NEOARCTIC IN WASHINGTON, DC
NEOARCTIC US PREMIERE AT THE KENNEDY CENTER WITH GREAT REVIEWS
In February, 2019, we had the great pleasure of performing NeoArctic at one of the most important venues in the United States. We did four shows at the Terrace Theater as part of the World Stages Programme – with full houses of highly engaged audiences, in collaboration with the wonderful Kennedy Center staff.
We received great reviews – read quotes below and full reviews to the right.
The Washington Post
»Hotel Pro Forma’s “NeoArctic” is both virtuosic and a little incoherent.”«
»The main draw, for many, was the Latvian Radio Choir, a venerable ensemble with a cult following, whose luminous singing, along with mesmerizing videos by Adam Ryde Ankarfeldt and Magnus Pind Bjerre, were certainly the strengths of the evening.«
»Yet “NeoArctic” attested to the risks of the enterprise. Bringing out the inherent contradictions of aestheticizing such an unpretty topic«
DC Theatre Scene
»NeoArctic – disturbing, challenging and strangely beautiful«
»In short, in the space of 80 minutes, the multi-media NeoArtic asks us to journey with the work in a disturbing yet also strangely beautiful and elegiac investigation into what science writer Elisabeth Kolbert has termed the earth’s “sixth extinction.”«
»But, if you are of that important, intrepid group of adventurous theater-goers who seek out cross-disciplinary work or an arts enthusiast who cares deeply about our environmental crisis, this is one you may not want to miss.«
»Evocative. Contemplative. Fragile. Disturbing. Mesmerizing. Immersive. These were some of the words audience members used to describe their experience.«
»Compelling and emotionally satisfying.«
»Together this creative team showed a remarkable cerebral energy and talent in the work. No thrown together performance art piece, as lamentably such art often is, there was a process at work here driven by the highest rigor in the incorporation of the various disciplines.«
»And for Earth’s sake, experience this work.«
»NEOARCTIC a Feast for the Senses«
»An intensely collaborative piece, NeoArctic features a barrage of images, light, costume, discreet movement and intensely beautiful chant from the Latvian Radio Choir, to create an evening that is as evocative as it is new. «
Hotel Pro Forma’s “NeoArctic” is both virtuosic and a little incoherent.
Many feel the need to justify art these days, and one of its raisons d’être is supposed to be its social conscience. Plenty of great works have been made in a spirit of political statement, from ancient Greek comedy to Picasso’s “Guernica.” Nowadays, this statement is seen almost as a mandate, egged on by such institutions as the Kennedy Center, which keeps coming up with series that seek to anchor art in a wider context, albeit in terms so broad that almost any work of art could fit.
This season, “The Human Journey,” a project with the National Geographic Society and the National Gallery of Art, addresses — I won’t even try to paraphrase — “the migration of people and the resilience of humankind to overcome conflict, adversity, prejudice, and injustices, often emboldened by a spirit of exploration and hope.” Climate change is a part of this journey, and it was the subject of “NeoArctic,” a music/theater/video piece that premiered in Latvia in 2016 and was at the Kennedy Center for a four-day run that ended Saturday night.
The challenge of such a big topic is to find ways to engage the viewer. The creators, an international artistic collaborative called Hotel Pro Forma, broke the current Anthropocene era down into 12 units in three categories, each of which got its own song and video collage. “Grain” included “Minerals” and “Dust,” “Vapor” included “Turbulence,” and “Ray” included “Electricity” and “Colours” (sic — with text by an Icelandic poet, Sjón, and music by a British and a Latvian composer, Andy Stott and Krists Auznieks, the English lingua franca of this work had a denfinitely British accent). The main draw, for many, was the Latvian Radio Choir, a venerable ensemble with a cult following, whose luminous singing, along with mesmerizing videos by Adam Ryde Ankarfeldt and Magnus Pind Bjerre, were certainly the strengths of the evening.
