About 100 miles west of Copenhagen lies Denmark’s second city, Aarhus. From here, you look out onto the sheltered Kattegat sea, ships chugging gracefully across the horizon. Scandinavia’s largest library dominates the front, its elegant lines and concrete polygons enclosing 30,000 square metres of books and public space. Cycle paths join the civic dots, connecting squares of cafes to typically elegant churches, museums and (obviously) furniture shops. Without wishing to overstate the case, it’s quite nice. Very dignified.
Later on we’re ushered into the basement of the Bora Bora dance venue for M.I.S. All Night Long, a performance by troupe DON GNU. For the next 40 minutes, two men strut, heave and sweat around the stage. They hoik about an enormously weighty plank of wood. They hit each other with it; they climb it; they compete for possession of it. They do all this while wearing that oh-so-evocative combination of socks and sandals – seemingly a symbol of hard-won masculinity. At points they wear nothing else. A third character—seeking, perhaps, male companionship—is humiliated, bullied and beaten by the other two. The quiet dignity and Scandi chic seems a long way away.
Partly, it’s this cliché that DON GNU are having a pop at, particularly concerning expectations of Scandinavian men. “We were confused about what it means to be a man today,” explains Jannik Elkær, recovering after the evening’s exertions. “We were both born in the seventies, at a time when a man had to be soft – you had to be able have feelings and listen. And at the same time you had to be masculine and... grrrrr! People started to go to things like male therapy where they had to do male things like shooting and drinking. We thought it was a bit of a joke! So that’s why we went with the socks and sandals. It’s a bit of a joke about this male tendency to push borders and push limits.”
To get a few things straight, the name “DON GNU” is an elision of the two central ‘characters’ of the group’s work. Don (Jannik Elkær) is all cocky, bully-boy physicality. Gnu (Kristoffer Louis Andrup Pedersen) is a touch reserved, less ready to use his brawn, but more easily led astray. The third character in M.I.S. All Night Long, El Chino, is played by Simon Beyer-Pedersen. He is—physically, ethnically, emotionally—the outsider. A fact both Don and Gnu cotton on to quickly, and exploit brutishly.
“We’re so limited in our own prejudice and he’s like, ‘Okay, you can do it in another way. You don’t have to be stuck in your own way’," says Elkær. And then of course, it’s too much, and you start to get aggressive because you’re faced with a new side of yourself that you’re not ready to accept. So he gets beaten up!”
If it all sounds like blokey larking about, in part it is. It’s accessible and funny and takes great pleasure in shoehorning pelvic thrusts and Swiss balls into the vocabulary of dance. But it’s not without structure, or a solid purpose to the movements. Loosely, the performance oscillates between scenes of collaboration and then of competition between the characters. One memorable scene morphs a fight-like sequence into an unexpectedly sensuous tango:
“We have a thing for tango,” laughs Pedersen. “It’s not I as a person, or us as performers. It’s everything in between. Tango is, for me, a sense of what’s between two performers because that’s what creates the movement. It’s really strong. You have to find something together. It’s also what we use the plank for. A movement from one side of the plank has a big effect on the other side.”
And the pelvic thrusting? “There’s a very basic power of moving the hips,” says Elkær (of course, thrusting to underline the point). “It’s simple, and it’s basic and maybe stupid. But sometimes stupidness is the way into the basic feelings that we need.”