On cold feet

Danish polar explorer Andreas Kornerup misses a Greenland glacier (ca 1889-1891)

Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen

This big, expansive, white country is the bridgehead between Canada and Scandinavia – and Europe’s largest colony. Famous for its icebergs and a culture built on Inuit land, Greenland beckons visitors to break dance and polka on melting ice floes.

Seen from above, Greenland is as white and wrinkled as a bed sheet. It is the largest island in the world. From the plane, you don’t even want to think about ever having to wander lonely and lost through the vastness of this unpredictable landscape. The legendary whiteout, a storm that plays with the snow and lifts it miles into the sky, shrouds everything and completely dissolves all contours and shadows. There is “more or less nothing” left, as Christoph Marthaler said.

Well-prepared for Greenland: the theater expedition team around Christoph Marthaler

Allen Naylor

In 2011, the Swiss director undertook an expedition to Greenland with his ensemble. In Greenland’s capital Nuuk, they created a piece called “+-0” in which everything and everyone became indiscriminately the same. Even once the storm subsides, everything will be one glistening white desert made of snow – a surface that offers no landmarks for orientation. As vast as the sea.

The rounded horizon can be seen everywhere and nothing would interrupt it, nothing would form a fixed point of reference. It was from this experience of non-orientation that Polish architect Lech Tomaszewski developed his “Geometry of the Fourth Dimension” for the art magazine “The Situationist Times” in 1963 – the idea of a timeless empty space, a stage without a frame. A theater without a stage. Such a theater in the form of a boundless landscape can only be imagined in Greenland.

Knut Ove Arntzen in the ballet studio

Norwegian theater scholar Knut Ove Arntzen tells me this. Professor emeritus in Bergen, he devotes his life to the study of theater in the Arctic region. His knowledge of theater in Finnmark (in northern Scandinavia) and Inuit theater in Greenland and Canada, his curiosity about Siberian culture, theater aesthetics in Iceland and even in Svalbard: For him, all of it is connected to this landscape. How does it shape a person in this vastness, unlike a big city? There, the gaze and the body constantly evade architecture and follow predefined paths or roads. There is no such thing in an empty landscape like Greenland.

The settlement area of the Inuit extends from the Aleutian Islands to the south of Greenland

Greenland’s towns are not connected by roads. Knut Ove Arntzen knows that in this treeless, circumpolar space, people move differently and suspects that people think differently accordingly. Every visible boundary, usually a roadside, a house wall, a forest edge, seems here to always keep its distance, as if of its own accord – distances as vast as those covered by the reindeer followed by the Sami in Finnmark. But even the coastline can be a border of endless distance. Along this border, the islanders move around sitting in kayaks, as the Inuit in Greenland have always done – hunting seals, whales, and polar bears.

Old Nuuk and its colonial harbor are dominated by skyscrapers, built fifty years ago for the settlement of the Inuit.

In Greenland’s capital Nuuk, where Knut Ove Arntzen and I meet, people, frankly, want to know very little of the expansive wilderness. Strictly speaking, the capital is a village of a little over 20,000 residents. In the center lies the Samuel Kleinschmidtip Aqqutaa, a small crossroad. This street is home to the “Garagen”, the former “Manhattan,” the only club in town. An island of dance. Greenland’s center of urban dance. Of course there are breakers. After all, it is the capital. In front of the street sign, I ask who Samuel Kleinschmidt was: a Greenlander of German descent, a 19th-century missionary. Kleinschmidt explored the grammar of the Greenlandic language known also as Kalaallisut. Kalaallisut is spoken by everyone except the Danes, Norwegians, Filipinos, and Thais who live here to provide supplies and services to the 20,000 people. Samuel Kleinschmidt once translated Kalaallisut into Danish – including the word “Eqqumiitsuliorneq,” which corresponds to the Greenlandic word for art. Literally, it means “to do something strange.” Dancing, for example.

