Sunday 20 August 2017

Stage: The Swedish dancer mixing jazz, opera and NASA recordings

Personal journey: Merry.go.round is the final part of Waller’s triptych of dances about unclaimed territories
Personal journey: Merry.go.round is the final part of Waller’s triptych of dances about unclaimed territories

Chris McCormack

As choreographer Maria Nilsson Waller traces the steps that brought her from France to Dublin some years ago, she describes a journey that, if imperfect, sounds important nonetheless. She left the impressive Cannes Jeune Ballet company to join someone in Ireland. "One of the dancers had Irish ancestry," she says. Things didn't work out.

But Waller, a quick thinker and talker, remained in Dublin. "I've been getting good industry support," she tells me.

Her new dance production, merry.go.round, choreographed with the cast, runs this month as part of the Dublin Dance Festival.

"What's happening here is very exciting. It nourishes me, and then I get to bring it to my home city."

Where is home? Östersund in Sweden ("the black hole of dance," she jokes) is where Waller, as a child, started fostering thoughts of being a ballerina. "I remember listening to Swan Lake. In my soul, I knew I should be doing this," she laughs. "I have the talent. I have the perfect long neck and the arches".

Determined, Waller left home at 15 to train as a dancer. It sounds like she's been living a nomadic life ever since. She says it's mostly a myth that ballet schools only teach traditional dance. For Waller, classical and contemporary aren't mutually exclusive.

"I've been taking an unusual route," she admits. "Usually, you start as a child doing classical training and then you go do something experimental. I began late so I started with the contemporary. But my ballet passion is still there".

She also identifies some freedom from not taking that traditional approach. "The classical world is so intense at a young age," she says. "For dancers I've met, their entire world is ballet. I'm grateful that I had a normal life and hung out with real people."

Merry.go.round is the final part of Waller's triptych of dances about unclaimed territories, a series that began with Last Land, a choreographic exploration of Antarctica, which premiered in 2012. Here, and elsewhere in Waller's work, there is an intense fascination with landscapes. "Part of it might be the personal journey of coming from a region that is very remote," she says, referring to her Swedish home. "There is a connection to that land that I've been missing, having left so young. It's in you, the light and the colour of it."

It's an interesting method - choreography that takes geography as its structure.

"It's also coming from moments of environmental shift," she says.

While researching travel journals for Last Land, Waller found that the Antarctic landscape was regularly described as a woman who was incredibly beautiful but dangerous. That led to exciting possibilities in the rehearsal room.

"Nature almost has a personality," she smiles. Waller talks about a tension between humans and the natural world, not in terms of global warming, but of rural depopulation.

"There's a mental shift now that people are starting to experience nature as threatening," she says. "Because we've become so urban in our lives." That might explain the forceful mix of Swedish and Irish folklore in Founder, her 2014 work about the seabed. Old stories blend with terrains that maybe once comprehensible, are now overwhelming.

Waller has chosen an even more fathomless landscape for merry.go.round: the cosmos. In this new dance production, celestial bodies orbit and split apart to a score that mixes jazz with opera and NASA recordings. Against agonising alignments of stars, iconic romantics like Romeo and Juliet, Orpheus and Eurydice, are seen stuck in flux. "We have been working with qualities of time," she says. "How to drag it out. Dragging out density. It's about getting the audience to see as if they are in space."

Earlier this year, the world première of merry.go.round took place in her hometown of Östersund. With no theatre available, Waller staged it inside a decommissioned military base. ''It worked," she says. "People made the trip".

When discussing it with the audience afterwards, she had to flip the question back on to them: "What did you think it was about?"

Waller wishes dance audiences trusted their instincts more. At the première of merry.go.round, a viewer approached her afterwards, someone from the Swedish equivalent of Direct Provision. "I asked what did he see? 'Everyone has to help out,' he said. That's the essence of the piece, the search for connection that by the end you realise one person isn't enough. It's more global than that."

Looking to the future, Waller is planning to bringing back Prime, a solo piece about domestic abuse and the music of Tina Turner. There's also a new project about multiverses, which sounds like another work about terrains unchartered or unknown. That may very well describe Waller's nomadic life, too, in pursuit of ballet-like perfection. No matter the outcome, the journey is the thing.

merry.go.round runs at the Samuel Beckett Theatre as part of the Dublin Dance Festival, May 23-24

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