AUDIENCE MEMBERS napping on bunk beds; interpretive dancers and musicians in fanciful costumes and face paint; a relentlessly humble anti-capitalist affair as would warm Dave Hickey’s heart. You might guess this was some serious baby boomer performance art happening at Theater for the New City. But no: agit-prop hippie art is alive and well in Bergen, Norway, at BIT Teatergarasjen’s Oktoberdans.
Over the past few years on the festival circuit, talk of European belt-tightening and the perpetual American funding crisis has become perennial background static. But Norway has remained insulated from cultural budget cuts, leading to some head-scratching from audience members leaving the empty storefront where Happy Gorilla Dance Company (which counts among its members Jørgen Knudsen, from the influential, now disbanded Bergen collective Baktruppen) staged its Exit Strategies.
“It sounds like they’re trying to save the planet, from the richest fucking country on earth,” one artist said, laughing. “They probably got $100,000 to make this shit.” The idea of an “Austerity Chorus” in Bergen is an easy target. And yet I was kind of glad for the hokey idiosyncrasies of Happy Gorilla—there are worse things than being told mid-performance, especially in the midst of an international festival, that audience naps are welcome.
Happy Gorilla was in fact offering power naps during the day. I didn’t catch one of those, but found another way of recharging during Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine, Mette Edvardsen’s marvelously quiet takeover of the Bergen library. Kristien Van den Brande’s clear, alive eyes were deliciously close to mine, as she spent a half hour reciting Bartelby, the Scrivener from memory in this intimate work, in which, as Melville wrote, “privacy and society were conjoined.”
For Van den Brande, the experience is wildly different each time; “It is you who is reading me.” Privacy and society conjoined: this is the great promise of art, and perhaps especially live art. But how often does it work, especially at festivals, which are famously good at jamming up the circuitry? All of these encounters—satisfying, confusing, drunken, sublime—swirling around in a chaotic jumble. As festivals go, Oktoberdans is gently paced, balanced between formal presentations, installations, and site-specific events, including works by the choreographer Hooman Sharifi; the performance artist Steven Cohen; and the trio of theater and video artist Iver Findlay, choreographer Marit Sandsmark and musician Pal Asle Pettersen. Nestled between foothills and fjords, Bergen is extravagantly lovely, with a rather low-key personality. (I spent an extraordinarily long time at a bar one night listening to Oktoberdans attendees discuss boats and cabins, mentally substituting “real estate” and “work” in the hopes of staying with the conversation.)
“We can’t complain, not one bit,” said BIT Teatergarasjen’s adventuresome artistic director Sven Birkeland (though he did, after a glass or two of wine, tick off “issues in the honeypot.”). “Everyone else in Europe is cut like hell.” Birkeland has had his own difficulties in recent years: the loss of BIT Teatergarasjen’s space, putting the organization in limbo as they wait for a new home. Meanwhile, festivals like Oktoberdans are spread out around the city.
Sharifi’s Then Love Was Found and Set the World on Fire unfolded in the opulent Logen Teater, a stark contrast to the Iranian uprisings of a few years ago that prompted the work. “Half of the world is on fire,” the choreographer said when I ran into him at a coffee shop the next day. “And it will become more and more so.”
Cohen’s Title Withheld for Legal and Ethical Reasons, in which he punishes his near-naked body in an effort at communication, flanked by images of the Holocaust and bestiality and joined by a parade of lit up rats, took place, fittingly, in a former meat-processing plant. (The New York and Brussels-based theater artist and comedian Adrian Minkowicz, for one, wasn’t convinced by Cohen’s brand of disturbing manipulation: “It tries to be provocative—but in the end, he didn’t kill any of the mice. I’m sorry, but one of them needed to be smashed.”)
Findlay, Sandsmark, and Pettersen might have gotten the most awkward space for “a pretty/shitty study,” an in-progress work exploring themes around nostalgia. They were situated on a street undergoing heavy construction, in a tiny, crowded gallery that doubled as a spray paint store; teenage boys periodically edged into the room, staring warily at Sandsmark as she slid her body through fluid yet strangely robotic adjustments, caught up in the delicate web of a video and soundscore. It was all terrifically disorienting, and also weirdly calming. Privacy and society conjoined, indeed.