Nordahl Grieg Leikarring in Norway During Summer of 1996

by Ginny Lee

Have you ever seen the midnight sun at midsummer? It bounces on the horizon and goes right back up into the blue sky. It's daylight all night long. People stay up dancing and playing music into the wee hours. Concerts begin at midnight, with a dance following. "When do you sleep around here?" we ask them. Always the answer comes, "Oh, we sleep in the winter."

The Nordahl Grieg Leikarring, led by Mikkel Thompson, is a performing dance troupe, accompanied by its own musicians, the Nordahl Grieg Spelemannslag, led by Bill Likens. Summer '96, midsummer, a generous handful of us, padded with a few enthusiastic dancers and musicians from other places, went festival hopping in Norway, following the music and dance competitions all over the land, even to the Lofoten Islands above the Arctic Circle.

Every place we went we were hosted by the local dancers. In many places we stayed with them in their homes and were treated like family. Then there would be a special dance evening arranged for us. We would run through our performances, both the Norwegian suite and the American suite. They would bring in "snacks" which amounted to dinner. We saw open-faced sandwiches everywhere we went, plied with salmon, tomatoes, cucumber, egg, and a variety of gjetost (goat cheese), the local delicacy. In other places, attending the summer festivals, we stayed in schools, lining up our sleeping bags by the windows of an empty classroom.

In Vågåmo, northern Gudbrandsdal, we attended the Landskappleik at which our friends and mentors, Ivar Odnes, Leif Inge Schjølberg and his father Ivar, won first prize for small group gammaldans fiddling. Leif Inge's three year old son might have had something to do with the tremendous audience delight. Unable to resist the pull of the limelight, he kept coming out onto the stage behind the trio, playing his own little "fiddle,² nothing more than a stick bowed with another stick, but in perfect time and even with the appropriate flourish at the end.

Tor and Randi Stallvik invited us all to their wonderfully comfortable home for an evening gathering which included more salmon and gjetost as well as Tor's own special brews of beer and blackberry brandy. Leif Inge, and the two Ivars honored us with an impromptu house concert of our own.

Halfway up the coast lies the 1000 year old city of Trondheim on the Nid River. In Viking days it was called Nidaros, and was founded by St. Olav Tryggvason, whose bones still lie beneath the great Nidaros cathedral. It was he who first united Norway into a single kingdom, and this cathedral became one of the major destinations for pilgrims of the Middle Ages (the others being Canterbury in England, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and Jerusalem in the Holy Land).

Down the river from Trondheim, where the waterways meet the sea, lies Agdenes, home of the dance troupe Brosnu'n (The Quick Turns), which has travelled the world performing Norwegian dances. We stayed in their homes. Some of them spoke very little English, so it was fun for those of us working on Norwegian to see how much we could communicate.

They related their performance at one Norwegian nursing home in Oregon. There were a lot of old people who didn't speak at all and looked as though they did not have much conscious reality left. They looked on indifferently at the dances, but when Brosnu'n began to sing old Norwegian songs at the end of their performance, the tears ran down the cheeks of these old people, calling up long forgotten connections with their past.

Many Viking battles took place in Agdenes. Our host takes us down to a rocky beach where he shows us the remains of an ancient Viking dock, squares built of logs, filled with stones, and sunk, one on top of the other, to form a wharf.

In Trondheim, we attended the Noregs Ungdomslag Jubileumstemne (Celebration of 100 years of one of the major folk organizations in Norway). There, Peder and Randi Gullickstad, who had been chosen King and Queen of Rørospols at the Landskappleik in Vågå the week before, taught a series of workshops in Rørospols. Many of us were delighted to have a chance to check out our own dancing skills as their partners, and pick up some new pointers.

From Trondheim we took the train even farther north to Bodø where we were welcomed by another local dance group, acquired new families, and were treated to another dance evening complete with open-faced sandwiches, salmon, tomato, and gjetost.

