Preview: NordDance festival, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s Cool Up North

Hip hop and street dance have taken very special forms in the Nordic countries and here in Scotland, as the NordDance festival in Edinburgh seeks to prove. By Mark Brown

JUCK by JUCK - photo by Linus Enlund.jpg
JUCK. Photo: Linus Enlund

To talk about hip hop is to talk of a music and dance culture with its origins among young African Americans in the Bronx area of New York City in the 1970s. Since then, however, hip hop music and the associated street dance has spread around the world, melding with local cultures as it has done so.

In South Korea, for example, B-boy dancers (that’s break dancers to the uninitiated) are among the best in the world. In France, as Mathieu Kassovitz’s remarkable 1995 film La Haine made clear, working-class youth from the neglected suburbs of Paris and Marseille have long expressed their anger, frustration and hope through hip hop.

Unlikely as it may seem, one can add Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen and Edinburgh, among other places in northern Europe, to the list of street dance centres. That is the premise, at least, of NordDance, a new, two-day festival of Nordic and Scottish street dance to be staged at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh next week.

Programmed by Morag Deyes, artistic director of Dance Base, Scotland’s national dance centre, the festival seeks to introduce Scottish audiences to Nordic groups they will not have encountered before. Alongside work from Sweden and Norway, the festival will also showcase Scottish artists Ashley Jack and Room 2 Manoeuvre.

So, why connect Scottish street dancers with their counterparts in the Nordic countries? “I’ve long thought that Scotland, as a culture, should be looking north instead of south”, says Deyes.

“I think we are a Nordic culture. We share with Scandinavian countries a sense of humour, a relationship with light and the idea that you don’t have to big and brash in order to be talented and good.

The director’s conviction that dance in Scotland connects well with dance culture in countries such as Sweden and Norway has been strengthened by numerous visits she has made to Nordic dance houses and festivals. It has also been enhanced by a series of exchanges that Dance Base has been involved in, taking Scottish dancers to Nordic countries, and bringing Nordic dancers here to Scotland.

It was during a visit to Ice Hot, the biennial Nordic dance showcase, in the Norwegian capital Oslo in December of last year that Deyes became convinced that street dance was at the cutting edge of contemporary dance in Scandinavia. “After decades of watching dance and being a dancer myself, the thing that really touched me was the urban dance,” she says.

Nordic street dance is, she continues, “super-interesting, for lots of reasons. One of those is the way the culture is translated.

“Usually hip hop culture is angry men and sassy women. That’s almost completely reversed in Scandinavia, where  it’s furious women and sensitive guys.

“The boys’ shows are about sensitivity, the guts and the heart of the thing. Whereas the women who are coming up are very in-your-face, new feminism and kick-ass.”

A prime example of those “furious women” is JUCK (which means “hump” in Swedish), a young Swedish company who present their eponymous show as part of NordDance. Comprised of young black and white Swedish women, the group define themselves with an uncompromising, no-nonsense manifesto:

“JUCK is a movement, JUCK is activism, JUCK is what the f***, JUCK is power, JUCK is dance, JUCK is not oops I did it again, JUCK is I don’t understand, JUCK is feeling, JUCK is sexuality. JUCK makes me want to go out clubbing with my friends. JUCK is.”

“It’s interesting the way the culture has translated”, says the director. “There is no Brooklyn, there is no race relations problem to the same degree that there was [for African Americans] in the early days of hip hop.

“So, they have to find something else to be kicking against.”

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast with JUCK’s bold, activist dance than LEAHKIT, a work by FRIKAR Dance Company of Norway, in which dancer Hallgrim Hansegard performs with Torgeir Vassvik, a famous joiker (chanter) belonging to the Sami people from the arctic region. The piece aims to combine contemporary street dance with the rites and rituals of the ancient cultures of Norway.

Elsewhere in this festival of six shows, the four-man B-boy crew of Scottish group Room 2 Manouevre satirise aspects of break dance culture in a piece entitled Without A Hitch. R2M’s artistic director Tony Mills is, Deyes comments, “very good at seeing the competitive side of B-boy dancing as a bit pathetic and wee bit sad.”

The director is aware that she is, “throwing down the adventurousness gauntlet to audiences. I’m asking people to buy tickets to come and see groups they’ve never heard of, from countries they might never have been to. But it’s going to be a very exciting two days.”

Deyes’s hope and belief is that this, the first NordDance festival, will prove to be the beginning of a growing culture of collaboration between dance artists on both sides of the North Sea. “This is the start of a relationship with the Nordic countries that Scotland should really embrace”, she says.

“For Dance Base this is a really significant moment, to be able to present something which is a combination of Nordic and Scottish dance. I believe that Scotland is a Nordic country. I really hope audiences will take up the challenge.”

NordDance takes place at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh on November 20 and 21. Details of the programme can be found at: http://www.dancebase.co.uk/norddance

This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 15, 2015

© Mark Brown

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