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

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