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Interview with Jo Strømgren

Drawn to the Tragic and the Absurd

Jo stromgren in tok pisinby Jurate Terleckaite

December 2003

Jo Strømgren, 33-year old Norwegian dancer, choreographer, and director of  the Jo Strømgren Kompani (JSK), was in Lithuania last October to present the European premiere of “Tok Pisin" and a world premiere of film "Destination Moscow."

Author of more than 40 choreographic compositions and performances, Stromgren is regarded as one of Norway's most innovative and successful choreographers. After practising a number of sports, he studied dance and choreography at the Norwegian National College of Ballet and Dance. Later he worked as a dancer in the contemporary dance company Carte Blache in Norway and in 1998 founded his own production company.

Strømgren, who first appeared as a choreographer in 1994, uses an expressive and physical dance language, where elements from theatre, puppetry and film are blended into innovative dance productions. He shows a great variety in both style and content, often with original subject matter and his specific mix of dance and theatre and use of absurd humour appeals to a broad audience in Norway as well as abroad. Open to all genres, he has collaborated with jazz ensembles, contemporary dance companies and ballet ensembles. He has received a number of awards and tours continuously world-wide, both as a freelance choreographer and with JSK. 

Besides creating new work for his own production unit, he has also been commissioned to develop pieces for companies such as Carte Blanche (Norway), Norrdans (Sweden), Le Junior Ballet du Conservatoire de Paris (France), and Le Ballet de l’Opéra du Rhin (France) as well as numerous theatre and film projects. Strømgren’s most recent productions in dance are "When We Dead Awaken," " “Halfway to Reykjavik," "Halfway to Baku," “Antikvariatet," "Untiteld," and "Tok Pisin" and a film “Destination Moscow."

Jo Strømgren was interviewed by a Lithuanian journalist and dance critic Jurate Terleckaite during his tour in Vilnius.
Jo Stromgren in ThereWhat does it mean for you to be Jo Strømgren?
A strange question. Being able to work in a lot of different places, having personal ideas and making them happen. That is a luxury.

Are you happy with who you are and what you are doing?
I feel good with myself since I work a lot. I used to sit and think a lot, and now I think at the same time that I work. I feel very comfortable being constantly in the process of what I have been thinking about.

How many times have you been to Lithuania?
Perhaps ten times.

Why ten times?
I ask this question myself. I like Lithuania very much, but still don’t know why. There is something about Lithuania that I don’t understand. Even after ten visits to Lithuania, I am still curious. Lithuania is like Norway, a small country. In the big countries it is difficult to find an identity. For a foreigner it is more difficult to understand Lithuania's identity than in most other countries.

Are you attracted by particular cultural aspects, mentality or habits?
I feel very good in Scandinavian countries, Baltic States, Russia. Lithuania remains a mystery for me, and I don’t want to discover this mystery. I like to be somewhere where I don’t feel as if I am in the middle of a stereotype.

What have you received from the collaboration with Lithuanians? Do you feel enriched?
Yes. Lithuania is developing very quickly. When I came here for the first time, I thought: "This is very East Europe," but now this is almost Geneva! Nowadays, there are few places where you can experience a society changing as much as here. Most other countries are the same all the time.

Lithuanians have a different way of being professional, making things happen, in spite of a lot of problems. Each time we have been here we anticipate many potential problems, but everything has gone fine.

Because of Lithuanians or your enthusiasm?
If something doesn’t work here we have to take short cuts through the system. Lithuanians have a lot of experience with this process. In Scandinavian countries there are so many systems, but nobody goes through the system.

Why does the period of the Soviet regime and history generally attract you?
I am attracted to a lot of periods. I grew up with the idea that everything in East Europe was the same, associated with the Communists. All that we saw were stereotypes of Soviet life’s conditions. I was interested in exploring the Soviet phenomenon from different view points, from the Scandinavian view point which is different from the West European one because we are North countries.

What did you enjoy about making the film “Destination Moscow“?
When we were making the film “Destination Moscow” people were telling us that this or that was different about the Soviets. But we were not making a documentary and every movie has its own point of view. The movie tells a lot of what happened, but from a Scandinavian point of view. I was myself in Moscow in 1984 and 1986, but it was shocking seeing the centre of a totalitarian regime. I also wanted to study Russian, but I chose dancing instead. Well, I always kept this kind of curiosity.

