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Story is everything.  You may have amazing sets, beautiful costumes and striking lighting but if there is no action or character development, then the story goes nowhere.

Because Borealis is such an iconic festival in Finnmark, (and I dare say Norway), picking the right story to dramatize for the setting is vital.  I think about the local people, the audience, history, themes, meaning, and if the story can be brought to life on an ice stage.  The story I picked for the first opening show I did in 2011 was about the German occupation and evacuation of Finnmark.  This is not a happy topic – people were forced out of their homes and moved to Troms.  They watched their homes and towns burn while standing on the boats headed for evacuation ‘camps’.   It is difficult to find the beauty in such an ugly time.  However, to dramatize it I chose to tell the story through the eyes of nature.  We had a fire dragon, that burnt down all the houses, that battled with the snow dragon, that put out the fire.  We had a boy who was left behind and Mother Nature took care of him with an early spring.  We had dancing flowers and chirping birds, but seeing the sadness in the boy’s heart, for he missed his family, Mother Nature called the seas to bring back the people of Finnmark.  From scratch the people rebuilt their houses and towns, working together, helping each other.  Even though this story was about a dark chapter in Finnmark’s history, the show was well received, got great reviews, and I got to hug many locals saying thank you for bringing it to the stage.

2015 will be a bigger event because of the dog sledding world cup, but the story selection process is the same for me – local people, audience, history, theme, meaning and if the story can be brought to life on stage.  The only thing that has really changed this time (apart from expectations being higher) is the audience; it will likely be more international, with more international coverage.  So, I want to showcase Norway – Norway’s heart, history, legends.  The first thing that came to mind was: What is Norway’s grand-daddy story?  What is the story that made Norway what it is today?  What made Norway become a country?  And the answer to that goes all the way back to the Viking Age.

Norway has some strong founding stories – their independence in 1905, the signing of the constitution in 1814 and even the Eternal King, the fierce Viking Saint Olaf – but the one that took my fancy was the story of Harald Fairhair, the first King of Norway, and Gyda.  Their story is about the unification of Norway; it is about love.

The most reliable story source is found in the Heimskringla, a collection of the Old Norse King’s sagas written almost four centuries later.  The section of story that I’ll be focusing on begins with the arrival of the severed head of the Petty King of Vestfold, Halfdan the Black, to his wife and child, Harald.  Halfdan unwittingly crossed a frozen lake on his horse while journeying around his kingdom.  The ice collapsed and he drowned.  As he was known to be a king of good seasons, meaning during his days the fields gave good harvests, they divided his body up and delivered the parts to the four corners of his kingdom and laid him to rest (in mounds that still stand today), in the hopes of continual good seasons.  His head was sent to his wife and son in Ringerike.  His son, Harald, just a boy, became King of the petty kingdom of Vestfold.  In Harald’s mischievous teens he defeated five kings from different petty kingdoms.  On one of his pillages he saw the beautiful Gyda, a Viking princess from the west.  He sent his servants to claim her as his wife but she refused.  She sent back a message that she would not marry Harald until he was the king of all of Norway.  Taking up the challenge (vowing never to cut his hair until he succeeded), Harald set off to conquer all the other petty kingdoms.  He battled for ten years around the land collecting kingdoms under his belt.  Those who fled by sea where settlers of Iceland, Scotland, Ireland, Greenland, Canada and other places.  In a great dragon ship battle at Hafrsfjord, Harald defeated Gyda’s father, Eirik, King of Hordaland.  That was the turning point and Harald became king of a united Norway, cut off his long, long hair, and married Gyda.

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King Harold Fairhair takes over the kingdom of his father, Halfdan the black. Miniature from Flateyjarbok.  – 1394.

As a creator, I get to decide when to start and stop the story, what parts to leave in or take out, what order I want the story to be in (narrative), which point of view the story is told in, and even which themes I would want to dominate.  This means the show becomes my own interpretation of the story, and this is what is means to be an artist.  Rather than just giving a historical account, with no voice, I want to put in the struggles and sacrifice, the joys and the sorrows, the lessons and the growth.  This is what brings a story to life – the human quality.

One very interesting aspect from my research is about the difference in how Norwegians and I (an outlander) view the story of Harald and Gyda.  The story is known by most in Norway, though to varying degrees, as it is taught in school.  The general consensus is that Gyda was a bit of a gold digger, or, she is taught that way.  The Norwegian idea of Gyda is that she wanted power and riches and that is why she ‘convinced’ Harald to fight all the petty kingdoms to be the first King of Norway – because she wanted to be the first Queen of Norway.  Me, I didn’t read it like that.  In fact, I read it like a Shakespearian tragedy.  She gave Harald an impossible task, perhaps to make him give up his plight for her.  Maybe she believed he could never do it or even die trying and therefore saving herself from marrying him.  But he did it, and his last great battle was to defeat her father.  She lost her father and her kingdom because of her naivety and unbelief in Harald.  All she had left was her promise – to marry the King of Norway.  Making decisions, making promises, not only effects you, but your loved ones, generations, and in Gyda’s case, her kingdom and the history of Norway (as well as the settling of other nations).  This is the story I want to tell.

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Christian Krogh: Illustration for Harald Hårfagres saga, Hiemskringla 1899-edition.

The story of Harald is normally told through a patriarchal point of view but I think it is more intriguing to tell it through Gyda’s eyes.  Norway was one of the first countries to allow women to vote.  It is a country that focuses on equal rights and in modern history has always had feminist values.  Women have played a major role in shaping the history and ideology of Norway – take Nora from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, for instance.  I think telling the story through a female’s point of view is quite fitting, and reveals one of Norway’s qualities.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be blood!  You can’t have Vikings without battle scenes.  And there will be amazing battles.  This is where I get to play around with dramatization.  In the story selection there are three major battle scenes.  The first one is with the 5 Kings when Harald is a jovial teenager; the second is when Harald begins to fight the petty kingdoms one-by-one; and the third is the great fjord battle with Viking dragon ships.  Gyda will have her scene too.  It will be about the power and knowledge of women with the natural world.  Gyda will not be an idiot; her challenge for Harald will initially be to chastise him – she will only choose him if she thinks he is worthy of her.  Though, she gives him a chance, a difficult one but not that unattainable, as it turns out.  There will be a scene of the aftermath; a morning scene where Gyda will regret her actions – her promise – as she walks among the bodies of the battlefield in search of her father.  The end scene will be bitter-sweet – Gyda faces her future.  Beautiful, hopeful.  And all this without a word!  The visual and musical imagery will need to carry the whole story.

The story isn’t complete yet – there are many more elements of the story that are being developed, especially through design, Viking art, and symbolic meanings, to create a complete work of art.  It generally takes several months to complete as inputs from other artists working on the show add texture and insight.  But, readers here on My Little Norway are very privileged indeed.  The inner workings of the story is not normally revealed this early in the process, and the population in Alta generally have to wait until opening night before knowing what the story is.  I hope you will enjoy this insider info on the Borealis show processes! 

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