The Danish theatre company Granhøj Dans returns to the Centaur this week with their astonishing piece based on the songs of Leonard Cohen. Jim Burke spoke to dancer/choreographer Palle Granhøj about Cohen, Danish culture and why he puts a block on his dancers’ moves.
A life in the arts has more than its share of obstacles. So why not throw a few more obstacles onto the path yourself and make things even more difficult? The seemingly foolhardy question occurred to choreographer/dancer Palle Granhøj some twenty-five years ago. Since then, his company Granhøj Dans has been producing shows under the strict aegis of the Obstruction Technique.
The results, as you’ll be aware if you caught their show in Montreal last year (and which returns to the Centaur this week) are spectacular. Dance Me to the End On/Off Love, a music and dance piece based around the oeuvre of Leonard Cohen, sees the ten-plus cast of dancers striving to do their stuff while being constrained by everything from elastic bands, an imprisoning wooden box, a mountain of mannequin heads and the steely grip of Granhøj himself.
The last words of the show are from Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’: “I have tried in my way to be free.” Which is exactly what each of these dancers have been trying to do for the previous ninety astonishing minutes, with sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, often immensely moving results.
Granhøj, in a telephone conversation from Denmark, explained the origins of his technique.
“When I started my career as a choreographer, I was pretty traditional. Then I encountered the American choreographer, Nancy Spanier, and her way of training performers. When they tried to do or say something, she would disturb them. For instance, if they were supposed to sit, she’d take away the chair, things like that. I found it extremely interesting. I’d never seen anything like it before and set about trying to find out what would happen if I trained dancers in a similar way. A lot of things happened that I could not even imagine, the most important being that it created serendipity.”
The Cohen show (the company has also created works based on music by Stravinsky, Mahler and Jimmy Cliff) began life as a danced accompaniment to the song Dance Me to the End of Love to mark the passing of a dancer with the company, Soren Sundby, who died of a brain tumour. Granhøj performed it at the funeral, though he had first created the piece for Sundby to dance as his own swan song. With the company’s twentieth anniversary coming up, Granhøj got the idea to expand on this melancholy moment to create a whole show based around Cohen’s music. Appropriately enough, Granhøj encountered an obstruction.
“Once I began working on the idea, I discovered just how big Cohen is. I had to let it go for half a year, because I found that every rock band seemed to have done its own interpretation of his songs. But I was longing to go back to that universe and see if I could approach the songs in a way that hadn’t been done before.
“And in this, there was a kind of connection for me with Cohen’s Longing Concert. He would often put himself away from civilization and away from people he loved just to be longing for them, which would inspire him to create music and lyrics. I found that similar to the Obstruction Technique. Every time you put dancers in an obstructed situation, they desperately want to fulfill the movement, and the energy and the power comes from that.”
Given the company’s Danish identity, all this talk of obstructions can’t help but bring to mind the self-denying but fruitful manifesto drawn up by Dogme filmmakers in 1995. Could there be something, well, Danish in all this talk of deliberately constricting rules? A facile question perhaps, but Granhøj thinks there might be something in it.
“I’m not sure, perhaps so. My Obstruction Technique was inspired by an American choreographer. But I’ve been thinking about this recently, and I remembered that there’s a famous writer in Denmark called Aksel Sandemose who came up with these ten laws, which were like obstructions, and the first law was something like you must not think you are able to create anything. And that’s the kind of law that informs a lot of our work in our country, that gives us a sort of working atmosphere.
“Of course, when Dogme first came out, there was all this big publicity around it, and I remember thinking: ‘Yes, but that’s what I’ve been doing for years!’ ”
Dance Me to the End On/Off Love plays at the Centaur Theatre from Nov 19-22
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Amongst his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.