What was missing was a connecting thread between all of the moments of excellence. The singers were costumed in bulky traveling clothes and made their way laboriously
around a stage draped in white cloths (a surface for the projections) and strewn with small obstacles so that, in the song “Mud,” it was easy for the videos to make them appear to be stuck in it, as the music offered viscous sucking noises. At one point in “Colours,” a solo female singer was shrouded in the white cloths, evoking various immobile female forms — the Venus de Milo; Lot’s wife — while singing radiantly into the emptiness. The poems Hotel Pro were of that beautiful abstract quality that can sound unendurably pretentious when isolated as white texts projected beside the stage, sung in lightly accented English by various groupings of the 12 singers. The soundscapes were distinct for each song, clouds of taped sound layered with the amplified, crystalline voices. But over an hour and a half, the vignettes merged into a hazy tapestry, a background that resisted deeper engagement. It all added up to an evening that was at once virtuosic and, sadly, boring.
There can certainly be powerful and meaningful work about climate change: The oeuvre of the composer John Luther Adams, whose 2013 “Become Ocean” won both a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize, is one eloquent testimony to that. Yet “NeoArctic” attested to the risks of the enterprise. Bringing out the inherent contradictions of aestheticizing such an unpretty topic, it became itself all too often merely hyperbolic: more a thesis, in the end, than a coherent evening of theater.
Review: WORLD STAGES’ NeoArctic – disturbing, challenging and strangely beautiful
Temperatures dropped sharply inside the Kennedy Center last night; they rose again exponentially. There were other, sometime violent, meteorological disturbances. In short, in the space of 80 minutes, the multi-media NeoArtic asks us to journey with the work in a disturbing yet also strangely beautiful and elegiac investigation into what science writer Elisabeth Kolbert has termed the earth’s “sixth extinction.”
Speaking of weather, the Terrace Theater at times felt a big draft, as a stream of impatient or underwhelmed audience members got sucked into exiting. But, if you are of that important, intrepid group of adventurous theater-goers who seek out cross-disciplinary work or an arts enthusiast who cares deeply about our environmental crisis, this is one you may not want to miss.
Evocative. Contemplative. Fragile. Disturbing. Mesmerizing. Immersive. These were some of the words audience members used to describe their experience.
Director Kirsten Dehlholm has tackled a behemoth theme in this work with her company Hotel Pro Forma in what she herself spoke of as the hardest work she has ever done. NeoArtic has taken the company three years to achieve its heavily conceptual vision.
To mount the work, Dehlholm assembled a most talented, even brilliant team of collaborators at the Hotel Pro Form (HPF), an international production house dedicated to large-scale performance art projects. Chiefly, the highly talented and vocally gorgeous Latvian Radio Choir, led by Kaspars Putninš, that has been an important Latvian cultural institution since 1940 in the landscape of that country’s rich vocal tradition, grounded the work in sustaining the human scale.
The aural landscape that the twelve singers from the choir provided on stage throughout the evening was guided by Putninš, not so much conducting but seemingly using his hands like a Magus to pull out of the air and shape the vowels coming across the space from the stage and sending them like meteor showers out to the audience. The purest of vowels creating shimmering sonorities, strange haunting intervals and “impossible harmonies, and chants that begin to throb subliminally are this group’s hallmark sound.
NeoArctic was organized into twelve songs, divided in their composition six-and-six between two composers distinct in their compositional approaches. Andy Stott is clearly both composer and “techno geek” with a gift for compiling environmental and techno-tracks into complex, layered electronic scores. Krists Auznieks, who was on hand for the performance, is a composer well versed in setting choral music and songs. His work stood out, giving the performance its clearest moments of emotion. He allowed the singers to bring in humanity, and in his musical gems, certain songs began to tell a story.
Additional collaborators included Icelandic poet Sjón as librettist and Pakistani-German costume designer Wali Mohammed Barrech, making this truly an international creative team. The contributions of these two were keenly important to my experience of the work.
