We continue to interview some of our most exciting performing arts professionals for the Performing Arts Centre Iceland podcast. This time, Salka Guðmundsdóttir was joined by not one but two guests, Brogan Davison and Pétur Ármannsson. As creative partners and partners in life, Pétur and Brogan are frequently referred to as a single and much revered entity here in Iceland – PéturogBrogan or BroganogPétur. Their contributions to the scene span different branches of the performing arts tree and they are known both for their creative output and, generally speaking, for making things happen. We caught up with Pétur and Brogan following one of the biggest events on the Icelandic performing arts calendar: Reykjavík Dance Festival.
Salka: You two took over artistic leadership in 2021. This year's programme was titled Feminist Futures and featured a great line-up of shows, events and workshops. Where do you begin when you build a comprehensive festival programme like this? What guides your programming?
Pétur: Having done it a couple of times before, there is a certain knowledge and a connection to the Icelandic dance scene and the performing arts scene. So some of the programming starts to become intuitive. We were kind of challenged with this title of Feminist Futures, which is a part of a bigger four-year program, a European network called APAP (advancing performing arts project). It's a festival that has travelled around all of Europe to 11 different cultural organisations and we were the last one to throw a Feminist Futures festival. So we've had some time to think about what ours would look like. For the international programming, there are issues kind of flying around both the social and cultural atmosphere of Iceland, so we try to respond to issues that we see or are maybe not being addressed.
Brogan: I just went back to the first year, 2021. Because we've been making performances together – that's our experience of working together, like 40 minute (performances) and I remember thinking: Wow, four days is really long to create a piece or a work … But yeah, this year with the Feminist Futures theme, this is a continuation from what Alexander Roberts and Ásgerður Gunnarsdóttir were doing when they were running the festival. It's about which bodies do we see and what bodies are we used to seeing on stage – not there's anything wrong with it, but we're very used to seeing young, fit, white, able bodies. Maybe we only become aware of it when we see disabled bodies, teenage awkward bodies, menopausal bodies, black queer bodies.
Salka: It's always refreshing to attend the festival, because although we've got a lot of international artists coming here, making their home and working here, there’s still not that many of us on this island, so the importance of festivals can't be overstated. You always come away feeling energized having seen all these new things.
Pétur: Yeah, and we have a pretty dominant theatre culture here in Iceland where the majority of funding for the performing arts goes into state-run theatres that are very samey, really – both in terms of aesthetics and approaches. Festivals are the perfect venue to explore ways to do things differently, to look different, behave different, address different topics and political issues and hold theatre's feet to the fire a little bit.
Salka: Who are you trying to reach when you programme the festival? I've mentioned how it's very nourishing for the scene itself. Is it aimed at the local performing arts scene or are you hoping to engage wider communities and how do you go about doing that?
Pétur: We can be as inclusive as we want and do our inclusivity projects, but if people don't see themselves represented on stage, they're not going to be interested in my idea of how inclusive I am. You have to do the work and give the stages to everyone. I think that brings in a really diverse and exciting crowd that reflects the society we live in.
Salka: Fantastic point. I remember talking to a very wise woman who works in theatre and she was talking about the threshold for getting into professional theatre for people from under-represented groups. She had been told by theatre authorities: Oh, but these people aren't knocking on our door. And she said, yes, but they are not appearing on your stage, so how would they know that they could be knocking on your door?
Well, while you two are based in Iceland, you do have very different backgrounds. Pétur, you are an Icelandic graduate of the Iceland Academy of the Arts, while Brogan originally comes from England and did a BA in Dance Theatre at Laban in London. You also have an MA from the DAS Theatre course at the Amsterdam University of the Arts. Together you have toured extensively with your work. So is the international dimension something that has been important to you both from the beginning? Do you perceive yourselves as part of a wider community?
Brogan: For us, working internationally has been a way to survive as artists based in Iceland. So it's really important to us and it’s a question of sustainability. Also existential sustainability! We were quite lucky with the first piece we made, which was a duet between myself and Pétur’s dad. We talk about it like an accidental project, because originally we were just going to make it for Ármann, Pétur’s dad, who had a 15 year dream of dancing contemporary dance on stage. He asked me if I could help him and we made this piece together and showed it in Akureyri, and by luck Ragnheiður Skúladóttir who used to run Lókal festival was there, and through that we ended up touring it for eight years and Ármann had to quit his job as a music school principal to become a professional dancer. Being part of this international community was just amazing because we could see things when we went to festivals, we would meet people, that would mean we could start a dialogue about future projects and that is really how we were able to work as artists for as long as we did. We have now had to step out a little bit, because frankly, it is so difficult here. We have a kid and a mortgage and I just don't think there is any other way. It's really hard. You apply for artist's salary. If you're lucky, you maybe get it every other year. I think we had a pretty good roll of luck with it. But still, there's many more months in the year.
