ERNA ÓMARSDÓTTIR: A RARE ELEMENT
by Fernando Eichenberg
If one day you have the opportunity to see her on stage, you may be sure, you will never forget her. The Icelander Erna Ómarsdóttir is a unique and unclassifiable character in the scenery of contemporary dance. It is impossible to watch one of her performances without feeling overwhelmed by her singular artistic force, by her tragedy and her grace, by her animalism and her lightness, by the brute and physical energy of her corporeal language in a recurrent storm. Her body is animal, it is human and it can also easily assume the genetics of any indefinite form. The stage is an infinite space for the expression of her movements and her chameleonic voice. Her vocal chords produce distortions, vibrations, primal chants, atonal cries, punk-rock tonalities or childish songs. Erna Ómarsdóttir is a mild lagoon and an erupting volcano. She is a thick and wild forest, a serene and desert dune. She is the surplus and the minimum. Monster and fairy, angel and devil. She is, at this moment and everyday more, a renowned and unavoidable name in modern dance.
One of these days I went to the Georges Pompidou Center to watch some videos made by Gabriela Fridriksdóttir, another Icelander, this one famous for her visual art and also for her prolific partnership with the singer Björk. In one of the videos from the Versations Tetralogy series exhibited during the 51st Venice Biennial (2005), a white slimy creature is expelled from a Björk made gigantic by several cloth sacks piled up on her body. The strange creature, crawling on the ground, is an unrecognizable Erna Ómarsdóttir. “Unrecognizable”, in this case, is redundant. This may be just where she is constant: her permanent changes of condition and her tireless artistic curiosity. At the end of the projection, during the public discussion with the videomaker Gabriela, I asked her about her exchanges with her friend and fellow citizen. Her answer was the best definition yet about the character in question: “Erna Ómarsdóttir is not an artist, she is an element”.
Around a table in the nice café bistrot Chez Francis in Montmartre, Paris, I talked with the element Erna Ómarsdóttir for Terra Magazine. In a voice adorning her frozen-land beauty and her translucent eyes, she resorts to my knowledge of French in order to ask the waiter for a glass of red wine. “But a dark red wine, not too crystalline, please” she adds. Far from the stage, she allows still being somewhat shy, despite having improved a lot over time: “Some time ago I didn’t know how to speak with people I hadn’t met, or in front of a group, and in school. I would become blocked. I used to be quite shy, but that has changed. On stage, I learned how to communicate with people.” Dance, she says, has played a fundamental role in this process of freeing herself. “I know it is cliché to say so, but dance has saved my life. Without it I would not know how to express myself. If I had not discovered this path, I have no idea where I would be today. I would be lost in space”, she says.
Apart from what her friends and artistic partners think about her, Erna Ómarsdóttir has also a way of seeing herself: “I think I am a sad clown, no doubt. I am romantic, dramatic, maybe a little sarcastic, but I am always looking for a funny style. I try not to be very serious about myself, not to judge myself too much. I do things without any fear of being ridiculous. I may even be so, but I love it. It’s a game. I see my work as a serious joke. I like to do things that are pathetic, I like to play on that borderline, to be where I wouldn’t dream of being, to obey my feelings and a certain intuition. It is good to have a balance, but there are things that press beyond any limit, things that reason tells me I should avoid, but that I feel I have to do even so. I like to run risks, to do things that are different, to be spontaneous. I like to amaze myself. It’s just theatre, but it is also part of my life.”
As a child, Erna Ómarsdóttir used to dance to the sound of old symphonies in the living-room of her home in Kopavogur, her hometown in Iceland, near the capital Reykjavik. Later on, she started making performances at the window, together with her brother. “The neighbors sold the tickets”, she says laughing. She tried some steps of ballroom dance, jazz, disco and ballet. At the end of her teens, she auditioned for a ballet school. “I was already a little old, the maximum required age was, I think, nine, but they accepted me because one of the ladies saw me dancing afro, and as they were not so rigid, I was eventually admitted.” At the dance academy in Rotterdam, Holland, she spent two years “suffering”. “They only taught technical perfection there. It was like a military academy. It was destroying my passion for dancing, so I decided to leave. They didn’t send me out, but told me something like ‘Maybe you’d better try something else’. They were horrible on this line.”
When she came to know the work of the French choreographer Maguy Marin, she understood what she could do with dance. Her incipient talent could be put into practice from 1995 on, when she got into the renowned school P.A.R.T.S. (Performing Acts Research and Training Studios) of the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in Belgium. “It was another mentality. We were a mixed group of students, ages ranging from 18 to 31, with different kinds of experience in the theatre, opera, ballet. We worked in different directions, nobody tried to force upon us a stereotyped pattern.” The Venezuelan choreographer David Zamprano, whom she met at P.A.R.T.S., had also a strong influence on her way of approaching dance. In 1996, together with four colleagues, Erna created the dance and theatre group called Ekka. “Every holiday, Christmas or any other one, we were doing something.” After her work with Tom Plischke in Events for TV (again) in 1998, she started dancing, in the same year, with the Flemish Jan Fabre. Erna took part in the performances The fin comes a little bit earlier this siècle (1998), As long as the world needs a warrior soul (1999), and she was the unanimously acclaimed star of the solo My movements are alone like street dogs, created for the Avignon Festival (2000). Due to its success and by request, the 30 minutes of the solo were extended to 50 minutes, and the performance became a hit in festivals and international theatres on a two-years tour. To the sound of songs by George Brassens and the Pixies, alone on stage with three dead dogs, Erna acted like a magnet for the audience’s eyes. “It was a challenge, but a pleasure too. I never knew if I would still be alive at the end of each performance”, she says.
Her work with Jan Fabre led to invitations by celebrated choreographers like Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Erna’s performance in the play Foi is a must), Ballet C de la B, Angelin Preljocaj, Meg Stuart or Sasha Waltz, and it also encouraged her to turn to her own creations. With the ingenious Frank Pay and other musicians and dancers, she became a member of the Poni group, an extraordinary blending of show, theatre and dance. With the Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsohn, she created IBM 1401 (a user’s manual) and The Mysteries of Love. With the dancer Damien Jalet, she performed in Ofaett (Unborn). With the Slovene Emil Hrvatin, she made We are all Marlene Dietrich FOR, a performance for 10 actors, musicians and dancers created for the Iceland Dancecompany. With the Poni group and Liven Dousselaere, she created the recent The Talking Tree.
Her interest in following less obvious paths made her do some work in Los Angeles, USA. “I always thought that Hollywood was not my world, too commercial. But then I thought, I was never there, so I will go and see how it looks like. I went twice, and it was fantastic.” In one of her visits, she was invited to take part in a video clip for the Placebo band, with the actor Harry Dean Stanton, directed by the praised Icelanders Stefan Arni and Siggi Kinski. The prejudice against American productions disappeared on the spot. About the actor Harry Dean, she says: “We were friends at first sight.” About her experience: “I am very lucky to be able to follow different paths, always using my dance.” Her house, in Brussels, Belgium, is a port of call for the constant tours in European cities. Next Sunday, June 10th, she will be performing with the Poni group in Parc de la Villette, Paris, at the eclectic festival Villette Sonique.
After an almost two hours talk, the interview comes to an end. “My God, did I speak all that time?” wonders the former shy woman. Erna Ómarsdóttir is a dancer, a choreographer, an artist and, no doubt, an element on stage. Her character and her work, that in her own words mingle on stage and in life, seem to embody a poem by the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886): “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,/ One clover, and a bee,/ And revery./ The revery alone will do,/ If bees are few.”