The fish factory and behind it the Arctic National Defense Command, the construction boom in Nuuk and its heavy equipment, the Inuit dried fish market in front of a shopping mall

Knut Ove Arntzen grew up in Tromsø and Honningsvåg, north of the Arctic Circle. He feels at home here in Nuuk – in the absence of trees or shrubs, and without any hint of indignation regarding the growth, or rather the construction boom, this small town is experiencing. Everywhere, new apartment blocks are springing up next to old prefabricated buildings from the 1970s, which previously made way for multi-story wooden buildings and are now being supplemented by ever more modern multi-story structures. Nuuk, too, has known poverty since the 1960s, when the Danish government relocated the country’s widely scattered people here to better serve them. Forced urbanization changed the culture, families were separated, and self-sufficient livelihoods were lost. Today, homeless people shiver at the entrances to the town’s two shopping centers in temperatures lower than minus ten degrees Celsius. They observe an informal market not far away, where dried fish in small portions is sold at prices entirely unaffordable to them. Prices per square meter have doubled in recent years.

The port of Nuuk: Any goods are brought ashore from here

Nuuk is supplied entirely by imports. Large container ships overseen by gray Danish navy frigates bring in every piece of butter, cheese, chicken, and, despite the few roads, every car needed to get to Nuuk’s far-flung neighborhoods: It costs a lot to administrate the few people here, to dispose of their garbage, take care of their energy needs, support the healthcare system and to maintain a university here.

Greenland is the land of the Inuit. Their way of life, hunting, stands for self-sufficiency. They have lost their former freedom from trade. Nevertheless, Greenland is not a colony, says Denmark. Only foreign and defense policy are still firmly in Danish hands. Greenland became a northern bridgehead against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And a place that called upon its ancestors through strange dances: through mask dances, as interpreted by Greenland native Elisabeth Heilmann Blind in particular. Growing up in Greenland’s second largest city, Sisimiut, she joined a movement in the 1980s that was dedicated to searching for the roots of Greenlandic culture. Inspired by the Danish Tûkak Theater, Heilmann Blind today pushes a wooden spoon between her cheeks for her current performances, wears leather straps tied around her blackened head, and gives her mask the mythical character of “Meqqu – Angasoloq,” a wanderer between the ancestral past and the hardships experiences by the natives today.

Traditionally, grandparents provide for the children of the Inuit

Christine Eichmann (1869-1945)

Elisabeth Heilmann Blind as “Meqqu – Angasoloq”

Hans-Olog Utsi

French choreographer Daniel Larrieu: “Icedream”, dance on an East Greenland ice floe

Christian Merlhiot

With the abrupt onset of climate change in the Arctic in 2007, Greenland once again came into focus. French choreographer Daniel Larrieu’s dance on the ice floe in the video installation “Ice Dream,” created in 2010 on the ice-rich east coast, remains unforgotten. Other stakeholders embrace the change: As temperatures rise, it will be easier to mine Greenland’s rich mineral resources, such as rare earth elements. And the Arctic Silk Road beckons, which will enable China to run its trade routes along Russia’s northern coast or via Alaska and Canada, calling directly at the ports of Churchill in Canada or New York via Nuuk. Speculation about such an increase in interest is palpable in Nuuk – even though this once beautiful place, situated at the tip of a peninsula that faces a system of breathtaking fjords, is meant primarily to lure tourists.

Nuuk, the colonial village. The sculpture of the colonialist Hans Egede is as far in the background as possible.

The professor and I note that the village ducks away from the vast landscape behind it. It looks towards the sea. The old, well-preserved colony on the shore with its Greenland National Museum and the old ecclesiastical teachers’ seminary is oriented the same way – facing west. Within sight of the old village stands a sculpture of Hans Egede – like a lighthouse. The stone man on the rock also stares doggedly at the ocean. Egede was Norwegian, a missionary who moved to the cold. He founded Nuuk in 1721, when the place went by the Danish name Godthåb (Good Hope). Egede was a picture-perfect colonialist, a missionary tasked by the merchants of Bergen, Norway, with establishing a trading post here for furs and later the fish oil obtained from sealing and whaling. Before the advent of mineral oil, this fish oil illuminated the city lights of London and Amsterdam. Economics drove colonialism, and the ambition of the Protestants to convert every Inuit to Christianity so that they would renounce shamanism, which originated in Siberia and came to Greenland via Canada. This ambition is still at work today: a good deal, they say, is only truly good if the spirit is right. What was once Christianity is now called democracy. Anyone who does not master this concept is considered a bad partner in world trade.