What shocked you particularly in the Soviet Union?
It is like a shock you have when you get to a place like Paris. Paris is the cultural epicentre of things; just like New York is the economic monster of the world, and South Africa is the epicentre of apartheid. In Moscow I saw enormous propaganda everywhere I looked: grey houses, red posters. The whole city was like a big idea of power, inhuman in a way.

When making performances or film, you don’t have to be an expert in everything.  You have to have experience yourself. The interesting thing is how you see the material from the outside and have your opinion. For example, I am interested in geography.   I know so much about Latin America: I speak Spanish fluently; sometimes I think I have been there, but I haven’t!

You are interested in cultures and histories because you are curious or because you are interested in mankind? Or because it helps you to create?
I am mostly interested in the absurdity of things. Maybe because my childhood was filled with Walt Disney's stories. Mainly I was attracted by the tragic and the absurd. I lived the whole my life in Norway which is very civilised country without any problems at all, no problems to resolve or to fight, unlike former Soviet artists or now English working class artists or the Muslim population in France. They need to make things and to show, while I have nothing of that.  I live on a different planet. What I can offer is a point of view.

Jo Stromgren in The ArrivalIf you weren’t a choreographer, what you would be?
Anything that has to do about telling a story.

A writer?
I have a big respect for literature because it is a very difficult profession.

Well, all jobs done professionally are hard.
I like all that has to do with nonverbal communication.  It opens me up to intuitive things. Writing has more to do with the intellectual things – and that’s a different planet.

Where does your creativity come from?
I respect very much people who need to experience things to make them happen who may take one or five years to make a product. I am in a category that reflects things that are happening around. The source for the inspiration is always there. That makes me have ideas all the time. Sometimes there are good ideas and sometimes not. In the end, it is a nice contribution to cultural life wherever we are.

One of my drives is also to do things that aren’t part of the trend. Many choreographers are trying to tell a story through dancing. Epic dance was so far out of the trend during these last ten years. It is reactionary and not the avant garde. Others can do the avant garde, but I cannot.

I also like to be inspired by bad movies from the seventies.

What kind of music do you like to use in your performances?
The same music my grandparents used to listen to. Also Rene Gibson.

What are you working on?
" Peer Gynt," "When We Dead Awaken," "Little Ejolf."

What is the modern dance situation in Norway?
The last five years have been good. More people have accepted that we are doing something different from others. We can create personal things. We have many choreographers creating with different styles. It is a very good process. The Cultural Council has been focusing on this and has made funding available.

What do you think about the Lithuanian modern dance?
I saw too little of it, and it is difficult to create when one has little funding. I saw Lithuanians studying abroad and doing a good job. I feel the pressure to make intellectual things, but I just want to make banal, stupid performances.

What are your future plans?
I never played in a band or orchestra and I want to try it. My friends are in different bands, so next year we will create our little orchestra. We are rehearsing now, and we would like to play some emotional and passionate music, jazz.. I used to play piano.  Now I am learning the clarinet, bassoon, and flute. Others are trying to learn to play other instruments

Why have you chosen Ibsen for one of your performances?
Because he is writing about issues that are not related to a certain time.  He is not culturally specific.  Instead, he is very much out of time, more like a Greek tragedy than about drug problems in England in the seventies. So, in order to make the dance, I interpret.

In Paris, Berlin, or London, I couldn’t do what I’m doing because expectations are much higher. Here, I have a lot of freedom.

How do you feel about having become famous and travelling around the world?
My father was a scientist.  He was working in tropical areas every year. When I was 16 years old, I told my father: "I will never travel again." Since my 16th birthday I have never been abroad on holiday or like a tourist.

Do you have choreographers that you admire?
I really enjoy William Forsythe and Jiri Kylian, but sometimes I find that what they are doing is too perfect, and I find myself asking what to do with that. Sometimes I prefer not to watch too much.

Where is your favourite audience?
France because whether the audience likes the performance or not they know how to express it. It’s a good quality audience. They know how to express their opinions. They also have a great respect for artists. You are always treated very well in France. The most boring country must be Germany because the arts are like a consumer product.

And what about the audience in Lithuania?
The Lithuanian audience is quite critical.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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