Pétur: We had the privilege of being able to live in my grandparents’ flat and could live off a very low artist income but that was where the touring came in and we could work for extended periods with the small market that is here. If you travel to 40 places you all of a sudden had maybe 40 times the audience and this is very important. I think we need to really take it seriously how Iceland is connected internationally and how we locate ourselves, both within dance and also the performing arts. We live in a globalized world so we have to take active part. And also just economically – our funding system is broken, the success rate is very low so we have to be inventive with how we create an income and survive.
Salka: Dance for Me, your production with Pétur’s father, was a critical hit and very loved by audiences at home and overseas so you really hit the ground running as a performance duo. Was that at all overwhelming for you as artists or was it just purely energising?
Brogan: We had a lot of fun with this project. Also, what we were researching there is what we're still researching now with the festival. In the case of Ármann, I think the fact it was so popular was because he's this middle-aged, overweight man – somehow this becomes really significant and people really connect to him and he's dancing, really to the best of his ability, and he hadn't trained in dance. People said after: It's so human, there's something so human about it. It's still with us today, I think, this project. It's kind of the basis of all we do, the questions we were asking there. Artistically we continued to be obsessed with vulnerability and failure and humour.
Salka: It's interesting that you say vulnerability because I think for non-professionals, dancing feels very vulnerable and we don't always see that vulnerability in professional bodies dancing on stage, but there's something so relatable about a body putting themselves out there like that.
Pétur: I think that we became aware of this and it kind of revealed itself in the project itself. We did interviews with my dad during the making phase and also after we premiered it and we stumbled upon a sentence: that this vulnerability gave him superhuman powers, to dare to be vulnerable, to dare to follow his dreams and the vulnerability that comes with maybe failing. That became our artistic practice and we tried to push that. I think as we got a bit more experienced we dared to start going not only with topics and subjects but actually just form itself – so vulnerability as a mode of performing or trying to produce a sense of vulnerability, both with the performer and the audience watching. Maybe the most extreme outcome of that was Brogan doing a stand-up in a stranger's living room, where the stranger invites their friends, so she is a complete other in that situation. So we were trying to produce this sense of vulnerability and then trying to find the generativeness of that, you know – what does it bring or produce that can be good in the world. Failure, vulnerability and humour, I think, are our kind of flagships.
Brogan: The act of performing, for me, it's one of the most vulnerable things you can do – to stand in front of a group of people and perform – so somehow to not hide that precarity and the risk in that. We find that really interesting, this moment. I think it's most obvious in a stand-up format, because the audience either laughs or not. It either succeeds or fails in the moment, very clearly, and everyone's aware of it.
Salka: You've now made seven performances, as the duo Dance for Me, with number eight coming up next year. Looking back at these productions, they share a certain feel. Like you've been saying, there's the vulnerability, there's humour, but the framework for each one has been unique. I would say your work together evades simple definition. You use methods of choreography and theatre. You use biographical approaches, even stand-up as a format. I have a feeling that you're very guided by the material that you work with and that this shapes your approach to storytelling or experience. Whether it's setting up a rave for babies and toddlers or sharing the story of Peter's great-grandmother's mineral collection, or just inviting people into a living room to listen to Brogan tell childhood stories and sing songs. How would you describe your search for a format or a setting when you start working on a show?
Pétur: I think we have often given ourselves ample time to work on our projects, which gives us time both to kind of delve into the story or topic that is at the center of it, and then look into what kind of dramaturgical elements that creates and formats. In the case of the piece about my great-grandmother, she was a collector, so a big part of the dramaturgy was that we started collecting artifacts and memories and videos and photos, kind of going by her approach to life. So I think the material affects the dramaturgy and the dramaturgy affects the staging. This is something that we're interested in, that it all kind of is cohesive, but often becomes a little bit weird because we try to be true to the material, not necessarily true to performing arts traditions.
Salka: I want to talk about your most recent production, Baby Rave, which you've taken to festivals in Norway, Poland and Italy already. I’m guessing the inspiration came from becoming parents. Why did you create this event and what happens in the space when you put it on?