Der norwegische Regisseur Tormod Carlsen und die Schlussszene des von ihm inszenierten Rockmusicals “Palasi”

To mark its 300th anniversary, delayed by two years due to the pandemic, the town of Nuuk has just smashed its founder Hans Egede to pieces. Of course Greenland is a colony, says director Tormod Carlsen, himself Norwegian, and here searching for traces of his Greenlandic grandfather. He dismantled the invader turned stone and fellow countryman Hans Egede in a rock opera entitled “Palasi” (“Priets”) – a production by the National Theatre of Greenland.

Susanne Andreassen, the producer and head of the Greenland National Theater, based in an industrial area (pictured below).

Angu Motzfeldt

Yes, they have that here as well: a “theater of our country,” complete with costly tours to the smaller towns along the expansive coast that have to be completed by propeller plane. Until the summer of 2023, the National Theater will be headed by Susanne Andreasen, a Dane, who will then be succeeded by Greenlandic actress Vivi Sørensen.

Poster of the Tûkak Theater – the original cell of the Greenlandic National Theater

Her stage is a creation of the theater group Silamiut. In Greenlandic, the name means “those who live outdoors.” The company was formed by a handful of actors from the Tukâk Teatret in Fjaltring, Denmark and came to Nuuk in 1984. Throughout its existence, it has remained a pure project theater without a permanent ensemble due to a lack of personnel. And that is how it also became a national theater in 2011. Now – anytime theater people can be found – its actors perform adaptations of Arctic tales next to Shakespeares’ “A Midsummernights Dream” in Greenlandic and to mask plays such as “Aari” in 1989 or the “Eskimunngooq-Eskimo Stories” with Makka Kleist (1992), the grande dame of Greenlandic theater.

The studio of the National Theater School, with brackets on the wall and high ceiling, is suitable for rehearsals to an aerial dance

In 1997, the theater moved from the old seminary at Colonial Harbor, which dates back to Hans Egede’s missionary arts, to the newly built Katuaq cultural center. For the first time, it also presented modern dance, such as the piece “Arsernerit” (Northern Light) by Norwegian choreographer Indra Lorentzen. However, the theater has become best known for its affectionate satires, about the first 25 years of self-government in Greenland (1979-2004), for example. The current production, “Palasi,” is also part of this theater concept, which deals critically with local history and grapples to define Greenlandic identity. For Greenland’s children, barely fledged, want nothing more urgently than to get away: They are drawn above all to Denmark.

Baby stroller equipped with baby monitor together with undisturbed slumbering contents from the cultural center Katuaq

The National Theater and its small theater school have found a home not in the prestigious Katuaq cultural center with its popular café, facing the glass front of which mothers park their strollers complete with contents and baby monitors during the day so they can chat with each other in peace, but rather in a former warehouse in an industrial zone. The school was also founded by a Greenlander: Makka Kleist. There is a huge dance studio with walls almost ten meters high, created for dances in the landscape, a rehearsal stage for aerial choreographies – for synchronously swinging bodies held by ropes. There once was such a production. Not anymore. Susanne Andreassen, the director, leads us through the simple rooms as one would through a museum.

Historical photographs of traditional Inuit mask dances and jewelry of the Shamamen in the holdings of the Greenland National Theater.

Posters from the past and photographic documents showing Greenlandic drum and mask dances from another century are everywhere. Knut Ove Arntzen, who initiated the archival work, interprets this memorabilia as typical of development – albeit of the European theater. For in the 1980s, he relates, there was a theater anthropology movement – thanks to Jerzy Grotowsky, Eugenio Barba, and Richard Schechner – that wanted to return to the origins of theater, to cult and the body. Where better than in Greenland to study such traditions, which had been preserved here in their pure form? This was also the intention of the actors of Silamiut. They would have found what they were looking for only in the east of the island, which is difficult to access due to the long-standing ice. The mask dance of the Inuit, for example, is a dance performed in a trance – “It’ll cost 500 euros if you want to see this dance,” says Susanne Andreassen and lies in wait. Will I bite? Is it worth that sum to me? I hesitate. “To achieve a trance state, the dancer needs a lot of preparation time,” she tells me, explaining the high price. And then laughs out loud: “Tourism is a main source of income here, also for the theater.”

