Exorcising Juliet:
In Conversation with Halla Ólafsdóttir & Erna Ómarsdóttir

We all know Juliet as the teenage girl who kills herself over a three day infatuation. The story of Romeo & Juliet is so ubiquitous across the world, taking on so many forms and names, that even without reading it one somehow knows it. Retelling the story and examining the character is outside of the picture for Halla Ólafsdóttir and Erna Ómarsdóttir in their work-in-progress, The Juliet Duet. Stemming from their work on Íslenskidansflokkurinn’s production of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, the piece is an exorcism of sorts to release the pent up energy left from such a well-known text, while reinterpreting and dancing the text through defined symbols and signs. We sat down with them to discuss the nature of the ongoing process and being haunted by Shakespeare.

Photo: The Juliet Duet by Margrét Seema Takyar

When you were working on the Romeo & Juliet production with the Iceland Dance Company, was there always the idea of doing the Two Juliets at the time?

 

Halla: No, it just happened during when we were in the studio preparing and working on stuff. We kept saying, “you should do it! No you should do it!” So we felt like the darlings that didn’t make it into the big piece, and that we should do them, the two of us.

 

Erna: And also from just us dancing together. It was kind of an exorcism often after the day of rehearsals, trying to cleanse. Then we were breathing and singing and dancing and screaming and jumping around and then it felt like we have to do something with this.

 

Are these two Juliets specific characters that you’re bringing forward?

 

Halla: We use the narrative of the play maybe as a filter to jump through, bounce off, together with. We’ve also been playing around with how does text generate dancing, so we’ve been listening to the audio play and maybe interpreting the text into dance. Often when you’re making dance you fall into your own favourite habits and this way creates something unknown, but maybe you start moving in ways that you didn’t know of or decide before. So dancing to and alongside the text, translating the text into dance but then also watching each other translating the dance into text. It’s full of symbols and signs so I think that’s the dancing that we are into.

Erna: And by doing all this, it also becomes more of an echo of a very very ancient love story that’s been put on thousands of times. And then there is the story that was the inspiration to Shakespeare. It’s like repeating the repetition of a repetition. It becomes something else.

Is Shakespeare a character in this piece?

 

Erna: I mean his ghost is. He comes and goes.

 

Halla: It’s unavoidable I think. If you do anything by Shakespeare, he’s there ghosting you.

 

Yeah I guess he sort of haunts everything that his text touches.

 

Erna: We’re trying to get rid of him, kind of doing an exorcism everyday to get rid of him, but maybe we just need to accept that he’s a part of it.

 

Did you feel that way back when doing it with the dance company?

 

Erna: Then we were maybe more haunted by Prokofiev. We are trying to use Shakespeare, rather than let him use us. There has to be some kind of a balance. It has to make sense for us. We don’t want to serve them too much.

Photo: The Juliet Duet by Margrét Seema Takyar

Halla: Then I had this huge resistance to even read the whole story. I was like, I’ll just skim it. I don’t want to engage too much because then it’s way harder to try to create anything. There is this balance. You have to somehow still know. You can’t ignore it completely but then when you get too engaged you try to like do a homage or do it right or serve it.

 

Erna: Trying to interpret what you hear and then writing what you see and then dancing what you write and then sometimes going back to just reading the story.

 

Halla: And then always somehow through the language of dance. It’s very much about dancing and dance. That’s the main language we’re using. Contemporary dance but then ballet is also in there.

 

Erna: Ballet and jazz ballet and modern dance.

 

So in terms of physicality there’s a huge range of what’s happening.

 

Halla: Yeah, just basically from our dance education stuff just sneaks in. Also the ones we had before our professional education.

 

You two have been working together in so many capacities for such a long time, what is the dynamic that you’re bringing in this context?

 

Halla: For one, we have a shared interest and taste when it comes to dancing and performance making, and we have some references in common that we’re into. I would say especially for this one, what we talked about for the big production, was how to create a feeling of intimacy when you make such a big spectacle. Which is super hard to do when you have a whole orchestra between the audience and the people onstage. And in this case, when it’s only the two of us, there is way more space and time for friendship and personal stuff leaking into the work. Working together is also an excuse just to be together.

 

Erna: It’s also kind of being a dramaturg for each other’s lives. By now having danced it, now having gone through these few different washing machines, having done it with this huge group and then us like… listening and dancing at the same time. There is something about hearing it or reading it differently every time. Different things draw attention.

What kind of things have stood out to you with the way it changes every time?

 

Erna: For instance now we’ve been busy just with the beginning, everything until Juliet appears, so the servants and the nurse and not just the characters but Verona, the place and time, and what kind of hierarchy between the characters. The main characters, Romeo and Juliet, sometimes they’re interesting but sometimes they’re not.

 

Halla: It’s also that we don’t spend so much time between us analysing the characters—not any time. So it’s way more about the form. In this way it’s about how to use the text to create a physicality full of symbols and signs that suggest a narrative but in watching it you can create your own. In Romeo & Juliet with the dance company, when it comes to the characters it’s like everybody can be everybody in that piece. It’s a group piece where everybody is onstage all the time so we want to blur the hierarchies of the roles. Everybody is a main role and everybody is the chorus and everybody is a soloist.

 

Erna: It’s constantly morphing. Like shapeshifting.

 

It’s not about doing character work or philosophising or creating storylines.

 

Halla: We don’t need to do that. That has been done already and a lot of work put into it. People do it greatly.

 

Erna: People will see it anyway if they want. They see what they want to see.

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Photo: The Juliet Duet by Margrét Seema Takyar