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How Björk’s choreographer made Cornucopia’s musicians move like petals

Margrét Bjarnadóttir reveals how to find what is special inside every dancer

To celebrate Björk hitting the cover of Dazed, the Icelandic genius has taken over Dazed Digital and Dazed Beauty, inviting you into the world of Cornucopia, the experimental theatre show that Björk has brought to London this November.

Before she was Björk’s go-to choreographer, Margrét Bjarnadóttir often used the Icelandic star’s music when she needed to break herself out of a rut. Bjarnadóttir likes to overcome a creative block by improvising, and so she’d frequently blast Björk’s albums in the studio in order to discover new dance moves in herself. “Each of her albums is like a totally new world," Bjarnadóttir tells Dazed, over the phone from her home in Reykjavik. “It’s like it moves different parts in you. I haven’t really found that with any other musician, that direct and clear connection. It’s kind of effortless – I don’t have to force anything, it just happens. It’s like, ‘How does this song want to move?’”

So when Björk reached out to Bjarnadóttir to choreograph her “Utopia” music video in 2017, it was a perfect fit. Bjarnadóttir – who is a visual artist, writer, and actress as well as a choreographer – was instrumental in creating the self-contained world of the video, in which flautists mimic the slow unfurling of plants while also playing their flutes in a CGI paradise. She went on to bring this vision to life for Björk’s Utopia live shows in 2018, and then worked with the artist again on her 2019 Cornucopia tour. In each show, Bjarnadóttir worked on the movements of the seven-piece Icelandic flute ensemble Viibra, creating the seamless flow of instrumentalists opening and closing around the singer like petals. 

"When Björk talked to me about her vision for this, she wanted to make the music present through movement," Bjarnadóttir explains. “Not just the sound they make with their flutes, but also the way they move.” From this brief, she created two of the most memorable stage shows in recent memory. Here’s how she did it.


Margrét Bjarnadóttir: “I, myself, when I was a dance student, I started to enjoy just improvising a lot more than learning stuff, because maybe I wasn’t connecting with the choreography, or I didn’t understand why we were moving in that way, it didn’t make sense to me so often. And so, when I’m working with dancers or performers, I really like to just find in them what is special to them, and what is their unique style and way of moving, and just highlight it; help them find it and support it.”

“The biggest fear I have is maybe killing the joy of music and dancing. It doesn’t make sense to do choreography if it kills the raw energy and movement that dance is naturally, to make it sterile.”


Margrét Bjarnadóttir: “With flute players, there are some restrictions, of course. I really like working with restrictions. There are just basic restrictions, like you can’t use hands, they’re always in a locked position. And breathing is really important to take into account, because they need their breathing, for their instrument. 

“I didn’t know the flute so well – I’d never really held a flute in my life. I had to get to know how the flute player would move naturally, using that as an inspiration, but then exaggerating it, giving it some form. But I don’t think they ever feel restrained. It’s trying to find some way to make it feel natural for them.”


Margrét Bjarnadóttir: “Just less than a year before I started working with the flute players, I made a piece with a Dutch company with Ragnar Kjartansson, with music from Bryce Dessner, who’s a composer from The National. We called it a guitar ballet. There were seven dancers, and they learned to play the guitar, each and every one of them. We made a piece where they are playing while moving constantly, throughout the whole piece, carrying acoustic guitars. We didn’t know if this would work. It felt like creating a new form, and we didn’t know if it was possible in the time we had. There were moments in the rehearsal period where it was really scary; the dancers were not sure if they could do it, and we were not sure, we were just trying to be optimistic. 

“It was really good to have had that experience, so I knew that [when working on Utopia and Cornucopia] there would be this phase in the rehearsal period where everyone would feel really hopeless, and everything would feel pathetic. That all these professionals would be like amateurs. It’s just because they’re just getting hold of a new form. Both groups, dancers and flute players, they have this thing in common, where they’re kind of perfectionists. It was just really humbling and beautiful to see them go through this period where they become amateurs again, and they’re struggling. And then they get the hang of it.”


Margrét Bjarnadóttir: “The visual world [of Björk’s vision] was so strong, I could see where that was heading, so [the dancers] became sort of like creatures of that world. It changed a little bit between Utopia and Cornucopia, the world shifted. It was less about flowers and femininity, and it became more… I remember when Lucrecia [Martel] came to the first rehearsal with the dancers, and they were meeting her for the first time, she was taking the show in a different direction. She said, ‘I’m thinking, less flowers, more chicken’. And that was all she said.

“The visuals of Utopia and Cornucopia, they’re such a big element. I [had to] not be fighting the video, to think of it as a whole. So the movements of the flute players and the video aren’t in some kind of battle; they’re working together.”

“I remember when Lucrecia [Martel] came to the first rehearsal with the dancers, and they were meeting her for the first time, she was taking the show in a different direction. She said, ‘I’m thinking, less flowers, more chicken’” – Margrét Bjarnadóttir


Margrét Bjarnadóttir: “I also work in other fields, I do visual art, sculptures and I write as well. I only want to dance when it’s really something that I need to make. There are so many things I want to say that dance doesn’t suit, where dance isn’t the best form for what I want to say.

“That definitely informs and influences [my choreography]. Like right now, I’ve just been working on some glass sculptures, and I can see how It’s kind of like physical in a way, with cutting the glass and breaking it. And the forms, the shapes that I’m making, they’re physical and organic, a little bit like movement.”


Margrét Bjarnadóttir: “[When I’m struggling for ideas], I have several different improvisational techniques, but also just listening to different music. Taking a break. Going out for a walk, working with different images, whether it’s from nature or a portrait of a person. If you really meditate on that image, it can bring out something new in you. 

“I find [creativity is] like kind of like an endless, huge well, that you just haven’t explored. You’ve explored like, 8 per cent of it. And so you’re often just reaching the same 8 per cent all the time. There’s a massive resource there, that it’s sometimes an effort to be able to access.”


Margrét Bjarnadóttir: “There was a teacher in my university who... He was giving me the advice that it would be tricky for me to be interested in so many different things, to be like wasting my energy in so many different directions, like visual art and writing and making videos and choreography, and I would have to choose one direction. Because otherwise I would just become an amateur in all of these things, and I would not become good at anything. 

“I really took it seriously, for like, a week. But then I found, this is the only way I could work. Somehow, being in these different mediums – they supported each other, and that was what interested me, and gave me fuel to work. I’m not sure I would have realised that if he hadn’t given me that bad advice.”