Sunday, April 18, 2010

Arctic Ballet. Dance on Thin Ice.

After we posted the link for Angel of Uummannaq. The Arctic Ballet, we received many  e-mails from our readers with questions about it. People asked us about specific movements  – some translation is obviously required here -  and also about the meaning of the story behind the dance. That’s why I decided to return to this theme and explain in detail exactly what was going on. 

The idea to stage a little Arctic dance on the ever shifting and melting Greenlandic ice evolved from the regular activities of Uummannaq Music. As I watched our students leave the Music Room at Uummannaq Children’s Home after their daily rendezvous with Tchaikovsky and Bach, put on their polar bear pants and seal parkas, then run out and play in the snow, I could clearly see that they moved with remarkable levity, as though floating on air, almost weightless above the ground. They move very differently than European and American children when they play and run  in  parks and playgrounds on both sides of the Atlantic

Whether they were catching up with the dogsled or playing hide and seek in the icy rocks, Inuit children were not simply jumping and landing on the hard surface but rather flying in slow motion while gently touching the surface of the ground below.

 Since they were dressed in skins – polar bear pants and seal jackets - it looked quite surreal. Those who ever wore them know that they are heavy and restrict one's free movement - just like medieval  armor. 
Yet, even in these seemingly uncomfortable outfits, Eskimo children can run on thin ice without fear of falling through. For some reason, even the freshest and  therefore thinnest  ice  holds their weight up. If you’ve ever seen a video of a polar bear – the world’s largest land carnivore weighing 1,000 lb on average – running on the rocking surface of a frozen ocean, you would know what I am talking about. Inuit children are just like that. They glide above the sea ice.

It was only when I looked at their feet with precision that it occurred to me that the foot  is the root of the Eskimo walk on thin ice. Dressed in  a light and flat-bottomed  Kamik made out of polar bear skin, the foot slides above the surface almost without friction and makes the body seem to be weightless.  The kamik itself looks like a ballet pointe.

Like a pointe, a kamik also has no right or left, it can  be terribly uncomfortable when new and requires one to use the entire body for support, including the legs, back, and abdominal muscles.

The foot in a kamik is the root of the Eskimo walk and it is also the root of the dance. Except in Greenland , the dance like nipi, comes   not  out of leisure, but out of harsh necessity. Dancing on ice is not an entertainment nor a theatrical happening. Inuit people dance in order to stay alive. They dance on ice  to kill a seal, to catch a halibut, to drive the dogs, and to stay warm in a deadly frost. While the stage for their dance is a frozen ocean. 

 That’s how the idea of a dance on ice emerged.
Our young musicians from Uummannaq Children’s Home were strongly enthusiastic about it:  on sea ice they were totally in their element. Villagers were very supportive too. They  showed sincere pride for the dancers and immediately upgraded the humble name of the show to The Arctic Ballet. By the way, the first one in the history of Uummannaq.

 In the old Eskimo world, before European civilization arrived, words, music and dance were intimately connected.  They were connected like ice, land and sky are on a  foggy day when they abruptly lose their identities and boundaries as they become  blurred into one grand white entity.

A massive  fog suddenly descended on Uummannaq island when the Arctic Ballet was about to start. The milky clouds merged taking down at first the distant shores, then the frozen icebergs with cool(E)motion’s sculptures mounted on them,  and finally they hid  the top of the majestic heart-shaped Uummannaq Mountain.

It was the middle of the day, and it was getting darker and darker, the light was fading and the white fog mounded up until the entire mountain was gone.

The disappearance of Mt. Uummannaq was especially painful since it was to be our main stage decoration and it was chosen with great precision. We had no other, and did not wish a replacement.

As we stood  fully dressed for the dance, the white mist swallowed little boats in the Bay area and finally consumed the entire horizon.
As if somebody took an eraser on Photoshop CS and carefully deleted all the unnecessary things. All the boundaries had disappeared. We stood tête-à-tête with the great whiteness, which does not know either past or future, only the seemingly endless moment of the present.

Sky, Ice and Land were one thing now.It felt like the End of the World.

And this was the stage for our Arctic Ballet.
However, our cameraman, the French cinematographer Bertrand Lozay did not see it exactly this way – like the End of the World , or the end of our perfectly designed Pilersaarut (“plan” in Kalaallisut). Instead he saw it as an opportunity.

We made a quick decision to climb up the mountain and shoot from above.  You will see the dance the very same way as we saw it from the icy rocks on that foggy Sunday afternoon: as a white canvas waiting for a metaphor. Everything is this world was frozen in place except for the dancers. They were the only beings moving.

As the clip starts, you will see Ole Jorgen Hammeken, silently emerging from the Great Whiteness, the circle of the girls in the middle and a straight line of the boys standing still behind them.