In setting the words of the piece’s organization of 12 songs, Sjón provided the framework with different emotional tonalities so the other artists could respond, and in turn gave us, the audience, important handholds. Some of his text rolled out to the audience like precious koans floating above the flotsam and jetsam: “The home you leave is never the home you return to…” and “How many hues of blue can you live without?” Compelling and emotionally satisfying. Most of us humans are, after all, language blessed and language bound.
Yes, alas, how can a reviewer even describe the evening, the experience was such a personal one as a ‘scene’ unfolded with each song? Better to list: Plastic, Dust, Mud, Minerals, Infinity, Respiration, Turbulence, Chance, Electricity, Temperature, Optics, and Colours (a & b.)
Barrech’s costume designs were an inventive and eclectic assemblage of capes, hoods, rubber boots and gloves, and visors that had the humans on stage reminding me at times of Mongolian tribesmen and at others seemed to evoke hazmat workers, perhaps landed in the future from some other planet, sent to test the apocalyptic landscape of earth.
The lead character of the show is Earth herself, not impersonated, but a presence depicted sliced and diced on the giant screen through various manipulated video mappings and documentary footage. The first image which carried through the first movement “Plastic” was a rolling sea made up of a colorful, congealed plastics like a quilt covering our formerly ‘blue’ pristine planet. Floors, walls and even sky, it seemed were filled and brought the audience right into the endlessly shifting virtual world.
One of the most moving scenes of the evening was when the full stage was projected in white hills of snow and looming icebergs. The images drew us in (forever it seemed,) over this icy landscape closer and closer to the giant pinnacles. But then white began to break up, white walls ‘dropped” tumbling-down, and black holes appeared and spread. Soon the space was filled with blackness with only the tiniest isolated white ‘islands.’ This artistic recreation of the disappearing polar caps made me gasp and feel weepy.
Set designer Anne Mette Fisker Langkjer had used canvas tent-like shapes to create walls for projects and the same canvas to cover, if somewhat treacherously, the floor. (The half-blind (visored) singers were forced to pick up their wellington boots and carefully, almost monotonously, negotiate the tricky terrain.)
Video designers Adam Ryde Ankarfeldt and Magnus Pind Bjerre, inspired by Sjon’s text, added greatly to the power of the evening with their brilliant interpretation of Earth in the Anthropocene era. Together this creative team showed a remarkable cerebral energy and talent in the work. No thrown together performance art piece, as lamentably such art often is, there was a process at work here driven by the highest rigor in the incorporation of the various disciplines.
My question for the work is – as is crucial for any performance piece – about intent. If, as Derek Goldman, Co-Founding Director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, who led a post-performance discussion opening night, raised the issue of his (presumed) work’s intent to motivate action, then I would have to say the work on some level failed. Perhaps there were not enough handholds. Perhaps the subject felt too vast or the approach too impersonal.
Perhaps to answer whether the intent of NeoArctic was action, we should take our cue from Dehlholm’s spoken words. “I am actually fatalistic. I don’t see much hope.”
Yes, I came away as if we were experiencing a beautiful, terrible and terribly sad elegy.
But isn’t theirs a vital question so many artists working in several disciplines and forms today ask themselves, what can they/we contribute to the issue of global warming and other causes of environmental degradation?
I would urge artists and others impassioned by this critical issue to go more deeply with Derek Goldman and some of the artists at Georgetown University’s Davis Center on Friday Feb 15 at 11 a.m.
And for Earth’s sake, experience this work. There are only three more performances tonight through Saturday. World Stages brings to the Kennedy Center urgently needed voices.
BWW Review: Kennedy Center’s NEOARCTIC a Feast for the Senses
Although the Performance Art movement has been around for decades, it is still news when it comes to town. The idea of a heady mix of diverse arts-plastic, visual, musical, theatrical-has always been with us, but usually they are blended in such a way as to present a homogeneous whole.
