Føddur Gamal – the Faroese version of TaikaBox’s dance, digital art and storytelling performance ”BORN OLD” based on the Finnish epic poetry of Kalevala – premiered in May 2021 for the children of The Faroe Islands.
Faroese singer and actress Eyð Berghamar Jacobsen was the one who delivered the old wisdoms of the magical hero Väinämöinen to the audiences on the Faroese Islands. She was performing on the stage of the Nordic House in the Faroese capital Tórshavn – simultaneously with the Finnish dance artist Marjo Kiukaanniemi who was performing onstage in Oulu.
In an interview with TaikaTalk, Eyð Berhamar Jacobsen speaks about the tradition of combining dance and storytelling, the Nordic cultural context and the process of revisiting the old stories with contemporary art and technology.
TaikaTalk: When and how did you make a choice to become an artist?
Eyð Berhamar Jacobsen: I’ve been dreaming about becoming a famous singer since I was quite little.
And your dream came true.
I did follow it after going to high school. I moved to Sweden and entered a music school that was quite hard to get into and also went to the ballet academy. The second thing I was interested in after singing, however, was acting. That is what I started doing, also singing pop and jazz on the side.
At some point I got tired of all the auditions – I wanted to move back to the Faroe Islands: I became a mother and needed something more stable to live on. I moved back and got a master’s degree in Faroese language and literature. Now I’m teaching Faroese at a high school in Tórshavn – and also singing a lot and sometimes acting… Faroe Islands is a very small country. We have a lot of singer-songwriters and singers. Yet we don’t have so much dancing here…
The Faroese Islands do have a traditional dance – the Faroese chain dance. Hasn’t this tradition been developing and branching out?
The Faroese chain dance is our old folklore tradition really rooted in the Faroese people. It is very simple dancing, being in fact more about storytelling. We sing old medieval ballads while dancing it.
So it must feel natural for you to be in the BORN OLD context of combining movement with storytelling – it is basically the Faroese thing?
Yes, that is rooted in us: dancing when telling old stories. The Faroe Islands still belong to Denmark. We didn’t get to learn our Faroese language at schools until 1938. Until then we were only allowed to write in Danish and hear Danish in church and at school. But the old medieval texts – ballads and stories – have been handed over through generations. That’s how they live on. At some point in the 19th century we started writing them down. We are still very aware of those texts and are using them in artwork. For example, I’m also singing in KATA – a group of five women singing these old ballads, but in a new way, polyphonically in five voices.
Persecution of those who fight for the right to speak their mother tongue – always dramatic and tragic – marks the art field in special colours. Maybe this is one of the reasons Faroese contemporary art prefers words to dance – because it spent so many decades having to be silent and censored, too many words still feel unspoken and unsang.
Absolutely. The other reason is the very way of living – we don’t yet have a big environment for dance. There isn’t even any big theatre. It’s still a discussion to get the politicians to start working together to build a real national theatre. So the very cultural scene is young – we have been under the Danes for such a long time…
Has the linguistic context within the performing arts changed to the better – freer, more appreciated, less restricted – in your perspective?
Indeed. It’s been evolving extremely fast. My grandparents didn’t have Faroese at school, they didn’t even get a chance to know how to read and write Faroese. Now I am singing in Faroese and teaching it. We currently have lots of authors, actors and singer-songwriters, all doing well here or out in the world. Artists of the younger generation are creating and developing the dance scene. We are ”behind” the other Nordic countries, of course. But we’re moving forward quite fast and with passion. We’re not at all as we used to be – there is a strong feeling we are independent and free to do just about anything.
What do you feel is missing in the artistic community and what are you personally craving for in the artistic and performing context?
We are playing BORN OLD in the Nordic House. It was built in the 1980-s, and there were a lot of conservative Faroe Islanders who would complain: ”Oh, no, we are not going to use this expensive stupid house”. I don’t know what we could have done without it. The Nordic House has been hosting Faroese artists, international artists, holding huge concerts and festivals and in general – building cultural bridges. Yet we would really need to have a theatre so we can integrate all of the art forms. And the opera, and the music halls – that’s what is really missing most.
How do you feel the Faroese historical context influences the art scene? It seems that because of the national trauma of not being able to use the native language the Faroese artistery is marked by the spirit of activism, which adds the political meaning to a piece of art, turning it into the document of history, the human right statement and nourishing the process of rediscovering cultural and historical roots.
This is exactly how it feels. Faroese actors and singers are in a way activists – also in terms of trying to push politicians and the system in general to get more funding to put into the arts, so that we can live by it and brand it internationally.
How do you feel the Corona has affected this phenomenon? Some artists from different parts of the globe now claim to be more politically and socially aware, since the pandemic has brought the personal and the public together, literally putting that boundary away – all have been affected on personal and political level, having to find new ways to survive and carry on the artwork. It seems the Faroese cultural environment never actually had this border bold. Did the virus underline it somehow?
That’s right. Same applies to the performing context. I lived in Sweden for five years. I hear my friends there complaining about the system, saying Corona is taking away their income and leaving them in ruins economically. I don’t see that on the Faroe Islands. The Corona situation has left the possibility to still be having concerts, just for a smaller audience. The Nordic House, for example, has been having concerts taking in only a hundred people.
That’s not bad. At some point Finnish restrictions allowed six people in one room, including the performers.
It’s not (smiles). There was a feeling of extra isolation though, triggered by the fears in the tourism sector. Yet it has been going quite well in recent years due to domestic tourism. It feels the Faroe Islanders have saved themselves well in the Corona situation. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to sound too positive. I am a teacher and don’t work as an artist full time. There has been loss, but my observation is that it is smaller in comparison to our international colleagues. And streamings and online platforms have been softening this loss for the artists.
BORN OLD – Føddur Gammal – goes in line with Faroese tradition of combining dance and storytelling. What about the content – have you had any relationship with Kalevala before?
The literature and folklore contexts of Finland and Faroe Islands are quite similar, in my perspective, which makes it easy to connect. Just like with other Nordic myths and stories.
My father was an author. He died in 2012. My mother has all his books organized the way they always were when he was alive. I remember the book of Kalevala from when I was little.
Recently I’ve gone upstairs to the room which used to be his. I found that Kalevala. It was translated into Faroese in 1994. I’m thinking I should read it now (laughs) – unfortunately I haven’t read the whole book before. It does remind me of old Faroese medieval ballads about heroes and the origin of the world and people.
Do you have a favourite hero/ magician or favourite storyline in the Faroese mythology, maybe something you go through with your students when teaching Faroese?
There is this very long ballad in three parts, it features a huge male hero who rides his horse and fights a dragon. Yet if you read it with metaphorical new glasses, you see another hero – a heroine, actually. A tough cool woman called Brynhild . The dragon storyline involves the ring – a Faroese trace one can recognize in Tolkien’s ”Lord of the Rings”.
The old man seems to have taken a lot from the Nordic mythology: the eagle and Gandalf scene is a direct allusion to one of Väinämöinen’s adventures from Kalevala.
Yes, he’s just being stealing the storylines (both laugh).
So what does the tough lady do in the ballad?
Well, she is independent and strong…
And that’s enough.
Exactly (both laugh).
TaikaTalk: What would you tell your younger self, the one making her first steps as an artist?
Eyð: Always be yourself. Never try to be like anybody else.
Eyð Berghamar Jacobsen was talking with Lölä Vlasenko