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Work explores geographic, emotional isolation

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We've all heard of stuffed shirts.

Stuffed parkas, not so much.

But bulky winter jackets -- some stuffed and some hollow -- worn in quirky ways and "animated" by actor/dancers play a part in The Island.

The partly humorous performance, which presents abstract images rather than a conventional storyline, explores the struggle to connect with other human beings.

The one-hour work, a hybrid of theatre, dance and visual art, has performances Friday and Saturday at the University of Winnipeg's Asper Centre for Theatre and Film.

It's the closing event of the sixth annual Núna (now) festival of Icelandic and Canadian art. The multi-disciplinary "art convergence," funded by the Icelandic government, the Winnipeg Arts Council and corporate sponsors in both countries, has been on since May 4.

There's also a Núna show tonight at 8 p.m. at the same venue -- a performance of Debbie Patterson's solo play Sargent & Victor. It's based on interviews with residents of the troubled neighbourhood around Sargent Avenue and Victor Street, where early Icelandic immigrants settled.

Though Núna has been bringing in guest artists from Iceland since it was founded and the local curators have made many trips to the partner nation, The Island marks Núna's first full-scale "trans-Atlantic collaboration."

Actor/director Arne MacPherson and dancer/multimedia artist Freya Olafson, both of Icelandic heritage, are members of the Núna curatorial committee.

They're the two Winnipeggers who've teamed up with Reykjavik theatre artist Fri�geir Einarsson and visual/theatre artist Ingibjrg Magnadóttir to develop and perform The Island. The live score is by Icelandic musician Gu�mundur Vignir Karlsson.

The Island was well received when the four performed it in Reykjavik last fall. The dialogue is in English, since the Icelanders are fluent in the Canadians' tongue.

Einarsson and Magnadóttir came to Canada for the first time in 2010 as performers in different shows in Núna. Starting that year, the quartet had four stints of brainstorming and co-creation, two in Winnipeg and two in Iceland, each lasting several weeks.

The common theme they started with was geographic isolation, based on Iceland being an island nation and Winnipeg (along with the "New Iceland" colony of the Interlake) being a "land-locked island." But the concept evolved into something more emotional.

"We were more interested in the borders or the distance between people," says the tall, blond Einarsson, 31.

So the four onstage characters struggle to overcome loneliness and personal isolation, and to understand one another.

"I think what you see is social situations like awkwardness, shyness, miscommunication -- difficulties of communication that most people can relate to," Einarsson says.

The first draft of the show was very text-heavy, says Olafson, 28, also blond and fair. As it evolved, it became more movement-based and imagistic. "Most of the writing sank into the physical material. It's been distilled."

Olafson says the audience laughed more than she expected when they performed in Iceland. But Einarsson says he did anticipate that much laughter.

That suggests a minor cultural difference. Asked what else they've noticed in terms of similarities and differences, the artists say all four had the same self-effacing tendency to apologize for their ideas before presenting them.

Manitobans and Icelanders also tend to be emotionally indirect. "We've been joking a lot about passive-aggressiveness," Einarsson says. "That's a very Icelandic thing. Arne wants to claim passive-aggressiveness as the Canadian forte. But we want to claim it as ours."

Olafson says Icelandic people are generally a bit more reserved, which can make them seem chilly to Canadians. She recalls how her partner was at a bakery in Iceland and the woman behind the counter was greatly taken aback when he asked her, "How are you?"

On the flip side, Einarsson finds Winnipeg service people a bit socially invasive.

"In restaurants here," he says, "people are almost too nice sometimes -- complimenting me on my choice, always asking me whether it's good. I realize this is a sign of consideration, but sometimes you catch yourself thinking, 'This is just too much.'"

Theatre Preview

The Island

Núna (now) Festival

Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Asper Centre for Theatre & Film

Tickets $15 (students $10) at the door

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2012 D4

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