Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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Ancient and modern worlds collide

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Joe Chvala as the trickster Loki dances on a table in the hall of the gods (Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center)
In the ambitious new work, "Between the Fire and Ice (Mjollnir II)," choreographer and dancer Joe Chvala teams up with vocalist Ruth MacKenzie to comment on contemporary life through ancient Norse myth and music. Beneath the heroic tales of battles among gods, Chvala attempts to reveal human struggles that are still relevant today.

St. Paul, Minn. — This isn't the first time Joe Chvala has explored ancient Norse myth with his percussive dance ensemble the Flying Foot Forum. Ten years ago Chvala cemented his reputation in the Twin Cities dance scene with "Mjollnir: Hammer of Thor." The show was filled with the surreal imagery and hard driving rhythms that have become his group's trademarks.

"The images from 'Mjollnir' keep coming back to me and the ideas that we worked with," Chvala says. "The Norse myths really resonate with my thoughts these days."

The original show focused on the image of the Hammer of Thor offering protection through power and force. Chvala says the first "Mjollnir" was his way of making sense of the world at the end of 20th century.

Chvala has subtitled his new work "Mjollnir II." This time around Chvala says he tries to represent two opposing images: the Norse worlds of ice and fire.

"As I get older, I think I've gotten more accepting of all the things that aren't right in the world as I get older," Chvala says. "But I feel that we do lie between extremes in this world and how we manage to live between those is what's important."

In the original "Mjollnir" Joe Chvala collaborated with the industrial percussion band Savage Aural Hotbed. He's retained some of that music, but turned to singer Ruth MacKenzie for new compositions. Her songs and narration provide a framework the show. With its anthem-like quality, the music creates an ancient, mystical feel that complements the images Chvala creates on stage.

MacKenzie is no stranger to the world of Norse myth. Several years ago she put together a show based on the Finnish epic, "The Kalevala."

"My show was a more intimate story," she says. "Joe is trying to make very broad statements about our culture and the glorification of violence and a sense of losing balance. There has to be a better balance struck."

"Between the Fire and Ice" opens on a contemporary domestic scene of a man and woman sitting at the breakfast table on a rainy Sunday morning. From there characters shift and swirl through time and space as ancient Nordic stories are reinterpreted in dream-like settings. There's a futuristic bar in which Joe Chvala portrays the trickster Loki. Dressed in a red plaid jacket and bright orange wig, he dances on a table and complains about his duties as Norse god Odin's jester.

Twin Cities dance critic Camille LeFevre finds the imagery, dancing and music of "Between the Fire and Ice" often quite stunning, but she says the connecting narrative is unclear. "You have to sit back and try not to think too hard about who's who and what's what because it can get kind of confusing," she says. "You have to take each vignette as it comes. I think the work could use a little bit stronger narrative thread throughout. As with a lot of mythology, there are so many characters and so many things happening. It's hard to have a really straightforward continuity."

Chvala admits that the show's narrative zig-zags around. But he says even if audiences don't see every little detail, they will still understand the connection between ancient Norse mythology and contemporary life.

"All of these mythologies go very deep into the human psyche," Chvala says. "We still have the same make-up as the people who created these myths. Somewhere I think these myths really resonate with us as humans and describe what our behavior is like and what the possibilities are for both destruction and creation."

These myths helped Joe Chvala create the work he considers his favorite child, his signature piece. That's one of the reasons he's come back to it 10 years after its first incarnation. "Between the Fire and Ice (Mjollnir II)" runs at the Walker Art Center's new MacGuire Theater through Saturday.

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