I have found myself rewriting the opening sentence of this review for hours, trying to warningly sketch out the depth of my own uncertainty before Erna Ómarsdóttir’s work. The truth is: I have seen much of her work over the years, and I am yet to come to a firm conclusion on whether I believe it to be successful or not; even on whether I like it or not – and I am a person of strong opinions.
The problem with Ómarsdóttir is threefold: her aesthetics is both banal and very individual; the quality of her work is inconsistent; but every one of her works, however clunky on the level of form and content, is possessed of deep emotional integrity, as if expressing the entire breadth of her person. Even when the work turns light and humorous, it still feels as personal and authentic as an exorcism. It is this feeling of deep investment that gives weight to her oeuvre, despite (or aside from) its frequent formal shortcomings.
We Saw Monsters is a catalogue of the abject, picking out of our cultural hope chest every bit of horror related to the body. The ‘monsters’ of the title are made of human flesh. At the bottom of our fears, Ómarsdóttir appears to say, there is nothing but the repulsiveness of our imperfect mortality. Thus here is the Victorian horror of the scientifically manipulated body, a body that no longer resembles one. The Christian awe before the relics, undead, spiritually charged body parts. The sociological horror of the fairy tale, which normalises torture into a pedagogical lesson; the horror of genetics, of bodily functions, of breast-feeding, of resembling other people.
The motifs are arranged impressionistically, into an ikebana of limbs and screaming. Colour-coded archetypes: the black-clad Grim Reaper with the scythe; the man in white, and the man in a red dress; a lactating, psychotic mother with an elven voice; flowers and severed limbs; echoes of Christian iconography. Amidst it all, the centrepiece: two twins in pink nightgowns, knee socks and Peter Pan collars, long blonde hair covering their faces. The two women do not physically resemble each other, but it takes the duration of the performance to ascertain this; their synchronous dance has them so limb-twisted and upturned and puppet-like that we only glimpse their faces right-side-up towards the end. Death has a sensuous dance duet with his victim, manipulating his limbs with the scythe. A man in a loincloth arranges himself wings out of severed limbs. The performance culminates in a construction of an altar out of flowers and limbs, on which the cast embarks on an orgy of sex, self-destruction, and general descent into something like damnation. If I am not mistaken, it all ends with incest and litres of stage blood.
Meanwhile, Ómarsdóttir appears on stage as the teller of bedtime stories and the heavy-metal shaman. She is sometimes presenting real-life murder stories, and sometimes screaming a song. The quality of her voice changes accordingly: sometimes coating her terrible fairy tales in lulling, rasping, sugary, Icelandic consonants; and sometimes roaring pure masculine horror. The use of voice is Ómarsdóttir’s trademark. Deep, produced from the depths of her body, whether she is screaming or whispering, Ómarsdóttir’s singing is a physical act, a form of dance.
The high point of We Saw Monsters is not choreography: performed by both trained and untrained dancers, the movement is simple and rarely arresting, and could as easily be billed physical theatre as dance. Ómarsdóttir has professed greater interest in creating strong images, but this brings its own problems. While watching this work, I kept thinking of Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley’s Evelyn Evelyn, a musical/theatre/comic book project documenting the invented story of conjoined twin sisters in a travelling circus. The imagery of We Saw Monsters is of a similar kind: uncomplicated neo-Victorian Gothic, tending towards gore and twee in equal measure; the neo-Gothic of Neil Gaiman and Dresden Dolls; of Edward Gorey and Lemony Snicket; of Emily the Strange. Occasionally powerful, it is mostly tired stuff: men with scythes, blood, breasts.
However clunky on the level of both form and content, We Saw Monsters engages with its raw strength. Everything it fails to convey intellectually or visually, it seems to convey viscerally. Watching Ómarsdóttir channel the energy of her entire body into a growl, while the entire cast is hair-whipping themselves into a trance, the stage feels like the inside of a heavy-metal concert, the representation of the experience. Whatever one may feel when facing such a painful wall of sound (I am a lover of indie pop, and would not know), it must be within the range of the complicated emotions splashing across the stage at We Saw Monsters: self-hate, pain, disgust, vague religious and moral terror, yearning for beauty, and an attempted sharing of such an individual experience. If Ómarsdóttir has to put twins in Victorian nightgowns and simulated masturbation on stage to kindle such affective bonfire, then so be it.
Before becoming a choreographer, Ómarsdóttir was already an acclaimed dancer, working with the likes of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Jan Fabre, praised for the intensity of both her physicality and her voice. She seems to be treated as the bon sauvage of contemporary dance: she has been likened to an Icelandic warrior princess, and one dance critic wrote that she ‘writes with her own blood’. This is no Pina Bausch, however: the images her work conjures are often trivial, twee, or simply cliched. Of all her work that I have seen, only Teach Us To Outgrow our Madness (2009) held together on the level of form and ideas, built a vocabulary of arresting visual motifs, and channeled its enormous energy towards a definite point.
We Saw Monsters, like many more in her oeuvre, is a performance full of glaring flaws. It is a raw work, visceral but unedited. However, during most of it, I was at least charmed. It did more than illustrate Kristeva: it revealed the body losing its aura under the microscope of science, the exercises of medicine, the norms of paediatrics, the mystification of religion. And it certainly gave me a few thoughts about heavy metal.