To kick off our podcast series, where we feature interviews with some of our most exciting artists working in the performing arts, Salka Guðmundsdóttir talked to choreographer, dancer and all-round performance maker Ásrún Magnúsdóttir.
Ásrún graduated from the Iceland University of the Arts in 2011 and has been a vibrant presence to the Icelandic performing arts scene ever since. Ásrún's work has earned her multiple nominations for the Icelandic Stage Awards, as well as other awards and nominations. Ásrún's latest work, Ball, created with her long-time creative partner Alexander Roberts for the Iceland Dance Company, was nominated for Production of the Year 2022.
I read a great quote about your work, Ásrún: that you like to make invisible choreographies visible.
Yes, I like to work with people that haven't thought so much about dance and choreography, and make their choreographies visible – so trying to find something that maybe isn't often thought of as dance, or working with people who are not often seen on stage.
Your distinguishing quality as a performance-maker is how frequently you work with these groups or communities. You've worked with children, neighbours, amateur dancers, disabled children, just to name a few examples. In your 2017 production, GRRRRRLS, you created a piece with a large group of teenage girls, and in Asparfell which you and Alexander made for the Reykjavík Arts Festival you hosted a party with the residents of a large block of flats. What led you to this sort of artistic exploration? Why are you so interested in making dance happen outside of what we traditionally think of as dance spaces?
I think it originally comes from having a traditional dance background, I graduated as a dancer with all this classical training and then I was just sick of it, sick of working with this perfectly trained body. I wanted to meet some other people, other bodies and ideas. I'm a curious person and I like hanging out with groups of people that I might not meet in my daily life. First I made a piece I called Reykjavík Folk Dance Festival where I went to people's homes and collected dances to make a new folk dance for Reykjavík.
This rebellion against the rigid constraints of dance is interesting because you're not the first choreographer that I've heard talking about this. Margrét Bjarnadóttir, for example, has talked about this as well. Maybe this is part of why the dance scene is so fertile, it's breaking out of something quite conventional?
Exactly. But also I'm becoming more aware of the craft and technique that dancers have, the trained body, which is coming into my practice more and more.
Do you have any role models?
I try to always have role models. I remember the first piece I saw, when I was 10 or 12. It was called The Match [by Lonneke van Leth] and was performed by the Iceland Dance Company, and it's like a football game on stage. I was just like, oh, this is allowed. As I grow older I have many role models, not just in dance. I also look a lot to the music scene and to different arts in general.
So to return to your conception of dance, there is definitely a sense of dance as a celebration in your work, bringing people together and making a community around dance.
Yes, I often work with a group of people and try to find something that they have in common. It can be something like they're all teenagers, they all live in the same apartment block or they all go to the same school, something simple and obvious. And from that we try to build some kind of a community or create some kind of a celebration. I'm a fan of parties so I often want to make a party.
You make professional work with non-professionals a lot of the time. It's important to note that you don't just use them as props, which sometimes happens when artists think they're engaging with communities. They seem very much in control of the work, alongside you. There must be some challenges in working with these groups of people but also some rewards and surprises.
The biggest challenge is often to get them involved – to knock on their doors or call their phones and ask them to be involved. Or you do an open call and no-one applies but you continue with the idea and try to find a different way of reaching people. The second challenge is to find time, because people of course have other jobs. And often – whether you work with amateurs or professionals – doubts happen along the way, both for me as the choreographer or author, but also from the participants, like, are you sure that this is a good idea? Especially when working with teenagers. They ask honest questions and then I have to be honest to them and say no, I'm not sure but I think we have to try it like this.
The rewarding thing is of course when it does work and it touches audiences or visitors. That's the biggest reward and also the friends I make on the way, like some of my oldest colleagues who were 11 or 12 when they started working with me and today are 21 or 22 and still working with me.
Like you say, you often work with large groups of people that need a lot of coordinating. How do you stay true to the artistic side of your work when there's so much practical stuff involved?
This can be quite tricky. That's why I try to do all the practical things before I start. For example, now I'm working on a production that will premiere in late October, and I'm at the practical stage, mapping it all out. Then I can rest for a while before I start to focus on the art itself.
You say it can be difficult to approach people but you work with a group that many people find the least approachable of all – teenagers – that we're all kind of secretly afraid of. What is it about this age that interests you?
I'm obsessed with youth, both nostalgically but also the youth today. I'm curious about their world because it's such a short time in your life, just a few years that are so interesting, exciting and difficult. They're really open-minded, excited, honest, ready to go, crazy – so I like to hang out with them and work with them.
Let's discuss two very different productions that you've done with teenagers, GRRRRRLS and The Teenage Songbook of Love and Sex.