Forty years ago, the Greenlandic theater group Silamiut was the vanguard of an anthropological theater – and quickly reached a dead end: All over the world, tourists want to experience authentic foreignness – in Bali, in Africa, and here in Greenland as well: They want to see Inuit dances, or at least Greenlandic polkas accompanied by violin and harmonica. “This is a problem,” admits Knut Ove Arntzen, “although serious theater anthropological research in the last century sought dialog with cultures, producing such famous directors as Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine, and Robert Lepage,” all world-traveling adventurers from Cambodia to Alaska, who always stuck closely to the trail of indigenous theater arts. In Canada and Europe, however, audiences seemed to want only to dream of the myths and exotic colorfulness of the world. Today, theater anthropologists are considered colonial abettors. Arntzen does not despise them because they ask what role the theater played in original societies with their intoxicating dionysia and dances that triggered collective ecstasies. Today there is only one succinct answer left: Cultural appropriation. Such a thing should be banned, although Greenlandic dances, Greenlandic myths, and Greenlandic music have long since been seamlessly incorporated into the inventory of Western culture under the label “world music.”

Mask dance of the founding ensemble, the Silamiut Theater, 1990

Hans Peter Kleemann in “Palasi”

But it’s exactly the other way around. It was the idea of Greenlandic guitarist Hans Peter Kleemann and the politician and poet Aqqaluk Lynge to build the rock musical “Palasi” on his life’s work. He was a member of the legendary Greenlandic band Piitsukkut (“The Poor”), which in 1980 claimed the right to incorporate Western punk, hard rock, and whatever else was coming to Greenland into a song called “Oppressed of all lands, unite!” They also composed the song “Our Own Clothes” in which they sing: “We must dress warmly. But in what? In the clothes of the Danes? No!” This song brought the band such success that they were promptly invited to Denmark, where “The Sun” (Seqineq) was written:

You see the rising sun
You see the melting snow
You see the receding ice
You see it will soon be summer
Your eyes see
See the icebergs
The icebergs in the sea
Your eyes see
The glistening sea
It is yours, your own
And mine – it’s our land
More beautiful
More lovely
Than anything else

Since Greenland already has two national anthems, this song is now considered the unofficial third. Only the band Piitsukkut no longer exists. For the rock musical “Palasi” it is being covered by a younger generation. The audience are quick to jump out of their seats. The song of the rising sun is projected onto the wall, karaoke-style. And while the audience – well, about half of it (the other half doesn’t understand or speak Greenland’s language Kalaallisut) – sing along fervently, he enters the stage: Hans Peter Kleemann. Unmistakable, his long hair in rainbow colors, traditional Inuit tattoos, guitar – the last remaining member of the band, born in 1956 and devoted grandfather of two granddaughters: “I always say that grandparents should spoil the children while the parents should raise them.” He, too, is a child of his grandparents. He grew up in his mother’s childhood home on an island in northwestern Greenland. His grandmother brewed schnapps: “At night, when we heard a loud pop, we knew the bottle was ready to be drunk,” he recalls. And his grandfather’s brother taught him not to play on ice floes by pushing him off one into the freezing water. At school he was the only Greenlander among a pack of noisy Danes, was bullied, went to secondary school in the small town of Asiaat, and at a party there met the older musician Maasi Lynge, who would go on to become the lead singer of Piitsukkut. “The secondary school had a curfew in the evenings. When the band had a gig, I would jump out the window and run to the community center to hear them play,” he says. He followed his new idol Maasi Lynge to Qaqortoq, way down in the south of Greenland. There, it was always party time. The Maoist-influenced Inuit Ataqatigiit party had also just been founded and organized a summer camp in Aasivik with the current mastermind behind the “Palasi” production. Music producer Karsten Sommer, born in Strasbourg and Danish by passport, also joined the band. His record label ULO Records led Piitsukkut to success. Karsten Sommer likes to talk about this legendary summer camp at the traditional gathering place of the Inuit, which was used to store their winter supplies. In 1979, it became a place to also “stock up on winter supplies for the brain,” he says. With music that was political and, above all, angry enough to ensure the land would no longer be left to the Danes.