The boys, of course, are the treacherous   tupilaqs:  they see everything and possess unusual powers but do not intervene until the moment arrives.

With the first sounds of the music the girls start moving in a circle imitating the flight of the Great Northern Diver –  a local  Arctic bird that  according Eskimoic beliefs also possesses great magical powers and grants  protection in case of imminent danger and even death.

Pipaluk Hammeken, a serene and humble beauty in white skins and grey kamiks, is “the beak” of the Great Northern Diver.  The girls behind her, on both sides, are the wings. The Great Northern Diver circles above the sea ice looking for its prey, flies straight ahead like an arrow and finally plunges  down into the sea as it catches it. The moment  of a kill is extremely important:  the excitement of catching a prey instantly transforms  into the serenity of the prayer to the Mother of the Sea. The girls kneel down on the ice and ask her  for humility and forgiveness while the boys – the unpredictable  tupilaqs –  agitate and echo them in their prayer.

The Great Northern Diver is another word for a duck, but in the Eskimo world it is also a word for hope. Hope is important in Greenland, because on the ice cap you can’t survive without it.

Sassuma Arnaa
Isumakkeerfigisigut Ilisimaassutsitsinnik…”

As the girls kneel down, they whisper these words along with our female and male voices, Pipaluk and Ole Jorgen Hammeken, the dog sled drivers.

“Sassuma Arnaa”  means “Mother of the Sea”.  “Mother of the Sea, please forgive us for our ignorance…”

In the olden days Eskimo hunters would walk far into the frozen sea and gather in a “dance hut” around the hole in the ice that resembled a seal’s breathing polynia.  Then they would circle around it and chant, get on their knees, peer into the polynia and ask the Mother of the Sea for forgiveness.

The Eskimo believed and still believe that  Sassuma Arnaa sometimes gets mad at humans for their stupid behavior and hides all the sea creatures from them under her sleeping platform at the bottom of the sea.

Sassuma Arnaa
Isumakkeerfigisigut Ilisimaassutsitsinnik…”

They don’t ask to forgive their sins.  There is no notion of a sin in the Eskimo culture. Only qanuallit – white people -  know and have sins. The Eskimo ask to forgive them for their ignorance…

As you watch the video, you will see other kind of beings entering and leaving the circle of dancing girls. Some are almost transparent, other have flesh on them but look more like shadows.

 To the Eskimo, a human being consists of body and soul which is invisible and eternal. Like the Great Northern Diver, the soul constantly travels above ice and water, in light and dark, meeting the invisible spirits that populate land, sea and air.

You can clearly see these spirits arising like mirages in our Arctic Ballet: there is a circle within the circle, the realm within the realm. You can see these spirits as they enter the reel of whirling girls, as they float in the air like drifting icebergs and as they leave as if they  never existed.  They appear and disappear. They come and go. Then they revisit, but never the same.

Some of these spirits are half-humans, other are half-animals. There was a time when the animal and human kingdoms were one. Wolves and snow foxes could turn into humans and vice versa. By the way, it’s still believed that polar bears were once a race of humans who became bears by dressing themselves in fur. But as soon as they enter their Igloo, polar bears take off the skins and become humans again…

In the last few days we received many e-mails complimenting us for choosing beautiful “costumes” for our children. I have written about it on several occasions, and would like to reiterate again that skins are not “costumes”. Skins are normal every day clothing in Greenland.  It’s not a fashion show, it’s a necessity. And it is still believed that we - humans - go inside the animals and become one with them each time we wear their skins.

Greenland is a land rich with metaphor, with adumbration. And the Arctic Ballet is a hymn to its complexity, vulnerability, sincerity and impermanence.

This hymn is both a dance and Nipi.

The flick of a whip, the squeak of the snow under the feet, the crackling sound of the breath instantly freezing in the air, the  dog sled drivers’ voices, their unsophisticated conversations with their dogs: “Taama!” (Go!) Ili Ili (Go right!), Iju Iju (Go left!), Ah-ta-ta (Go faster!), Aaach…(Stop!), the dogs’ howling and squealing, the melody of  the  prayer to Sassuma Arnaa, all of this  cacophony of sounds constitutes Nipi.

As you may have noticed when watching the video, they evolve from silence and then they return to silence one more time. Silence is a big part of Nipi.

It may be interesting to mention, that Uummannaq children danced on ice not only in the fog, but also in complete silence. Imagine transporting the piano on ice of the frozen ocean! All the soundtracks were added to the video later: on the other side of the world, nine time zones away from Uummannaq, Serge Morrell, our video and audio editor put all these layers of Nipi together in the midst of machine gun and grenade fire on the terrible morning last week that the bloody Kyrgyz revolution rocked Bishkek. From Uummannaq Island, we silently prayed for him and all other peaceful people in Bishkek, hoping that the Nipi of war, fire, hatred and destruction  would drown in the silence of peace as soon as possible.

