The Nordic nations are having a definite cultural moment. From bestselling novels and gripping television drama to a brace of recent Eurovision wins, our neighbours on the North Sea are creeping cozily into the limelight. Sadler’s Wells new season of dance by makers from all five Nordic nations is shining a wintery light on the northern European performance scene. Some of the artists featured in the season – like Swedish ballet director Mats Ek – have longstanding international reputations and will need little introduction in London. Others – like Danish season-opener Mette Ingvartsen – are less well-known in the UK.
Ingvartsen’s previous work, Evaporated Landscapes – an installation piece comprising dry ice, foam and bubbles set in motion around an audience – was presented to delighted audiences last year in Manchester. The Artificial Nature Project extends the Ingvartsen’s curiosity about choreographing materials, this time using seven dancers to animate a vast quantity of silver tinsel slices.
The piece opens with a shimmering curtain of tinsel falling endlessly from the top of the stage. The stage behind is completely dark, the tinsel picked out by lights shone at a variety of angles. Viewed one way, the tinsel looks like stars shining in the night sky; a shift in the lighting suggests fireflies chasing through the air; another creates sparkles in the rain; yet another makes the tinsel flash and crackle like fireworks. This gentle opening sets the stage for the work as a whole – a visual piece where inanimate material can suggest a whole array of moving objects.
Over the next hour, Ingvartsen’s seven dancers manipulate the giant piles of tinsel into moving formations suggesting waves spilling over rocks at the beach, gushing fountains, sprays of confetti, falling rain, a bonfire. There’s an intriguing beauty to the way the masses of silver foil can be animated in such a variety of ways, and in how something so obviously man-made can be made to behave like phenomena from the natural world. The dancers are frequently invisible behind their tinsel mounds; The Artificial Nature Project is less a dance performance in the conventional sense and more like puppetry on a giant scale. In fact, the piece probably works best when the dancers are unseen, allowing us to enjoy the illusion of the tinsel transforming into different forms and substances without seeing the manipulations that lie beneath these effects.
Around two-thirds of the way through, the dancers leave the stage and return with four industrial leaf-blowers. These allow the tinsel to be animated on a larger scale; streams of tinsel shooting into the air, lit by a single red spotlight from above, now look like leaping flames – and it’s genuinely disturbing when one dancer jumps onto the pyre to stoke it with more fuel. The addition of the mechanical blowers changes the nature of the presentation, however, and removes the physical contact between dancers and material that is the enjoyable creative premise of the first part of the show. The blowers themselves are also uncomfortably noisy, and I missed the gentle ambience of the first half.
Overall, Ingvartsen’s latest work is a diverting experiment in stage animation, finding interest and appeal in the interactions between moving bodies and the stuff they move. Enter into the playful spirit of the work and it’s often captivating. A little less blowing in the last section and it would be quite enchanting.
Northern Light continues at Sadler’s Wells until 14 November. See sadlerswells.com/northernlight for more details.