Staging "Sweden": A Typology for Folk Dance in Performance

By Vail, June A. | Scandinavian Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Staging "Sweden": A Typology for Folk Dance in Performance


Vail, June A., Scandinavian Studies


PLACING FOLK DANCE ON STAGES (even for what might be termed simple demonstrations) is an aesthetic act and a political statement. Folk dance productions can be read as images of Sweden--staged representations of culturally constructed norms and values. A folk dance event on stage is choreographed from beginning to end. It involves choosing (consciously or not) how to present the dances for an audience. Besides the program's order, pacing, and overall length, choreographic responsibilities include the selection of an appropriate venue, the design of the performers' costumes, and the degree of each dance's complexity (its technical demands, energy contrasts, and rhythmic sophistication, for example). Those who create and perform folk dances on stages become artists, whether they like it or not, by virtue of these choreographic responsibilities.

However, in Sweden, people who make these kinds of artistic decisions for folk dance events often feel uncomfortable calling themselves "choreographers." Folk dancers do not usually think of themselves as artists. They work within a powerful anti-elitist tradition where art dance has long been assumed to belong to a superior category different from two others: folk dance (folkdans, staged dances linked to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social movements) and traditional or contemporary popular dance forms (folklig dans). Nevertheless, all dance forms placed on stages can be understood as aesthetic expression.

Folk dance performances can also be thought of as "ethnic expression" in the sense that choices about presenting dances are rooted in, reflect, and help sustain--sometimes even change--norms and expectations of the culture to which they belong. Folk dancing in Sweden serves today, as it has for 150 years, as a powerful symbol of national identity, both for the participants and the audiences who watch them. Not surprisingly, the modes of representing "Sweden" on stage have shifted with the changing aesthetics and social values of the times.

This paper identifies some ways traditional dance forms continue to be presented by groups who define themselves as folk dancers. It offers a typology as a tool to help sort out various choreographic methods of portraying "Swedishness" in an increasingly multi-cultural society. The four categories distinguish principal choreographic modes of representation. It should be noted that folk dance performances simultaneously incorporate elements of all four modes, but with varying emphases. An awareness of these various emphases becomes useful for choreographers choosing among choreographic options and for viewers interpreting and evaluating performances.

A TYPOLOGY FOR SWEDISH FOLK DANCE ON STAGE (1)

Folk dance productions that primarily accentuate spectacle (emphasizing dances' visual impact and showcasing the dancers' technical skills) can be designated underhallande [spectacular or entertaining]. The role of the ideal viewer of a "spectacular" folk dance performance is to sit back and enjoy the show thrilling to its colors, patterns, and brilliant execution. Internationally recognized contemporary examples include the Moiseyev Folk Dance Ensemble and Riverdance.

In contrast, folk dance presentations that seek explicitly to unify an audience around historical, political, or ideological issues, to educate them, or even to incite them to action, can be called bildande [educational or didactic].

Choreographed folk dance performances based on characters in dramatic situations or stories fall into the category berattande [narrative]. This kind of presentation seeks to entertain by drawing the spectator into a story, often a well-known tale, to experience vicariously the characters' emotions and encounters. Simultaneously, this mode also seeks to entertain and often to educate as well.

Choreographies that highlight a conscious, creative exploration of traditional dance vocabularies and forms can be understood as abstract or estetiserande [aesthetic]. …

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Staging "Sweden": A Typology for Folk Dance in Performance
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