Today I attended a dance performance at the Oslo Opera House. I was intrigued by the description, a combination of Indian dance and music with Norwegian Black Metal. I bought a ticket, not quite sure what to expect.
Right from the start, the performance captured my attention. The narration explained that the Hindu call our current era "the time of darkness," a description that was echoed by the music of Vreid. The band members took the stage with their frenetic music, energizing the audience but also creating a serious, even somber tone. As two Indian dancers took the stage, there was a shift, but the shift was one of degree rather than tone. The dancers' movements, their use of their bare feet to drive the urgent rhythm of the music provided a continuation of the energy and chaos that the band had created. To this point, the performance was good, but with the emergence of Rukmini Chatterjee, the dancer who was also the choreographer, the performance took on layers of meaning that I didn't anticipate. Chatterjee is a mesmerizing presence; she communicates a strength and power that more than stood up to the driving rhythms of Vreid's music. Moreover, Chatterjee's facial expressions, which at times included eyes turned up so far that only the whites remained, reinforced the theme of darkness at the heart of this piece. Her strength combined with the anguish and pain that are part of both the ethos of heavy metal and the Hindu prophecies about the contemporary moment.
As the performance continued, I thought about the events of the last year in Norway, in which the issues of immigration and the shift to a more culturally diverse society have been key. Certainly one outcome of these challenges to Norwegian identity could be continued violence and conflict. And Questionings most definitely does not posit a "happily ever after" ending. Rather, it does what great art should do: provoke, challenge, and reveal. Yet, the piece also embodies the artistic and even philosophical shifts that can emerge from cultural collisions. As Norway deals with the aftermath of the events of June 22, 2011, it can live up to the stirring reaction of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg which drew from the traditions that have made Norway the home of the Nobel Peace Prize . . . or not. At least for me, that's what Questionings made me think about, in part, because it illustrated the ways that two strong cultures/traditions can be maintained side by side and even fused together in ways that don't lessen the power of either.
Chatterjee has a long relationship to Norway, according to her website, but she's from India and is a resident of Paris. Her work over the past decade has combined Indian dance with other types of music like flamenco and hip hop. I'm not sure what her intentions were in this collaboration, but, in my opinion, it was an incredible performance, one that I'll continue to think about.