Piitsukkut’s old song “Palasi” (“Priest”) begins like this: “We heard one who didn’t speak our language. He stretched out his hands and waited for ours.” The rest of the song relentlessly criticizes the church for its role in colonizing the Inuit: as a clash of cultures. This clash was not over yet. On one side were Hans Peter Kleemann and his rebellious fellow musicians, who called their art “brand new political anti-colonialist art in Greenland.” On the other side was the church, which protested vehemently and succeeded, with the help of state pressure, in getting KNR, the only radio station in Nuuk, to stop playing the song for two years. Now the song has lent its title to a whole rock musical.

Its plot primarily consists of trivializing the very popular Greenlandic motif of the struggle of the shaman against the preacher, of faith based around nature versus monotheism, as if it were a battle of faith at eye level. This is also what Greenland’s great actress and playwright Makka Kleist does, whose duo “The Shaman and the Priest,” also loosely based on Hans Egede’s mission diaries and personal memories of the Inuit, was staged by Hanne Trap Friis as a chamber play in Aarhus. Hans Egede apparently acts as a collective trauma. In “Palasi,” an Inuit choir performs on a video screen that obscures the orchestra. The orchestra is the Arktisk Filharmoni all the way from Tromsø. In the center of the stage stands a replica of the statue of Hans Egede – “Come to Daddy” is written on its pedestal, as if spraypainted. The climax follows the erection of the monument of this Protestant missionary worker made of papier mâché – the blowing up of the monument, simulated by lighting and acoustic effects and accompanied by the song “The Sun” quoted above.

“Palasi” – the highlight: the light and sound blasting of the monument to the colonialist Hans Egede.

Theater scholars think that every nation in Europe first knew the theater. It incited revolution under the permanent threat of censorship, and only with the founding of the nation did the national theater come into existence. In Greenland exactly the opposite is the case: first came the national theater, then – perhaps – the founding of the nation. No one knows when there will be a revolution.

Appearance of Aqqaluk Lynge in “Palasi” – the parliamentary fighter of the first hour for the independence of Greenland from Denmark

Greenland is indeed not a nation, despite having two and a half national anthems, gigantic national parks twenty times the size of Denmark, a national flower (an Arctic fireweed), the white and red national costume, the national theater, and the national museum. There was no Greenlandic parliament until 1979. At that time, writer Aqqaluk Lynge, the speaker and poet behind “Palasi,” was, above all, a politician in the parliament of the first hour. The work of the parliament began with leaving the European Economic Community (today’s EU) – which did not change the fact that to this day, only state-owned companies paid by Denmark provide goods and services to the population. Greenland has only actually been self-governing since June 21, 2009. That is why June 21 is the national holiday. Self-governing means that Greenland’s raw materials now belong to the Greenlanders. Nevertheless, in 2019, the Trump administration tried to buy the giant island from the Danish government in order to annex it to the United States. While this attempt was made in vain, it shows that on an international level, Greenland remains the land of the Danes.

Ballet classes at Nuuk’s newly opened dance studio, the “NuQi”.

And the invasion continues: The dance scene also comes to the melting land. It is financially supported by the Nordic Institute, Greenland’s cultural foundation, as is the “Palasi” production. The foundation is at home in the Nordic Council of Ministers of all Scandinavian countries to promote cultural exchange among themselves. That is why a whole orchestra from Tromsø can travel to Nuuk even for just a few performances. And that is also why Greenlanders can apply to study or for artists’ residencies throughout the Nordic Council of Ministers’ sphere of influence. All this also works the other way around: Danish, Norwegian, and other Scandinavian artists of any genre are provided with scholarships if they want to work in Greenland. And they do.

They seldom do it because they are attracted by the austerely folded landscape, the endless winter under the aurora borealis, or because the summer here seems more bearable than in the Mediterranean. They do it because they want to dance, and not infrequently because they are homesick. As a rule – as if it were a law – dancers in Nuuk are connected to Greenland through their grandparents who came from here: not necessarily Inuit – whalers, merchants, and apprentices of the pastor’s trade who once washed up here are also Greenlanders – undistinguishable by their Danish passports.

