I Thought I Didn't Like Ballet. Then I Saw Arthur Pita's 'Björk Ballet'

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A raver on Planet Bjork. (© Erik Tomasson) (Erik Tomasson)

Confession: My knowledge of ballet is limited. I've seen Black Swan. That's about the extent of it. (Unless you count the time I tried taking a ballet class for fun and, approximately four minutes into all the pliessautes and releves, had to flee the classroom to escape the withering side-eyes of a dozen teen girls.) But I'm no Philistine; when a friend asked if I wanted to check out a Björk ballet, my answer was in the neighborhood of "Duhhhh."

If anyone's influence can teleport the classical form of ballet into the future, surely it's the Icelandic queen of kook. Maybe there would be swan dress tutus? Or computer-animated animorphs? I had to find out, so I snatched the cheapest ticket I could find ($39! Not bad!), purchased a sippy cup of wine from the bar and climbed as far up in the War Memorial Opera House as one can without ending up on the roof. My seat should have come with a warning: May cause nose bleeds, elevation sickness and/or vertigo. 

Looking through the program, I learned this wasn't an entire evening of Björk; two other pieces would be presented before the weird stuff I'd come to see. I immediately began coming up with ideas of how to make the more traditional performances interesting. I could pretend they were deleted scenes from Suspiria. I could imagine that, like in the movie Inside Out, each dancer represented one of my inner emotions (look at my anxiety twirl!). Or I could pretend it was all a hallucination brought on by some psychedelic drug.

The last technique worked best for me. Things kicked off with Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, which involved color-coded groups of male dancers one-upping each other's athleticism. I decided it was about the crackling sexual tension between rugby players at a boarding school in 1940s England. The second piece—Die Toteninsel—featured a sad procession of dancers coming in and out of complete darkness, until one dancer was left to worship a bright light. It was probably about the slow march towards death and becoming obsolete, but I took it to be an allegory for seasonal affective disorder and SAD lamps.

At last, it was time for Björk Ballet, choreographed by Arthur Pita, who The Guardian has hailed as "the David Lynch of dance." The curtain lifted to reveal a mirror-like floor. I leaned over to my friend and said, "I'm already in." She agreed. A lone dancer wearing a sad mask moved to the overture from Dancer in the Dark. You know how often I care to be reminded of how devastating that movie was? Never.

I get sad listening to the overture from 'Dancer in the Dark' too.
I get sad listening to the overture from 'Dancer in the Dark' too. (Erik Tomasson)

Thankfully, Björk's voice sliced through the depression with a reassuring message: "You'll be given love. You'll be taken care of." (Aw, thanks, Björk.) Rows of odd little tinsel palm trees lowered down from the ceiling and were suddenly cut loose, plopping onto the ground. Not one of them toppled over. A dancer carried a pole to the end of the stage and went fishing in the orchestra pit. Nothing made sense. I was falling in love anyway.

Dancers rocking their Marco Marco costumes.
Dancers rocking their Marco Marco costumes. (Erik Tomasson)

Even from the high balcony, I could tell the costumes were something special. Marco Marco—the man responsible for creating cupcake breasts for Katy Perry, bodysuits for Britney Spears' Piece of Me tour and drag outfits for queens on RuPaul's Drag Race—created face masks reminiscent of Mexican wrestlers, flashy capes and the kind of outfits you'd expect a sexy villain waging war on the Power Rangers to wear. I wanted one in every color.

My back hurts just looking at this.
My back hurts just looking at this. (Erik Tomasson)

Across eight songs that spanned across Björk's discography, from her 1993 release Debut to her latest, 2017's Utopia, the dancers moved in ways you wouldn't expect from traditional ballet. Their contortions and shapes felt closer to a game of Twister with a touch of demonic possession.


Things got most devilish during "Hyperballad." A sparkly dancer with tinsel fringed arms jerked around on top of a platform carried around the stage by four men (Cleopatra who?) before trust-falling off. Björk sang about flinging herself off a cliff and wondering what her body would sound like slamming against the rocks below, and whether her corpse's eyes would be closed or open. Every person on stage synced up, jumping up and down in unison, as if they were at an acid-fueled rave on the lip of a volcano. "I think I'm going to cry," I said out loud.

Maybe they both have mono?
Maybe they both have mono? (Erik Tomasson)

Before I knew it, the 30-minute piece was over. The curtain dropped and cloaked the magical, maniacal world of Björk. I blinked out of my trance, gaping at the edge of my seat, feeling stunned, inspired and electrified. I had no idea ballet could evoke this kind of reaction in me. Yet here I was, a convert.

I felt changed:

And you can feel that too! But you'll have to hurry; there are only a few performances left. (The series ends on Tuesday, April 9, 2019). Run; don't walk! And in case you need further encouragement, the SF Ballet recreated the show's playlist on Spotify for all of you: