Dancer, Choreographer, Film- & Videomaker
Helena Jonsdottir studied at the National Theatre Ballet School of Iceland, with additional studies at Alvin Ailey, New York. She has performed in and choreographed countless productions for television, film, music videos and the stages. Helena has also written, choreographed and directed many dance films, including Breaking voices (2002) and Zimmer which won the IV. Videotanzpreis 2003/2004 of SK Stiftung Kultur in Cologne.
Besides being recognized internationally the last years for her work in Scandinavia, UK and USA – in 2003 she was nominated as Best Choreographer at the Music Video Production Association Awards, Los Angeles – Helena Jonsdottir has been highly respected in Iceland for many years as one of the leading contemporary choreographers, both for television and stage.
Open Source won the first prize in the Icelandic Dance/Theatre awards in June 2003. Since then Helena has further developed the piece and made an Irish version of it, which was premièred at the Galway Arts Festival 2004. Helena has also created a new full-length version of Open Source for the Iceland Dance Company at the Reykjavík City Theatre in 2005. The piece deals with the idea. Whose is the idea? Every individual is influenced by everything and everyone, and has at the same time the possibility to influence others.
“Our own creativity is limited only by the level of denial we are in towards our true capacity.”
Helena on Choreography for the Camera
“I had been developing my own work in choreography for some years when I came across the video camera and I fell in love with it. Since then I have had a great time exploring the possibilities in dance, choreography and movements in general, both in front of the camera and behind it.
Edited movements in the given space of the camera frame are for me equivalent to choreographed movements in three-dimensional space. But the camera space gives me much richer opportunities to deal with subtle moves in close ups. Repetition and manipulation of time and space create an opportunity for a totally new perception of dance and choreography in film.
For me, dance combined with camerawork is an almost unexplored field. This is the reason I look forward dealing with each new piece. My work is based on what we see everywhere and know by heart. Although it is then transformed into a new and exciting context, it remains totally accessible to a general audience. Maybe, because of the camera, it is possible to give people enough understanding and interest to start experiencing dance all around, and with that the ability to create their own opinion of it. Maybe here is an opportunity to encourage the audience to find their own dances, inspired by real life. Creating personal style only stands to enrich the world of dance we all inhabit. I want to make simple yet challenging films to show that dance is what you want it to be. This will show that after all, dance is your very own movement, made with self-awareness.”
Interview with Helena Jonsdottir, 10/9/04
Jennifer Syson: I’ve noticed in many of your films the protagonist is sometimes in a situation whereby they are forced to be something they are not, and through dance – their real character and feelings shine through. Do you think this is a fair observation?
Helena Jonsdottir: What a huge question! I think all of them are playing parts like in a play, aren’t we presenting this to each other everyday? How do we want to present ourselves to others? We use make up and different costumes. I think all of us are doing this, with or without knowing it. The girl in front of the mirror is preparing herself, going somewhere – she might be going to work or maybe a party. It’s a statement. What she will be wearing and how she feels wearing that clothing. With Dagar, on the sofa there are three strong characters. There is this academic who goes through life following rules; the earth-mother type who is in tune with nature and carries the troubles of the world on her shoulders – she is a bit of a drama queen... Then there is the innocent, this is all of us before the our community or school system teaches us how to be “proper ”. In While the cat’s away, we can see the old woman who reverts to a ‘second childishness’. She dances her own fairy tale while her daughter is away. I think all of us have that secret thing we do when nobody else is around.
JS: It is often said that the ‘eyes are the window to a person’s soul’, and I have noticed that to tell a character’s story, as a choreographer you see their face as a particularly important tool for expression. This is especially evident in films such as Another and While The Cat’s Away. Where do you see the boundaries between acting and dancing?
HJ: Like I always say, all of the body has certain strengths. The eyes are not just the mirror, the hands say as much as the face. A nervous person shuffling their feet in anticipation – this is for me a beginning of dance. Charlie Chaplin used similar method. The way he moves his shoulders and back do not conform to traditional perceptions of speech, but it is still a language. You see it also very strongly when two people on their first date. The awareness of your body language; she fiddles with her hair, he is leaning forward but not to far.
Chaplin was a great storyteller. He just took different things like film, text, music and movements and put it together in a brilliant way. In my stage production Open Source, Florian Cramer (lecturer in comparative literature at Freie Universität, Berlin) is filmed talking about a process where you can take two different peoples work and put it together then you create something new. And that’s the same for me.
JS: That’s almost like sampling in the music industry, isn’t Hip Hop is based on similar philosophies?
HJ: Everybody is always striving to create something new. I’m not really talking about recycling here, I’m talking about pushing forward new boundaries. Take the analogy of new technology. Computers and machines being constructed today are not new concepts in themselves. They amalgamate previous knowledge of old techniques and processes and combine that with a new idea. Take the relationship between plumber and choreographer. As individuals what they are doing is not necessarily an original idea or action, but in combining the ways of working, the difference in use of movement, there are ways of finding common ground and making something new.
JS: Martha Graham said ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul’. Do you think that truth can reveal itself through movement?