Brogan: Yeah, it was our first idea when we took over Reykjavík Dance Festival, I think. It was COVID and we had a kid at home. We were dancing in our living room together. And we had heard of these baby raves in London. We thought this sounded like such a good idea and we collaborated with Ívar Pétur who had been thinking about a similar project for many years. It became this dramaturgy of traveling around the world through the music. But coming back to who gets to dance, who gets to participate in dance, it just fits really well with these questions. In Babyrave, our producer was saying the other day, the kids become the experts, you kind of follow them, and they reveal the parents' awkwardness to dance. They have an easier time so you follow their lead.
Pétur: Looking at that as an artist or a maker, the format there is also quality time – you bring your kid to do something you don't normally do with them. The whole framing around it is not just a baby rave, it's also going somewhere to do something that is positive and brings you closer to each other. You might get to know each other in a different way. You've maybe never seen your kid dance or the kid has never seen you dance or you don't see each other get excited about something that is unexpected or so on and so forth. Then there’s the wind down after the madness of the dance – just to have a juice box or a ginger cookie. It's really just about the moment, which I enjoy.
Brogan: We've also found that the contemporary dance world can be a bit serious. I think there's something in this, like not being too serious. It can be a bit pop, we love pop. That is a way of being accessible also. You don't have to have a dance training to go and engage with something like a dance festival.
Pétur: I think it's also a recent development that we think children should have access to culture at all. This idea of children's culture is I think relatively new in the historic sense. Maybe the next step is to not make a definition between children's culture adult culture – it's all culture. To go and experience something that lifts your spirit is co-human and goes beyond age.
Salka: Pétur, your route into multidisciplinary performance making actually started with perhaps the most traditional pathway that we have here in Iceland. You studied acting at the Academy of the Arts. I remember seeing you perform at the student theatre and then people talked about that guy who went to the Schaubühne in Berlin, where you did an internship. So you very swiftly moved into directing and dramaturgy. Did you realise as a student that your theatrical interests lay elsewhere?
Pétur: I think I was very, very lucky that I did not get a job at the theatres straight after graduation and that left me in kind of a hole. I had told myself when I got into theatre school that I was never going to do anything other than work in theatre. That was the promise I made to myself. But then graduating and straight away being unemployed I was like: Oh, this is not going great … So as a way of survival it became clear to me that my immediate future was not staying in Iceland. I realized that there was a bigger world out there. And luckily one of my teachers from my university training was working at the Schaubühne, I contacted him and he opened the doors for me. I don't think I knew exactly what the outcome would be, but living in Berlin for six months, seeing all the theatre and dance and the diversity of the art form there was transformative for me. I think I'm still catching up –my training and background is very traditional. I grew up in the east of Iceland, maybe my inspiration is amateur theatre. So I think I often come in with a bit of a beginner's eye and I'm really amazed by everything and go all in. I think it's just a continuous journey of being curious and excited.
Salka: Brogan, you came into the world of performance through dance. Is that still the anchoring element for you? Or have you found yourself moving further away from dance as your creative output has enhanced?
Brogan: I actually have to admit I come from musical theatre … I kind of kept it a secret until very recently, but I was a musical theatre child star. I was in pantomimes every year, so that was my upbringing in the performing arts. And my dream was to be a triple threat: to sing, dance and act. I got a scholarship to musical theatre school and that was where I was heading. But then I got quite interested in choreography. And I was also very practically minded even then, at 19. I realised it was really competitive in musical theatre. Most of the girls in the years above me would get roles as backing dancers or on the chorus line. I was too short to be in the chorus line. So I remember thinking I had to diversify. I applied to Laban. It was a BA degree and I knew that would open up doors to teach, which many have to do that to sustain themselves. It was ballet every day and release technique and Martha Graham technique and Cunningham technique and choreography. Growing up, I was in a lot of theatre and I've always been interested in all of it. So going more into performance was quite an easy move for me. We were very interested in just the simple thing of standing as yourself on stage, so that positioned us in contemporary performance. We took the piece Dance for Me to both dance and theatre festivals.
Salka: Two years ago you became programme director for the MA in Performance Arts at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Speaking of the international scene, this is probably one of the most outward looking university programmes that we have here in Iceland.
Brogan: I did my MA in Amsterdam at DAS Theatre. The programme that Alexander Roberts was running here before the MA in Performing Arts is based a on that study so I had gone through it myself. The focus of the programme here is very international. This year we have students from Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Nigeria, Mexico, Poland. They come from quite different backgrounds but all really want to position what they're doing in the performing arts in some way. It's quite experimental, I would say, the profile of the programme. Each of them comes in with their own artistic practice. They've already been working in the field for many years and want to take this time, these two years, to reflect on what they're doing, ask more questions, take a turn. It seems to be a place of reflection and it's a lot about the group itself, learning from each other. We're really proud of this programme.
