By Elizabeth Waind
The phrase ‘Don Gnu’, in literal terms, plays upon the idea of the importance of both the individual and the collective, with Don referring to the individual, and Gnu to the herd animal. This is what Danish physical theatre group, Don Gnu, is all about.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Artistic Directors, Jannik Elkaer and Kristoffer Louis Andrup Pedersen, who are choreographing and performing in their upcoming show, ‘A Snowball’s Chance in Hell’, to find out what they have in store for us when it hits the stage at Aarhus’ BORA BORA next week.
Overcoming artistic limitations
For Elkaer and Pedersen, their concept is not easy to explain. “It’s an ongoing challenge because I think we are trying to mix in-between things – dance, physical theatre and film, and also circus and slapstick. It has been a big challenge to us to really describe what our genre is,” says Elkaer. “That’s why we call it ‘physical theatre’ – because that’s the broadest term.” The duo does not want to be limited by a single concept, but rather adapt to blend several together. There’s no doubt that this gives their work a unique and exciting edge.
(photo: Don Gnu)
‘A Snowball’s Chance in Hell’ is a performance without dialogue, inspired by silent movies, and is about the art of failing. “A lot of the plot is around trying to do a silent movie, and it’s not working. It’s difficult for us to really shut up. I’m trying to make [Pedersen] shut up, and it’s not always possible,” Elkaer jokes.
The show is described by Don Gnu as a ‘tragi-comic’ performance. “We try to find the seriousness in the humour, and the humour in the seriousness. It’s not always only one thing. It’s funny, but underneath funny, there’s something really serious… And the opposite way. When we can play with that in life, it brings possibilities of seeing it in a more open view,” describes Elkaer.
Surprises in unexpected places
Elkaer and Pedersen are both the choreographers and the performers in ‘A Snowball’s Chance in Hell’. Of course, this can raise extra demands. “We always have Christoffer Brekne as our eyes from the outside,” says Pedersen. Brekne is director of Visual Media & Dramaturgy for Don Gnu, and is working alongside the pair to create the show. The group sees the challenges that they meet whilst constructing the performance as a positive aspect of production.
“You have to embrace the mistakes, because it’s in the mistakes I think, often, what we are looking for… We are looking for the surprises, and they are happening in the mistakes,” explains Elkaer.
(photo: Don Gnu)
“In dance, when things don’t work, it creates a crack in the surface and in the filter that is often built between the audience and the dancers. So we are trying to create this crack to really play with reality. It is real human beings there, even though it is building up this filter of professionalism,” he elaborates.
Keeping humanity at the heart of it
So, what makes ‘A Snowball’s Chance in Hell’ different to other contemporary dance and physical theatre performances? “We are trying to communicate very directly to the audience. Often, if you’re not used to watching contemporary dance, it can seem far away for you; you cannot understand. We are trying to build this bridge for normality into this kind of craziness, so it’s not too abstract a universe,” emphasises Elkaer. Pederson adds: “We use a lot of humour in the way we work, and that also opens up for people to recognise, from your own life, that things can be funny.”
The audience can expect a very human element to the show. “We work a lot also with relation to the audience. They have an effect on how the expression is going to be. There is always some part improvisation… We allow some freedom, to keep this organic and human approach to it,” explains Elkaer.
(photo: Don Gnu)
The show is not simply translated from paper to stage, but is rather a work continually in progress, built piece-by-piece during rehearsals. “We do a lot of devising. It’s not a finished, written script. We write a lot about it and then try to put it away, and work action-based on it… We are always trying to surprise ourselves in the process,” Elkaer elaborates.
“It is about ending up doing something that you didn’t expect to happen. The chain reaction that takes you to another place,” emphasises Pedersen.
‘A Snowball’s Chance in Hell’ promises a performance with a difference, keeping the audience, and a connection to reality and humanity, at the heart of it. It is guaranteed to stretch your emotions, playing with both the humour and the seriousness of life, to present contemporary dance in a more honest and relatable light.
‘A Snowball’s Chance in Hell’ hits the stage at BORA BORA in Aarhus on November 15, with eight performances from then until November 25. For more information and tickets, visit BORA BORA’s website here.
Don Gnu will also be taking the show on tour in the spring of 2018. To keep up-to-date with further performances, and find out more about the group and their work, visit their website here.