Sassuma Arnaa
Isumakkeerfigisigut Ilisimaassutsitsinnik…

Mother of the Sea, please forgive us for our ignorance…

Photo: @Tiina Itkonen, @Bertrand Lozay, @Galya Morrell

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Transformation of the Angel

When Joel Spiegelman told me that he composed the music for Ummannaq and let me listen to it over the phone, I knew that the Angel was born. But as soon as we arrived to Greenland, I realized that this Angel was naked, or rather poorly equipped for life at the extreme edge of the world.

As Joel played his Angel of Uummannaq at Ann Andreasen’s and Ole Jorgen Hammeken's home just minutes after our arrival, the brutal northern wind lashed the walls making the miniature statues of Tupilaks vigilantly guarding the window quake.

I knew that our new born Angel would freeze to death if nothing was done.

Joel created a perfect Angel, but this Angel conceived someway between sunny Florida and sunny New Jersey, was not ready for the long Arctic flight above the tree-line.

His frail body was saturated with cold. His little feet were bleeding and sore. His breath was instantly freezing in the air, so that I could literally hear that crackling sound – “the whispering of the stars” - coming our of his little chest. The hard –baked Tupilaks were watching him with precision from their little surveillance station at Ann’s window shelf.

What should we do?

Should we dress him in skins and kamiks? Should we put polar bear pants on him and a seal parka?
It turned out that adding polar bear and seal skins was necessary but not enough. Our Angel still looked like a foreigner and still spoke with an accent. He was not cold anymore, but he was definitely a loner. And in the land of natural communalism, solitude is not a virtue, but rather a straight road to disaster.
He still was not ready to fly above the ice cap or beneath the sea ice. And neither he was ready to drive the dogs.

So I decided to wrap him in Nipi, gradually adding on layers of this wondrous fabric that exists only in Greenland – all the voices, all the sounds of speech, the cracking of ice, the howling of a wolf, the barking of a seal, the sniffing of a snow fox, the growling of a bear, all the daily conversations with all those little questions and answers, all the rumors, all the gossip, all the hints … in other words, all the "music" of the beautiful world of Uummannaq.

For days, inseparable from my mike, I was collecting sounds as thoroughly as only the Great Northern Diver collects dirt for its nest. Even at night, the mike slept next to me on my pillow, ready to record another nocturne of the dogs’ howling on a few seconds notice.

I was adding layer, upon layer, upon layer. Soundtrack, upon soundtrack…. 

The music in Uummannaq does not come out of affluence, it rather comes out of necessity. Like everything else here, Nipi is an integral part of the everyday battle for survival. I wrapped the voices of dog sled drivers around the Angel, like another layer of insulation against imminent death, “Taama!” - this strange word you will hear many times throughout the song means just this: “Go!” Go, or either die or freeze to death.

Pipaluk and Ole Jorgen Hammeken, the daughter and the father, whose voices I added to Joel’s music, are Eskimo dog sled drivers. Their little conversations with dogs and between themselves makes Nipi. For those who do not speak Greenlandic, I feel obliged to translate the refrain:
“Taama!” means “Go!”
“Ili Ili!” means “Go right!
“Iju Iju!” means “Go left!”
“Aaach…” means “Stop!”

It may seem that such unsophisticated talk should not be a part of a libretto, but as I have already said, the choice of words matters much more in Greenland than in the Old World: particularly, it may mean the difference between life and death.

Pipaluk Hammeken is only sixteen. She has many dreams for her future. But now she is a lead dancer in our Arctic Dance – you can see her figure in white making the “beak” of the Great Northern Diver on the ice of the Lake Uummannaq.

After the sound track with Ole Jorgen and Pipaluk was recorded, the turn of the old Eskimo drums arrived. Needless to say that the drum is a very special instrument in Greenland. In the olden days the drum – Quilaat – which can be translated as “the one that enables one to see Heaven”, was used by angakoqs to invoke other worlds. When  missionaries arrived in Greenland two centuries ago, they outlawed the drum and labeled the drum dancers as ultimate sinners. Needless to say, Eskimoic society does not even have a notion of sin.
So, the drums, and some other rattling, rustling and jingling sounds were added.

Yet, it was just not enough.

In Greenland, music and dance are intimately connected. Eskimo people create music with their feet. The foot in a polar bear kamik is the root of music. So, I thought if our Angel wished to be a Uummannami local and not an outsider, he should dance too.

Eskimo people, like polar bears can walk on thin ice. The qanuallit – white people – can not. For days I was watching our young musicians walking and running on the ice and each time it looked like a dance. So, I thought our Angel should learn from them.

This is just a short preamble to how the idea of the Arctic Ballet on ice was born.
But the idea in Uummannaq means absolutely nothing unless it is shared and liked by everyone else, by the entire community. In other words, in Uummannaq it takes a village to stage a ballet.