Salka: What has it been like for you, going into academia?
Brogan: Actually, our newest project goes into this, the world of academia and the world of art making and how they go together. It's been a big shift to be working in a big institution and trying to stay punk in some way!
Salka: I was intrigued to read that you describe your upcoming project as a performance essay.
Pétur: The core idea was born in 2017 when we wanted to make a project called Marriage, which we received funding for, but soon realized was a very terrible idea. So we decided to not do that and do something else. But it's been an idea simmering since then. As a couple that works with staging the self, and appear on stage as ourselves, we realized that we had never taken the stage together. We kind of cheekily thought that to stage our relationship would be the thing that exhausted our methods of staging ourselves. The vulnerability of, well, it's tacky, it's awkward, you're not supposed to do that, you're not supposed to be so personal. We realized that we would have to find a format that would suit where we are today. And now in 2023 we are actually not working artists anymore. Brogan is the programme director of the MA in Performing Arts at the university. And I have been studying cultural management at Bifröst to be a bit more informed as a festival director. So basically we've moved away from art making, which I think is a transition that a lot of artists in our age, mid-career artists make – because of the conditions in Iceland. So we were finding ourselves writing more about what we did than actually doing something. We had a big collection of essays and papers and texts that we had been writing throughout our careers that were maybe more revealing about our actual collaboration than what we would do on stage. We found that quite an interesting kind of dynamic or contradiction, the personal aspect of our relationship, living together, we have a family and so on – and then all these dry academic texts. I think that's what we will be exploring, the relationship between the two, the intimacy of performance and liveness, but then the distance and dryness of academia. I think we just want to explore these two worlds because they don't quite fit together. One of the first texts that we have is a letter that we wrote with help from our friend who is a lawyer. It’s a Cease and Desist letter to Íslandsbanki who had just taken the idea from Dance For Me of a middle-aged man dancing on stage for their new advertising campaign. It was very evident to everyone that saw the advert that it was biting this project that we had just done which had caught a lot of local and international attention. So there we were, 23 year old artists faced with a major bank in Iceland using our idea and we're like, what can we do? We wrote this text that sounds quite hilarious now and I think captures quite well how language is used to sound serious and real, as opposed to our emotional state and feeling really small ...
Salka: I have a question that I ask all my guests on this podcast. What would you change about the performing arts scene in Iceland if you had the ability to change one thing, one element or one aspect of it, and why?
Pétur: I think we desperately lack infrastructure for independent performing arts. And by infrastructure I mean support for artists at all stages, like newcomers, mid-career and late-career, to make and develop work, long-term funding, the continuity that you need to dedicate yourself to art making – and then the infrastructure of having somewhere to show your work, both through festivals and also theatres, because we lack spaces to make the work, to show the work. You have world-class artists all waiting to be allowed to do the thing that they know how to do, that could have a major local and international impact. For governments and public bodies to not recognize the potential of Icelandic performing arts is negligent. I think we're at a critical level. If it doesn't change there will be even more brain drain, even more people stepping out, and then have to reinvent the wheel. It's creating a non-sustainable, non-inspiring, non-cultural environment that is just no bueno.
Brogan: It's kind of interesting to talk about this new project because in a way we're also a bit critical of the institutionalisation of art. The festival is very DIY and we got a question from a colleague of ours: What happens if you become more institutionalised? What do you lose? But the situation we're in is so on the other side of it, which is that we both work full-time and we basically run this festival in our spare time. And it's been like that for many years. We've become kind of full-time advocates alongside … Through that you become aware of dance getting only a fraction of the funding that theatre gets, which we can assume is an issue because it's mostly run by women and queer people – and Pétur.
Pétur: I'm literally the 1%.
Brogan: It’s a bit baffling when you have this festival and everything is sold out, and you have all these guests coming from abroad, all this amazing work being made. And then, like, Ásrún Magnúsdóttir sold out three shows of Secrets but it's in the tiny basement of the National Theatre. Why is it not on the big stage? It's just baffling to me. We need our own house, we need our own stage. The Iceland Dance Company are also in the basement of Borgarleikhúsið. I think that's a metaphor for the bigger issue we're facing. We have so many good artists coming from dance and experimental performance that are showing all over the world. So, yeah, we're in a fight moment. We're really fighting. And we're being very persistent now. We have the recognition and we've had a lot of compliments from the ones that give us the funding, but we need actual money.
Salka: Thank you so much for joining me, Brogan and Pétur. And to our listeners, please keep tuning in for new episodes of the Performing Arts Centre Iceland podcast as we continue to encounter some of our most dynamic performing arts professionals.