GRRRRRLS Is a stage performance by twenty teenage girls, aged 12-16. They make dances and pick songs in collaboration with me and then they introduce the dances. It's like a list of dance dedications. It comes from this huge feminist movement that was happening at the time, like Free the Nipple and the band Reykjavík daughters. Girls were being very loud and I was wondering what the younger generation were thinking and how we could include them in this movement. I think it was refreshing for the scene in general, very fun. I'm still working with many of these girls and many of them were actually in The Teenage Songbook of Love and Sex which was made with slightly older teenagers, 16+. I made that performance with my close colleague Alex and composer Teitur Magnússon. It's about teenagers' love and sex life and we made a songbook from that – they wrote letters to their crushes or someone who was mean to them, or their mums, or anyone they wanted to say something to. From these letters we made lyrics and from the lyrics we made songs, all in close collaboration with the teenagers. It's a concert piece. Many of my pieces are very concert-based, following the dramaturgy of a concert.
When your name is mentioned here in Iceland it's often accompanied by Alexander Roberts' name. Can you tell us about your focus as collaborators and how it all started?
We were both interested in finding ways to include different voices and bodies on the arts scene. We met at Reykjavík Dance Festival in 2011 or 2012. I had just graduated so it was just the right moment. We simply began to make some really strange experiments. From that we just evolved and worked on our methods and practices. We're always curious in general about who we could include in our work next time. Sometimes we're co-authors, sometimes he's the dramaturg, but more and more recently we make work together.
That brings me to your latest work, Ball, which has been a great success with audiences and critiscs. The piece defies definition but might be described as a space where amateur and professional dancers come together to celebrate their love for dance. One critic described it as a highly political experience because it dismantles cultural structures and puts different dance styles on an equal footing, placing different cultures side by side. At the same time it's also just intensely joyful and very fun. You created this piece for the Iceland Dance Company which has been very progressive in its work but is nonetheless an established institution. How were you and Alexander able to find ways to work with your own methods within the company?
Erna Ómarsdóttir, the artistic director of the IDC, came to us and invited us to make new work for the company. We'd done smaller productions with the company so we weren't completely new to them which was good, we took some steps along the way. But we did think, well, we can't do that, we don't work with these kinds of bodies – that was our first thought, but then we thought, how can we make the company bigger and include different bodies? Who is also dancing in Iceland and could be in the IDC, at least for the moment? To bring in other dancers, semi-professionals, people who have dedicated their lives to dance in some way. We wanted to invite different backgrounds, ages and backgrounds into the IDC and also make this portrait of Iceland or Reykjavík. We brought this idea to Erna and the whole company and they were excited and willing to go for it. It was a very organic way to work with this old institution, a great experience.
It really is a portrait of Iceland. The performing arts, like many other spaces in society, have been a bit slow to react to the massive changes in our society which has become much more diverse. To see that Iceland enacted on stage is quite spectacular.
Yes, and many people came to me and said oh, I didn't know this kind of dance or dancer existed in Iceland. Everything is here, you just have to open the doors and invite it in.
Your work has travelled widely, for example Listening Party has already been produced in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and other countries. Do you tend to travel with entire productions or take a concept and work with that?
For Listening Party it's the concept that tours, so I tour by myself and work with locals. It's a teenage party. I like to work with thirty local teenagers for 5-7 days. They share their favourite songs or a song that means something to them. These songs are played on stage and to each song, something happens. Sometimes they're just dancing freely, like we're looking at a teenage dance, sometimes they slow-dance, they do a lot of singing, things you would see at any party.
There's also the One Night In ... concept that you and Alexander specifically tailored to touring.
Yes, it's a kind of sister project to Listening Party but not only with teenagers. It could be One Night in Reykjavík, with people from Reykjavík sharing their songs and stories on stage, dancing along, singing along or simply playing the song. We try to create a portrait of a place. It could also be One Night in 7/11, with people who work there, who hang out there, customers. It's a continuation of Ball and also Listening Party.
You've already mentioned Reykjavík Dance Festival, which has been massively important here in Iceland. Are there any other festivals or networks that you've found particularly useful?
Yes, I was part of the apap network, advancing performing arts project. This is quite a big network with lots of theatres, festivals and artists. That's how I got to know a lot of my international friends and colleagues.
What do you think the performing arts scene in Iceland needs to take it further?
I think more money would do a lot but also, because I'm mostly focused on dance, a stage is something we need because the dance scene here is amazing, with lots of interesting choreographers and dancers, but there's no space for it. There are some stages but it's hard to get in, they're too small or busy. It doesn't need to be fancy, not like the Harpa concert hall – just a stage. I work a lot with young people and when they come out of school they have nowhere to go. A space would also help us meet and have more conversations to make the scene even stronger.
So are you allowed to tell us a bit about what you'll be working on later this year?
Yes, it's a new production that will premiere at Leeds Transform Festival which is a great festival. It's called Top Secrets and it's about the secrets of teenagers. We're making a kind of punk concert stage performance with teenagers, collecting their secrets that will all come out on stage.