We caught up with choreographer Ofelia Jarl Ortega for a chat ahead of the premiere of Ofelia's work Bien y Mal at Dansens Hus Elverket in October. This is what followed.
Power, group dynamics and unfulfilled potential. These are key ingredients in Ofelia Jarl Ortega's 'Bien y mal'. A work that, thanks to a lovely pregnancy, became lighter than the dystopia she originally wanted to make.
Once when Ofelia Jarl Ortega was at the gym, she was so moved by the fact that everyone was working out at the same time that she started to cry. Today, she laughs at the memory - it may not have been about community at the time - but the tears say something about what collective processes mean to her.
- I trip on people doing things together. I almost always cry at demonstrations, because we have come together and want something together. Or when an audience gives a standing ovation together, it moves me so much, actually moves me more than what I've seen. But just that the audience experiences something together, even if it doesn't end in a high, is exciting to share."
In her new work 'Bien y Mal' ('Good and Bad'), Ofelia Jarl Ortega returns to two favourite themes: group dynamics and power. To help her, she has five dancers, or 'performers' as she prefers to call her hand-picked collaborators.
- I wanted to work with strong performers who have their own movement languages that they are confident in. If I had wanted uniformity, I would have chosen based on other premises. Here, everyone is very different and that creates an asymmetry that I wanted to address and that becomes the mainstay.
"Bien y Mal" was already finished in June, but two months ago Ofelia Jarl Ortega had her first child and she wanted to wait until her "breastfeeding brain" had cleared up before making the final touches. Now a week away from the premiere, during the run-through Ofelia Jarl Ortega persistently makes notes in her notebook - "use the dead space on the stage here", "stay in the discomfort there" - but also allows herself to sit back and laugh.
"Bien y Mal" turned out to be a much brighter work than she first thought," she says when we sit down in a sofa group outside the lodge afterwards.
- I wanted to do something dystopian and heavy. It was going to be about the loss of power, the despair of it, of being in a fall. But during the labour process I was pregnant and it was a very nice pregnancy and I followed it into something wonderful and bright. The pregnancy also followed what we were working on, questions like "what is it like to be two? Or "where do I begin and where do I end?"
Indeed, in some scenes close to the floor under a bright red light, it is difficult to see which body parts belong to whom. In other parts, the dancers send impulses between them, movements are copied, taken over and become something else in a new body. At other times, they can become so immersed in their own movement language that they seem almost unaware of each other's existence. Then composer Jassem Hindi's captivating music, synthwave with elements of everything from techno to merengue, becomes the only common denominator.
- The music is like a sixth dancer. In my piece 'Hegemony' the rhythms were more challenging, we used mostly snare drums. Here they can sometimes almost lean on the music, it's more poppy," says Ofelia Jarl Ortega.
Rhythm and movement have always been a natural part of her life. Ofelia Jarl Ortega grew up in Malmö, with family members from Chile. Her mother is a flamenco dancer, her father a percussionist. The parents usually perform together.
- I grew up thinking it was natural to have an artistic profession. I didn't really know anyone who did anything else.
As a teenager, she played electric bass and was at home with punk music. She only started dancing at the age of twelve. And it has always been a modern style. Although Ofelia Jarl Ortega spent her high school years at the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm, her ambition was never to join a classical dance company. She also has a master's degree in choreography from the Stockholm University of the Arts, but highlights other influences as more significant in shaping her way of creating.
- My friends in Malmö were visual artists and musicians and I learnt a lot from them. There was also room for me to experiment with my own work in different formats and constellations. I go to many different art forms for inspiration and do not feel that I need to work with those who have the same dance training as me, but am more inspired by other performers and how we can meet.
As another important source of inspiration, she mentions film, preferably from the 30s or 60s. Close-ups and various aspects of objectification are included in several previous works: in the solo "StM", which was selected for the 2021 Performing Arts Biennale and also became a dance film, she worked with the gaze as the main tool. When Ofelia Jarl Ortega opened her eyes in the audience, the viewer also became aware of the power of her own gaze.
- But this time I want the audience to be off stage, sitting in the dark and not being watched. I think of the audience as witnesses: they see everything that those on stage cannot see.
I also wanted to create a feeling like: "If you just did this, you go here and you go there, things would go so much better for everyone!".
Interesting, because there is something kind of unfinished in the performance, beginnings that are not completed, or stories without end.
Ofelia Jarl Ortega nods eagerly.
- It is highly conscious! There is always a potential for something to happen, a slap, a murder or whatever. But also a potential in relation to the step, i.e. physically in the body. For example, someone doing a movement fourteen times but not doing it fully.
She sits up straight at the end of the sofa to demonstrate, exuding equal parts excitement and frustration:
- The feeling is like sitting on the edge and feeling "Come on! Now you can fucking do that!" And then it doesn't happen. Or it does happen but it's still not as satisfying as you thought.
- I like to stay in the potential, in a crossroads where things can go in different directions. In my previous work "Hegemony" it goes in the violent direction, here we stay in the more open, in a question. It's like we throw a ball up and then everyone in the audience gets to smash it in any direction they want, depending on who they are and what references and experiences they have. And because there are five of them on stage, there are different people to identify with, and people will certainly have different favourites.
So have you worked on restraining movements?
- Well, in the choreography there are elements of repeating things that are not fully done which can certainly drive the viewer crazy. But it's not a restraint, I see it more as we have choreographed a lot of human emotions. I see things I like and refine them, it's a very subtle process.
What has been the most challenging part of creating 'Bien y Mal'?
- There was a time when it was difficult to stay in the dark. In the beginning, when I didn't know where things were going. Reminding myself that I have the ultimate power, but also being able to reassure the others that things will work out.
And the funniest?
- Being able to work with a large team, especially with these people and what they teach me.
Over the years, Ofelia Jarl Ortega has developed a special way of working where she creates something alongside the main piece, smaller side pieces.
- I like to perform with these side or sibling pieces, because it gives something completely different. Like when I did a solo in a meadow in France during a festival. I learnt a lot from that situation, and it also satisfied a need to perform again.
Was there a side work to 'Bien y Mal'?
Ofelia Jarl Ortega shakes her head, leans back on the sofa. Then smiles widely.
- Yes, by the way - the baby!