For the first time in decades, I went to a song festival. It’s an Estonian tradition going back almost 150 years, and an amazing experience. This year’s event was not the “full” festival but the youth festival, with a particular focus on young composers, conductors and performers. (The full one is a bit larger.) Even so, there was a choir of 10,000+ singers and 50,000 people in the audience. Awe-inspiring, quite literally.

We were a bit late to the venue so we ended up sitting further back that I had hoped, among the trees at the top of the slope, and didn’t quite get the full impact of the ten thousand voices. So we’ll have to attend the next one again and be there earlier, to get an even better experience.

I have vague, distant memories of attending the festival as a small child. Somewhat more strongly I remember the extraordinary (in all senses of the word) “Song of Estonia” festival in 1988, attended according to some claims by a quarter of the population of Estonia. I was a callow child, uninterested in current affairs, but even I could feel history being made on that day.

We went to see the Miro exhibition at Waldemarsudde. Nice weather, nice walk, nice lunch at the café, another nice walk to a nice fika afterwards at Rosendal – but the exhibition itself was underwhelming. “Yep, Miro, black squiggles” was what I got out of it. I don’t know what was lacking – perhaps Miro himself is old news now, or perhaps the works just weren’t presented the right way.

Olivier Dubois – De l’origine

A dark scene. Two barely visible figures, in a field of indistinguishable black objects. With time we see that the objects are floppy and roughly human in shape. Dead bodies perhaps?

The two perform movements that I would barely describe as dance – more like crawling. This is accompanied by rumbling droning sound, somewhere in the borderland between music and industrial noise.

I’m no stranger to modern dance, and I don’t mind dark themes. But when I simply cannot see what it happening on the scene, I don’t find it “intensively mystifying and anguish-filled” (as a reviewer put it) but boring, plain and simple. The music, the lighting, the movements, the decor for this piece were all designed to give me a minimum of input, which is the definition of boring.

I can’t quite say it was contentless. There was definitely content and ideas and a message of some kind. It might be described as performance art perhaps, a philosophical commentary on life (or mostly death). But it was not dance, and it was not interesting.

The couple sitting next to us was so disappointed by the first piece that they left during the interval – so they missed the good part of tonight’s show.

Sharon Eyal – Half Life

A man and a woman near the front of the scene dance in one place. Their movements that are monotonous and strict, but also forceful and entrancing.

A group enters from the side of the scene. With minimal movements, barely moving forward, they approach the couple. When the group arrives, it encloses them and they become part of the group.

They are swallowed, but they survive. The rest of the piece is about the balance/opposition between the individual and the group.

The group and its movements swell and flow. One figure – a head taller than the rest – appears to be leading and subtly influencing them. Other dancers sometimes do something different but then return to the main flow. Are they forced to conformity by the group? Or are they experimenting and then returning to the comfort of the familiar?

The techno music is akin to the soundtrack for the first act, but this clearly actually music, and much more interesting. The dancers wear minimal skin-coloured costumes, which exposes their bodies as well as each distinct movement in Eyal’s exact, twisting choreography.

Half Life is absorbing and intense. Every moment is rich and beautiful. I can’t look away. I wish there was more of it

(Both photos are from the marketing material published by the Royal Opera.)

There is a travelling Tutankhamun exhibition in town, with replicas of all the contents of his grave.

Beautiful and interesting, especially the parts where the treasures were presented in heaps and piles just as they were found in the burial chamber. But it was all so bright and shiny and clean that it truly felt as fake as it was. It definitely did not feel thousands of years old.

I knew that pharaohs were buried with all sorts of treasures for the afterlife, as well as figurines to act as their servants. And I guess almost everybody is familiar with Tutankhamun’s burial mask. I was not aware, though, of just how many layers of coffins and shrines there were protecting his mummified remains. Inside the tomb were four shrines inside each other, then a stone sarcophagus, and finally three nested coffins. The coffins are iconic and often photographed, but the shrines were new to me.

We went to the theatre yesterday and saw Mio, min Mio at Stadsteatern. It’s been about 30 years since I last read the book so I watched it with fresh eyes.

The previous children’s/family theatre shows at Stadsteatern have been well worth seeing – we’ve seen Ronja Rövardotter as well as Momo (which apparently I never wrote about). This one was no exception.

The scenography was simple – a lot was achieved with simply light and shadow. The Faraway Land was a bit bland, perhaps, and so was the acting during the first half of the play, with more reciting than true feeling. The real focus was on the dark places that Mio traveled through, and those were truly dark and dreary. An intense and serious version of this story, rather than an adventurous one.

We went to the annual gingerbread house exhibition at the Museum of Architecture. The museum also had other exciting exhibitions and activities, such as chairs that could be spun.

The gingerbread houses were numerous, varied and interesting. Many were technically very impressive – such as houses that had almost no flat, non-curved parts, or houses tall enough that I would expect them to collapse under their own weight, but somehow they don’t.

I like modern circus. I like Philip Glass. I don’t particularly like opera, but I’m willing to listen to it if I get circus and Philip Glass to compensate.

We saw Philip Glass’ opera Satyagraha at Folkoperan. They combined the opera with a circus performance by Cirkus Cirkör. A surprising combination that worked surprisingly well: the two complemented each other, and the combination never felt forced. Performances of minimalist music can benefit some kind of visual complement – I’m thinking of Koyaanisqatsi for example.

Satyagraha deals with the early life of Mahatma Gandhi and the beginnings of his theory of non-violent resistance. Each circus act fit into the story and illustrated each scene much more tangibly than the music could possibly do. Balancing on a tightrope to symbolize passage through an annoyed crowd. a teeterboard act to illustrate a battle, etc.