Performance artists, on the other hand, prefer breaking the spectacle into discreet units, so that the audience is aware of the separateness of each contribution. This can dilute any intended effect, but it can liberate the mind of the viewer/listener in wonderful ways.
Kirsten Dehlholm, founder of the Danish production house Hotel Pro Forma, has brought her production of NeoArctic to the Kennedy Center for just a few nights. An intensely collaborative piece, NeoArctic features a barrage of images, light, costume, discreet movement and intensely beautiful chant from the Latvian Radio Choir, to create an evening that is as evocative as it is new. Each element has its gesture, each element attracts and distracts, and although the senses sometimes tip into overload it is an experience that reminds us the value of everything from air, to dust, to mud.
The piece is rooted in the fact that the Arctic is no longer a vast, impregnable ice cap, but is now an ocean. Ships easily sail the famous Northwest Passage, and prospectors are making plans to exploit oil that was inaccessible until our new age-which has already been given a name, Anthropocene, to reflect our role in the creation of new climate patterns.
The idea of a spectacle dedicated to global warming might seem slight, with all the charm of a 3rd grade play featuring your neighbor’s daughter in a polar bear suit; but Dehlholm’s careful work, rooted in both the science of climate change and the raw emotions of a natural world in flux, aims high and generally hits its mark.
The setting, by Anne Mette Fisker Langkjer, is deceptively simple at first; broad white sheets hung upstage, with rumpled sheets masking footlights across the floor. But once the piece begins, the sheets form a projection screen where video designs flood in-for each of the 12 chants. As the sheets begin to falter and bob, we are reminded of the massive ice cap’s melting, and projections of ice chunks, floating, speak to the destruction of one of the most important temperature-moderators we have.
The ensemble, members of the Latvian Radio Choir, enter in a fantastical array of costumes designed by Pakistani-German artist Wali Mohammed Barrech, which are woven with reflective tissues enabling the singers to glitter and glow. By the end of the performance they wear modified snow gear and become sites of projections themselves, with beautiful images of microscopic and embryonic life, all under threat.
The melodies vary wildly from Medieval-style plainchant to modern tone clusters of astonishing complexity and beauty, made all the more haunting by lyrics from Icelandic writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, also known as Sjon. Each poem is dedicated to one of three themes – Grain, Vapor and Ray – and in sparse, often repetitive language speaks to how precious even the most mundane particles of our world can be.
The song cycle’s music was created by two composers, England’s Andy Stott and Latvian Krists Auznieks (who, as our incredible luck would have it, currently lives in New York!). Director Dehlholm asked Stott and Auznieks to work separately, on 6 poems each, with a resulting variation in styles that can seem jolting and alienating for those whose concept of classical music is limited to the pathetic, centuries-old pablum of WETA 90.9. Stott’s work shows clear signs of influence from the Techno and House music scenes, with more than one moment of homage to Brian Eno’s experiments in ambient sound. Auznieks’s music is more traditionally focused, and his contributions as a result will sound more familiar to denizens of the Kennedy Center concert hall.
Another innovation here is the use of voice-generated electric sound, which created haunting reverberations and enabled the 12-person choir to interact and commingle with the sounds of their own voices, live. For those accustomed to the traditional static limitations of artificial sound, in which mankind confronts the boombox and loses, it is inspiring to see the technology finally put to its best use, under the careful musical direction of Kaspars Putninš.
A unique experience like this is rare–and because it is rare, I have one big suggestion for the curators of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages season: please have a pre-show talk, to acclimate traditional local audiences to the marvels they are about experience. A number of audience members, bewildered by the spectacle of NeoArctic, walked out, which represents a tremendous missed opportunity. Post-show talks are fine; if you are hosting a traditional performance nobody needs any preview. But when you are bringing in something this innovative, Kennedy Center audiences deserve an opportunity to explore new things by way of a brief tour of the glories to come.