Ingri Fiksdal’s STATE: exploring the role of dance as ritual in society

Ingri Fiksdal: STATE Photo © Anders Lindén.

A collaboration between the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fashion Resource Center and Fashion Design Exhibitions and Performance departments facilitated the presentation in Chicago of two of Norwegian choreographer Ingri Fiksdal’s works, STATE (2016) and Diorama (2017).  Both explore the role of dance as ritual in society, the former from the MCA’s stage, and the latter out of doors in front of Chicago’s now iconic Cloud Gate sculpture.

The cold, rain and sleet, made attending the performances of Diorama – running from February 11 – 13 – a rather less appealing option than attending STATE, which ran at the MCA from February 7 – 10.  The objective of both pieces is to experiment with the interaction between performer and audience, a goal that is ultimately not achieved in STATE.  

The dancers, musicians and technicians are plainly visible, making last-minute preparations for the performance, as theatre-goers walks into the auditorium.  The audience is seated on stage around the performance space. Throughout the show, the artists only leave the area for very brief moments, making the act of changing in an out of costume a part of the visual experience.  

Ingri Fiksdal: STATE Photo © Anders Lindén.
Ingri Fiksdal: STATE Photo © Anders Lindén.

The dancers use all of the open space within a square area delineated by the musician’s tables on one side and rows of audience seating on the other three sides.  Although on stage, there is little difference between this set up and that of any other theatre-in-the-semi-round. The dancers are within close proximity of the audience, but to say there is engagement between audience and performer in any sense, other than the traditional relationship of viewer and viewed, is misleading.  

There is never a moment that the audience actually becomes a part of the show or the ritual being practiced on stage. The public maintains an entirely passive role throughout the 100-minute performance that begged for an intermission that would never come.

Fiksdal and dramaturg Jonas Corell Petersen claim to “envision the ritual dancers of our future,” and question “the role of dance in society.”  However, the piece doesn’t alight on any tangible conclusion. Instead, it portrays what we’ve pretty much come to expect from ritualistic dance: a great deal of repetition, cyclical movement patterns and even aggressive or spasmodic displays.  

Ingri Fiksdal: STATE Photo © Anders Lindén.
Ingri Fiksdal: STATE Photo © Anders Lindén.

Fiksdal’s source material, “the dystopias of Phillip K. Dick, Nordic Mythology and global folk dances,” are at least evident if not entirely convincing.  The oppressively low lighting gives the entire piece a grainy patina and an unrelentingly dark mood. This combined with the noise score – so popular in contemporary performance – composed by extreme-metal artist Lasse Marhaug, successfully create a postapocalyptic trance.

There is some beautiful imagery that manages to transcend the otherwise jarring mise-en-scène, and most of it comes at the hands of the production’s costume designer Henrik Vibskov, as much of the imagery depends on the movement of the fabrics and how the dancers manipulate them.  

The dress is as an important element to ritual as movement and the music and sounds that accompany it.  At the beginning of the piece, dancers cover themselves with grey blue cloth, at first crouching together to create a large block, then slowly splintering to send small fragments across space.  With that same fabric, the act of kneeling and maintaining the head and body rigid makes each covered dancer look like a woman hidden beneath a burka.

Ingri Fiksdal: STATE Photo © Anders Lindén.

Beautifully, large pleated skirts with vibrant prints bob back and forth and up and down in one choreography, then unwrap to create long swathes of cloth that are manipulated like flowing shawls.  The image of the whirling dervish comes and goes, you can see a matador’s cape and the long, flailing, gnarled fibres of African tribal masks.

The color palette and texture that the costumes add are, to a large extent, STATE’s only saving graces.  Everything else seems to fall short in a show that is too long, too dense and unsuccessful at “conjuring a ritual for a future society where performer and spectator are equals,” as the program notes claim.

Reviewed on 7th of February at Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art