Even so the performance was relatively… vague. Not concrete. It consisted not so much of events from those years in Gandhi’s life, as interpretations of feelings and associations around those events.

I wonder how much sense the opera would even make on its own. Probably not much at all, given that it is in sanskrit. But then again I don’t suppose “sense” is what opera-goers want and expect from opera performances.

Threads, nets and knitting have been recurring themes in Cirkus Cirkör’s performances in recent years, and they were part of this performance as well. It sounds gimmicky but again it worked really well.

The final scene initially made no sense to me but made a strong impression. Six actors walked in a circle, taking turns to push a giant wheel, thereby winding rope on it. A seventh actor guided the rope. It went on for a long time. Combined with the music, which for this scene was particularly minimalistic, the effect was hypnotic. I thought it mostly symbolic. Only later did I connect this wheel to the spinning wheel on India’s flag, and learn that spinning was an important part of Gandhi’s later politics in India.

The opera on its own would probably not have been enough to keep me interested for 2+ hours, and the circus acts were not impressive enough to fill a whole evening either. But the two together made for an interesting and memorable performance.

Simon Bolivar Orchestra with Gustavo Dudamel, at Berwaldhallen. Desenne, Villa-Lobos and Ravel. Desenne was a modern composer unknown to me; not particularly interesting. Villa-Lobos I had heard of but didn’t know much about. I mostly went there to hear the Ravel pieces.

Listening to great music with my eyes closed leads to a qualitatively different experience.

It’s not always possible. I can only get immersed in great music – not any particular favourite piece of mine, but music with emotional and acoustic depth. It has to be performed well. And finally, the acoustics are important – this just does not work with over-amplified concerts.

But when it works, it’s like magic.

When I see the orchestra, the music comes from the orchestra in front of me, at some distance. It has a location in space. It is outside of me.

When I close my eyes, the music comes closer, expands and fills everything. I am immersed in it. There is no more light or colour or movement, nothing to compete with the music. The music is no longer produced by people moving their arms and touching instruments. It simply exists all of its own. It is like a substance around me that swells and flows and shifts and pulsates, akin to an endlessly moving ocean wave in a world where gravity cannot decide which way is down.

This is my first week back at work and I was really in no mood to start working again, so I’m only doing half days this week. This afternoon after work we all went to Moderna Museet to see an exhibition of Yayoi Kusama.

There was less of it than I had hoped, and frankly I found her early paintings rather boring. Perhaps they would have been of interest if I’d gone there as an art student or journalist, trying to understand how she ended up creating what she has been creating recently.

The later, more abstract paintings were more interesting. I especially liked the “infinity net” paintings (go google them). Seen up close, the picture disappeared and instead the act of painting became visible. At medium distance it was just randomness, and stepping back further suddenly there was an overall structure to it.

Her large-scale dotted installations were most fun, especially the infinity themed ones. “Infinity Mirrored Room: Hymn of Life” was my favourite. A dark room with mirrors in all directions, filled with large paper lamps with black dots. The lamps changed colour, which made this installation feel more alive than the others. Somehow the sizes and colours and placement of the balls were such that the whole room felt welcoming and comfortable, whereas some of the other dotted infinity installations were more weird and alien.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – Hymn of Life.
Photo: Vegard Kleven/HOK. Licensed under CC BY 3.0

This Monday Eric, Ingrid and I saw Alice in Wonderland, a ballet at Kungliga Operan.

This ballet was originally created for and by the Royal Opera House in London and has now been exported wholesale to Stockholm, with the original choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, scenography, and everything else.

The performance was spectacular and wonderfully crazy, quite befitting Alice’s crazy adventures.

The costumes and scenography were fanciful and colourful, yet also stylish. I loved the ingeniously designed Cheshire cat – a giant cat of disconnected parts moved around by invisible dancers in black costumes. The fabulously choleric and bloodthirsty, blood-red queen was also memorable.

Alice herself was almost pale in comparison to the rest of the characters. But so she is in the book: she is an observer, pulled in to the craziness against her own will, rather than participating whole-heartedly.

I was a bit sceptical initially to the idea of making a ballet of Alice in Wonderland. So much of the book is about word-play and nonsensical use of language – how can you possibly translate that into dance? Surprisingly well, for the most part. A tap-dancing Mad Hatter in the middle of a ballet was nonsensical enough; a whirling and almost overwhelming dance of flowers was another.

The decorations of course played a major role in making the book’s crazy dream world real. The Cheshire cat was one clever solution; using projected video sequences for Alice’s falling through the tunnel and for her growing and shrinking was another.

I am no connaisseur of classical music so I cannot say much about the score, other than that I liked it, and that it fit the ballet perfectly.

It was a long time since I read the actual book and my recall of the plot is mostly based on the Disney version, of which I feel rather ashamed. I had no recollection of the scenes from the book that didn’t make it into the movie – the one with the Duchess and the Cook and the Pig Baby for example, which was wonderfully over-the-top and grotesque on scene.

I had also forgotten that the trial in the end of the story is about a case of stolen jam tarts. In this ballet version the plot line of a Knave of Hearts stealing jam tarts is extended into the real world at the very beginning of the story, before Alice goes down the rabbit hole. A gardener’s boy is accused of stealing a jam tart (while in fact it was given to him by Alice). And to complicate things further, Alice is in love with that boy, so we get a whole extra plot thread of young love. Rather unnecessary in my opinion, because it really doesn’t contribute to the larger picture, other than giving the two a chance to perform some quite romantic but boring but love duets.

But that’s a minor quibble; overall it was a wonderful performance that I really enjoyed.