"Don't panic—the performers do not even know what is being said onstage," goes a warning accompanying The Society
, a new dance/theatre piece from Norway's Jo Strømgren Kompani, which makes its New York debut next week at the Abrons Arts Center, in a co-presentation with PS 122 (in a limited run, Oct. 15-19).
In fact, the unidentifiable languages used by JSK—named for its ringleader, Jo Strømgren—vary with every show. In The Society
, a group of devoted coffee drinkers goes berserk when they suspect that a dreaded tea-drinker has infiltrated their midst, and they'll seemingly stop at nothing to root out and punish the offender. It's an absurd premise, pursued with perfect earnestness—a contrast about which Strømgren says, "I feel we're on this quest of making serious, hilarious fun."
The onstage chaos that results from such contradictory motives has led some audiences to assume it's been forged in some kind of free-for-all frenzy.
"People around the world who see our work imagine that it's all some kind of improvisational process, for some reason, because we have abstract texts," Strømgren says. "But it's pretty hardcore one-mind, one-vision stuff. Of course, I need to pick exactly the right actors, and once I have done that, we have this democracy thing: If anyone has a better idea than me, we take that one. But it's more directed theatre than not. It's fun that people think it's some crazy improv process we're doing—I'll take it as a compliment."
Making the best of apparent adversity has been a signature of Strømgren's career thus far.
"When you come from a small place, without all the trends and tendencies flashing in your window every day, you have to do serious research if you want to be on top of things," Strømgren relates. "I was on the outskirts, and at first I was ashamed, but then then at one point, I said, ‘I have to make a choice: Either I do all the research and get on top of what's going in theatre, or just do my own work.' "
Essentially, Strømgren opted for the latter option, and his remote location was a boon in this endeavor: "If you're on the outskirts, it's much easier to go your own way. But by doing that, I notice that suddenly these other people are interested in what do. We've been to 45 countries so far, and that's kind of strange, coming from a small, nothing country like Norway."
A small, nothing country? The land of Ibsen, Grieg and Munch? Strømgren may be exaggerating, but there's a grain of truth to the notion that Norwegians are in some sense in
Europe without being of
"Scandinavia has had a very interesting history, theatrically," Strømgren explains. "It's right in between the Russian tradition and the German ‘directors' thing, and on another side, England, with its pious respect for the text. So we have a lot of references to draw on but we're not in some Method hell. I'm happy to be part of a Scandinavian culture, and not in Berlin or London; I feel more free. Scandinavians have a different point of view on the world. We don't compete with anybody, we just do our own thing."
But they don't just do it in their own backyard. The Society
, in fact, premiered in Lebanon, and the company then went on to work with theatre artists in Israel and Palestine. This is where the many layers of JSK's "serious, hilarious fun" come into play.
"You don't get far if you have only one dimension to the work—it has to work on different layers for different people," Strømgren says. "You don't go to Lebanon to have a collaboration just to make some slapstick. But the serious themes have to be so hidden away so it can't provoke anybody. People can enter the theatre and just have a laugh, while other people get really shocked by the seriousness of what we do."
Strømgren is ready to unleash his company's resonant mayhem on the U.S.
"We go sometimes quite far in portraying different cultures and people, and so it's kind of exciting to play in America, where it's not so open," says Strømgren. "I mean, it's supposed to be the most tolerant culture on earth, but it seems that you can't make many jokes or laugh about certain things—there's a certain relucaance to offend. And all the contracts you have to sign in the States! Sometimes you miss a chance to loosen up things."
Who better to shake things up than a band of madcap Norwegians?
Click here for more information about The Society.