The home of “NuQi”: the Godthåbhallen. To the left, a noble karate dojo

Sarah Aviaja Hammeken has worked as an artist for a long time in the setting of the Dansehallerne dance house in Copenhagen. She trained as a dancer in Munich and Stockholm and has long since produced her own pieces. She also works with the children of Nuuk, gives ballet lessons, lets them improvise in dance. During the day, we meet her at rehearsals in the studio of the National Theater’s theater school; in the evenings she works in the Godthåbhallen, which is actually a huge sports hall that can accommodate a thousand spectators, who usually come here to see Greenland’s national handball team play.

On the second floor, Sarah Aviaja Hammeken gives her dance classes in the brand-new NuQi dance center, which will be officially opened in March 2023. It was founded by Ruth Montgomery-Andersen, a doctor of health sciences from Austin, Texas. She came to Nuuk at the turn of the century for love, with her Danish husband. In Greenland, she quickly found a treasure trove for research after working as a ,idwife – delivering over 2000 Greenlandic children in 3 localities in Greenland. After giving 15 years to health care in Greenland she became an associate at the Institute for Health Research at the University of Greenland. “Culture and health,” she says, “are intimately associated with each other.” The Greenland Institute for Health Research is concerned not only with hygiene and preventive care, but significantly also with environmental, cultural, and social issues. “Dancing is not only healthy, it’s a very physical means of integration and conflict resolution, a key to solving pressing social problems.” And those abound in Nuuk. And those abound in Nuuk.

Ruth Mongomery-Andersen

Sarah Aviaja Hammeke

Ruth Montgomery-Andersen’s dance expertise is considerable. During her time at Southern Methodist University in Texas, she was a member of the Meadows Division of Dance there – an experience that shaped her not only as a physician. She became the director of the cultural program at the 2016 Arctic Winter Games in Nuuk, while at the same time caring for women and ensuring healthy births in a polar environment where there is no tight network of midwives and doctors. One question in particular drives her: how their children grow up, what spurs them on: without the old Inuit culture, but through regimented education that confronts them little with prospects and opportunities to experiment for themselves. Most are simply wild, strong, and hungry for life. And when they reach adulthood, they take to their heels. And when they reach adulthood, they take to their heels.

Like Niels Berglund. In Ruth Montgomery-Andersen’s young dance school, co-financed by a social fund from the Danish Oak Foundation, he now has the B-girls and B-boys under his wing. At barely eighteen, the dance enthusiast was drawn from Nuuk to Århus in Denmark to train as a car mechanic. But in the workshop, he simply could not restrain himself. His energy demanded something else entirely: He danced ten hours a day and sometimes more, first ballet, which he hoped would tame and discipline him – even though he was still dancing when everyone else had long since left the studio. “If the pirouettes aren’t enough, let me add a headspin,” he thought. The ballet boy became an urban dancer. He came of age as one who spun incessantly around himself. Like a king, he returned to Nuuk, to Club Manhattan, the center of urban dance in the Samuel Kleinschmidtip Aqqutaa. He showed the breakers there a great deal, organized battles, dove deep into a scene he helped create. Then he seriously injured his hip and had to take a break for a year and a half. Now he works with Ruth Montgomery-Andersen and her son Alexander, also a dancer, with a family that wants to give the ego at least a physical perspective in dance.

Niels Berglund

Also a humiliation; nothing in this clothing store was produced in Greenland

“There is a social problem, one that is alienated from tradition and feels humiliated by the European gaze. There’s a rage there that just can’t be managed. You have to make anger productive – through skills and networking,” says Montgomery-Andersen.

Her son’s wife, Madelaine Graadahl, is a producer at the “Regional Arena for Samtidsdans,” an arena for contemporary dance in Sandnes, Norway. From here, it is not far to the island of Finnøy, which hosts a summer camp for dance professionals from the north, not unlike the summer camps that also took place in Greenland in the 1980s. It is the similarities that attract and bring people together – the island, the rugged coast, the vast sea. Of course, says Knut Ove Arntzen, it is the landscape. It means much more to the people here than you might think. “For centuries, millennia, intimate knowledge of their non-arable land was the only livelihood for the Inuit and Sami peoples. That’s the only reason they were able to survive without farming. This means that their culture is very different from the agricultural sedentary culture of the more southern parts of Europe. You can’t make a farmer out of an Inuit, or a nomad out of a farmer, even after this long a time. That’s culture,” he says and invites us to the Mutte, the inn – the most folkloric of Nuuk’s many cultural centers.