to sell the shows, because flights are more expensive from Iceland, and it has happened that buyers have backed out, but hopefully it will be better in the future.

We started this interview by talking about how it all began for you. Perhaps we could close by inviting you to imagine the future?

Well, I will be performing Teach us How to Outgrow our Madness with my company at Julidans in Amsterdam. After that it I will start my biggest project, which is to give birth to my baby. Quite a big project, and one that will last the longest! Me and Valdi (her fiancé) are very excited. We have not made any plans how the future will go, we are just going to take it step by step.

Lazyblood performing at the music festival Reykjavík Music Mess. Photographer: Þórir Benedikt Björnsson. Regarding the Icelandic dance scene, The Contemporary Dance Department at the University of the Arts has been doing wonderful things, and graduating very promising and powerful students, as well as getting very coveted artist and teachers from abroad to teach. The Icelandic Dance Company is important, because there needs to be at least one official dance company. And the Dance Atelier is a wonderful start and hopefully the first step towards a fully functioning dance house, but we need more spaces that can host dance performances. I would like for the groups that are working now, to get better facilities and more financial support to develop themselves. Those artists are very promising and there is a lot of energy within the Icelandic dance community. If you do not nurture the energy, it will die, and then it will be hard to revive it again.

I also think that people should dance and sing more, see more theatre and discover dance! - I do not understand why Icelanders have not discovered it yet!

For further information on Erna Ómarsdóttir:

Interview: Ásgerður G.Gunnarsdóttir

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