A perennially influential figure both nationally and internationally, Henrik Ibsen set most of his plays in his native Norway yet wrote many of them during his years in Italy and Germany. Norwegian National Ballet (NNB) has already created several works based on Ibsen, and recently teamed up with the Norwegian National Theatre to commission a chamber dance-drama by Ingun Bjørnsgaard that draws on the plays he wrote in Munich: Rosmersholm, The Lady from the Seaand Hedda Gabler.
Bjørnsgaard, a choreographer of long standing with her own dance company, has two Ibsen works to her credit – Book of Songs(2002) and Hedda(2013) – and like Ibsen has an intuitive interest in the crosscurrents between the public, domestic and private worlds, particularly in relation to the contradictions they engender for women, and that women engender. Called simply The Munich Trilogy, her 75-minute work strips out the narrative to set forth instead a triptych of portraits of Ibsen’s principal women: Rosmersholm’s free-thinking Rebecca West; Ellida Wangel, whose character is associated with a wilder past and the sea; and Hedda Gabler herself, caught in the International cross-hairs between passion, ambition and delusion.
The downside to that approach is loss of backstory. An actress (Andrine Saether) is deftly woven into the choreography, but also speaks her fragments in Norwegian so I cannot tell what difference her words make. The dance, meanwhile, is essentially a duet for Camilla Spidsøe and Ole Willy Falkhaugen (both former NNB dancers with considerable gravitas and maturity), with Spidsøe portraying each of Ibsen’s women in turn, and Falkhaugen playing both the maid and the husband in Rosmersholm, the husband in Lady from the Sea, and the former lover in Hedda Gabler. Unless you read the programme, however, you might take Spidsøe for a single character in different costumes. As for Falkhaugen, his characters are not even named in the programme.
Yet accept this indeterminacy, and what emerges is an intimate, enigmatic work sometimes frustratingly ungraspable but often poetically suggestive. Thomas Björk’s set – a domestic interior with curtained windows, a table, living-room chairs – looks plain enough, except that to the right you see an almost mirror image of it, turned sideways and tilted onto a slope. Thus the setting foreshadows the theme of dual perspectives on a single world. Likewise, when the lights come up, the room which had looked walled and shuttered, is revealed to be open: there is light beyond the curtains, empty space between the windows. This too foreshadows Bjørnsgaard’s women, all caught between the enclosed and the unbounded.
In the Rosmersholmscene, Spidsøe is an intruder into an ordered interior, picking her way around the room, a physical contrast to the settled quality of the accompanying musicians, playing Haydn at the table. Falkhaugen is initially in an apron (as the maid, Madam Helseth), a sidling but stern figure. Their pas de deux heightens their differences: she is precarious, he controls. Falkhaugen re-enters, now as a man (Johannes Rosmer), and their duet emphasises the distance between them: they appear in different windows, at different doors.
In the next scene, Spidsøe seems to come from far away, entering from outside, in underwear, mists around her feet; Falkhaugen, meanwhile, is at home in a suit. She spreads stiff arms and he carries her like his cross to bear. She is needy, legs clasped almost stranglingly around him. They entangle without cohering, snagging against each other, eyes rarely meeting: bodies intimate, souls miles apart.
The final scene (Hedda Gabler) is no less bleak. Falkhaugen places a vase of flowers centre stage, and Spidsøe “becomes” them, donning a floral gown and struggling on the floor, as if she too were cut from her natural home and stuffed into a drawing room for decoration. She fires a pistol at the air, the window, the ceiling – at her world itself; Falkhaugen reacts, as if stricken. Once again, the protagonists inhabit one space but different planes, his as steady and familiar as the Haydn string quartets, hers as elusive as the brooding background music that Bjørnsgaard weaves through the scenes.
It is a poetic work, ripe with symbolism and – like Ibsen’s women – bleakly suggestive of ungraspable inner lives.