HJ: Absolutely. It’s not very easy sometimes to hide how you feel. Therefore, I think actors, dancers and poker players make the best liars. A good con-artist should learn some acting and dancing.
JS: Film itself can be a medium for artifice – a place where many artists and filmmakers choose to bend or exaggerate the truth in order to deliver a certain message to an audience. As a filmmaker – do you have a particular message or story, and is that common to all your films?
HJ: Yes. The story is properly my own story in a way, that is, what I have experienced through time and what I am trying to do for myself today. Stories that allow me to be in the here and now and not constantly planning for tomorrow. The message I am communicating is to make the most of that moment.
JS: Are there themes that link this feeling of presentness together?
HJ: I’m trying to put across that it is more challenging and in a way more enchanting to be within your own self. I personally tell stories that relate to my own life experiences. I’ve had approximately thirty different homes in my life, so maybe I’m trying to find a way to get home. For example; the most enjoyable tasks I do are painting walls, hanging pictures, making a place look nice. Then I light up a cigarette and observe what I have done. This creation is of the here and now and it is going to be there for at least for a while. Even when staying in hotel rooms, I have been known to move furniture around and buy candles and flowers to make myself at home. I’m always on the move, I’m used to the fleeting aspect of dance premiers – when the moment is gone, its gone for good. It’s about hanging on to that moment, prolonging the experience
JS: Tell me a little bit about your training as a dancer, and how you came into making films.
HJ: There are three strong memories I have. The first one is when I was four years old and I made a few solo performances for my Grandmother. I locked the door so it was a performance that just me and my grandmother enjoyed.
My ballet education started spending all hours after school at the National Theatre where the ballet school rehearsed. After the ballet class I had a special place on the upper balcony where I could watch rehearsal on the main stage until late in the evenings. When I graduated, there was no place for me in the company, so I did anything I could lay my hands on. I was twenty and alongside teaching I did commercials, beauty contests, anything. So at around twenty-four, I had eight years of experience in so many different fields. I never craved academia, I just needed a channel for my expression. When I first grabbed a camera all of these things gelled together; the dialogue with my grandmother, the TV dancing, the ballet education as well as my varied work experience. I had got to know so many different types of people and profession, and filmed seemed a natural way of putting it together.
JS: In your work as a choreographer, I know that you are used to collaborating with others to create interesting new ways of presenting dance. From the likes of Hammer and Tongs (Bentley Rhythm Ace video for Theme from Gutbuster) and musician and composer Hallur Ingólfsson (whose music is featured in While the Cat’s Away) to an electrician, struggling to find self expression with an urge to dance (featured in Bírgir). What do you think that the ingredients for a good collaboration is and why?
HJ: Those examples have something in common: they all are eager participants with the imagination, energy and will to do things. Working on those collaborations there was rarely a dull moment, never complaints of hunger, backache or boredom, always an enthusiastic ‘What’s next?’ Hammer and Tongs hopped about on location, I never laughed so much – that laughter created was the choreographical process. Hallur was always bombarding me with new sounds and ideas, the same with Bírgir, he wanted to show me so many things. They showed me their favourite toys. I was very lucky to have to choice of favourites to play with.
JS: Explain to me a scenario like that of the chicken and the egg. What comes first: music or choreography?
HJ: It totally depends on what the project is. When I was younger it was always the music that gave me the movements. But now I have to say choreography comes first. But before the music or the choreography there is always the idea. itself.
JS: Do you think that this switch comes with training and experience?
HJ: We were taught that the body is our instrument. Not only when the body takes us through a journey. You can also hear in the silence when the dancers are breathing or tapping their feet on the floor, making their own rhythm. But music and dance are such a good friends and they have so much respect for each other. When the music goes silent the body takes over with its movements, playing its own music. When the dancer stands still, the music takes us all over the place. Its a beautiful relationship.
JS: I’ve observed that keeping sketchbooks and scrapbooks, filled with magazine images, old drawings, quotations and other ephemera is important to you – like it is to many visual artists. Do you see the process of making dance films as a separate process to that of a filmmaker working with contemporary visual art?
HJ: I have no idea! I can just speak as a choreographer. I have always worked this way. This also stems from all those different homes I had. In all those books there is useful information too – like phone numbers or a shopping list.
JS: You usually make a storyboard like a script or comic book, don’t you? Why is it important that you have that begining, middle and end firmly set in place before the camera begins to roll? Can’t you just do that in the editing suit at the end?
HJ: There are always so many possibilities, so many directions in which to take an idea. To make an idea grow it is good to make a storyboard. The first storyboard is the budget. That gives me limitations and the discipline to channel my idea through. Then I start to look, y’know, through books and magazines, TV and radio. I’m constantly amassing material. Then I do a script and a storyboard. Next is the filming, this is where all my archives come into play. The storyboard saves time in the editing process. It can be hard work trying to create a narrative through random bits of film. If I am working on a collaboration then the storyboard is the gift of an idea which grows when a script is given to a performer or editor. In this experimental space, the best results can be achieved.