To begin with we had to find the perfect stage. But no matter how strange it might sound, there was none in sight.

Siku (sea ice) usually comes to Uummannaq in September and stays till late April. But this year winter has not come at all, neither did siku. Should we stage out ballet on a flat iceberg that sat right in the middle of the Uummanaq Harbor? Or should we use the runway in the local heliport from which the majestic panorama of Uummannaq Bay opens up? Rumors spread in Uummannaq with the speed of lightening. In a matter of hours, everyone in Uummannaq knew that the Arctic Ballet, the first one in the history of Uummannaq, was on its way. Everyone was offering help - pilots, hunters, and even local doctors. There was no lack of suggestions.

We decided to launch a little reconnaissance expedition that included the French filmmaker, Bertrand Lozay, Sigrun Andreasen, Ann’s sister from Copenhagen, and myself. After having sunk through the snow up to our chins and taken a ride on a floating piece of ice which was surreally beautiful but too dangerous to risk innocent lives, we finally settled on the ice of Lake Uummannaq. This place had the best built in scenic decorations we could find. On one side there was a bay with breathtaking icebergs that were constantly changing their color as the light changed. On the other side there was Mount Ummannaq, the heart-shaped mountain after which the island is named.

We thought we had a perfect plan and could not wait till Sunday morning when the dance dress rehearsal and filming were scheduled. Everyone was excited – our children, social workers who work in the orphanage, all the visiting guests, and even the dogs…

Such was a view on Mt. Ummannaq from my window on early Sunday morning.

And this is how Mt. Uummannaq looked like when we arrived to Lake Uummannaq. In a blink of an eye, everything – the Mountain, the sapphire icebergs , and even the shores of the lake - disappeared in the thick fog that came from the sea. Dressed in polar bear pants, in seal parkas and in white kamiks, we found ourselves stranded on white ice, in the middle of a white cloud.

We had a plan, but as usual, Uummannaq had its own plan –  Pilersaarut – ready for us.

Could we reschedule? Could we postpone? Could we go home? Could we call off the rehearsal? We probably could, but then we could not. First of all, our children were ready to dance, with or without the cloud. They were ready to dance in the fog. Second of all, suddenly we realized that our ice hall was full: even though the invites had not been sent out deliberately in order to keep the event private, the spectators kept arriving from all sides.  Like ghosts, they were emerging from the fog, This scene was a surreal in its own right.

Everyone came. Locals, visiting guests from fifteen different countries, and even little Kasper, Tiina Itkonen’s 16 month old son from Helsinki chose to miss his nap and showed up on the ice of Lake Uummannaq accompanied by his music loving father Paavo. As it takes a village to stage a ballet in the High Arctic, so it is also takes village to cancel the show.

But the show had to go on. And it did.

In my next blog that is coming soon, I will concentrate on the details of the Arctic Dance and will explain what exactly was going on. I will talk about specific movements and techniques that require some translation, and the meaning of the story behind the dance.

But  now I would like to say a word about those who did not dance but who nevertheless were an inherent part of our Arctic Ballet. Everyone- from Ann Andreasen and Ole Jorgen Hammeken – to the hunters – and to the visiting artists from all around the world who came to Uummannaq on invitation from Ann and Ole Jorgen – was a part of it. We tried to count the countries – Greenland, DenmarkUSAFinland, France,  Russia, Holland ... Fifteen countries! It looked like a United Nations at work.

Ann Andreasen calls it Uummannaq’s Order of Things. Joel Spiegleman found another name for it which he borrowed from Wagner: Gesamtkunstwerk. In a crude translation from German, it means a piece of art that combines many different arts into a whole work that includes music, dance, song, chanting, scenic decorations, poetry, myths, and in our case even nature. Our French colleague - Bertrand Lozay calls it Art Total. In English, you can probably call it a multimedia project, but in Greenland we prefer to call it Nipi. Because Nipi has it all.

When we returned home and had our portion of a mattaq and halibut stew, Ann Andreasen pulled an old notebook from one of her numerous bookshelves. She handed it to me. “What is that?” I asked. “Arctic Ballet. The Silence of the Ice Dance.” - read the title.

It was a script that Ann wrote many years ago, soon after she arrived to Uummannaq from Faeroe Islands a quarter of a century ago. She dreamed about this ballet for many years, but she was always too busy with something else that was of a much greater importance. She was busy saving lives – literally – that’s why the notebook emerged only tonight when the Arctic Ballet suddenly became a reality.

I will talk about Ann’s dream in my next blog, because it constitutes a separate story.

For now, we all knew that Angel of Uummannaq was finally ready for his flight above the ice cap and beneath the sea ice. He was ready to drive the dogs. He was ready to guard us for life. 

Photos@Galya Morrell and @Tiina Itkonen