From Bodø we made a side trip over to the Lofoten Islands where yet another lively group resides. They live so far apart that they could not comfortably host us, but they arranged for us to stay in an old fishing camp. We had cabins for four or five, minimally supplied as they were intended only as shelter for fishermen. There was a small dining hall and lounge also, which we made full use of for music and dance, not until it got dark, because it never did, but until we needed to think about the next day.

Someone asked, "What is the difference between Norway and Alaska?" "Alaska is more primitive." "More primitive than THIS?" Looking about at our camping cabins, well, they are rather basic. At least the cabins for four are. The ones for five are a bit more civilized. But on closer inspection the wood in the lounge is all beautifully polished, dusted, and clean. There are lace curtains and beautiful tapestry table liners. This place is civilized. It has been civilized for more than a thousand years. Alaska is frontier.

After an afternoon performance in downtown Leknes, a relaxing bus ride through the countryside took us to where a farmer (who, it turns out, is one of our dancing friends) found some glass beads in a field while tilling, and they have since dug up a whole log house. They built a life-size model nearby. The roof is supported by two rows of central poles, not by the walls. In the smoky interior we find card weaving, carving, and other Viking crafts. We wonder why this remote island was such an important outpost and what level of Viking might have come here to live. Later we learn that this whole great structure was blown down in a violent storm this Fall. They plan to rebuild it.

Most of the Lofotens are of spectacular terrain. The mountains are so close and so steep and rugged and so homey and comfortable. I feel like we are in a Chinese painting. A woman at the Leknes dance told me she had been in America and that "the mountains there are all so far away, not close and personal like these in the Lofotens."

On a rainy morning we take a bus down island to Moskenes and from there a ferry back to Bodø, with brief stops at the even tinier islands of Vaerøy and Røst. Vaerøy is small and beautiful and awe inspiring, with its high, rugged mountains all around. I expected Røst to be the same, but no, it is just a couple hundred houses stretched out on one long linear stretch of sand and rock between two lumps out in the middle of the ocean. We remember the legend of the cormorants of Utrøst who rescue the good of heart (only) in dire distress in the guise of human fishermen living on the outer islands where in fact only birds live.

We had thought we might get off the boat at Røst and have a picnic, but when we get there it is so cold and rainy that we forget all about the Eskimo's dictum that there is no such thing as bad weather--only improper clothing. We have no desire to get off. We have our picnic on the eight hour ferry ride. Fish balls and mustard with cucumbers, apple and cheese. Bread. Then chocolate and coffee. The four basic Norwegian food groups.

Our families are waiting for us at the dock in Bodø. "We were really looking forward to your return," they tell us. So were we. It's like coming home.

Before we leave Bodø, we are taken to have a picnic and fish fry beside the largest maelstrom (whirlpool) in the world. A Dutch couple comes to join us and we talk about a book they read in high school. It came out in 1941, called "The World is a Lifelong Dance", by Arthur Van Schendel. It consists of 20 some interconnected stories on the power of music and dance to bring about peace. Has anyone ever heard of it? We also did one last performance in "The Glass House" which is a small mall in the center of town. Then we headed south.

We spent several days in Lillehammer with dancing friends there. They took us to see the site of the 1994 Olympics, now quiet and deserted. The Americans had built a four story hotel for 300 people over there in that farmer's green field, then after the games they took it down. There is nothing left there now but summer grass and warriors' dreams (ref. to an old Japanese haiku about an ancient battleground).

The great stone wall at the entrance to the Olympic site was built by one man with a crane. All Norwegian boulders thoughtfully and meticulously placed with no mortar. Just gravity. Mikkel Thompson was here in 1992 and stood for an hour watching him work, placing and replacing to get each mammoth rock just right.

They were ready for the Olympics a year ahead of time and were so careful with the money allotted to them by the government that they had 30 million kroner to spare. That money they have given to a sports school for kids. What would have happened to the allotted but unused money in America?

In several places in Norway we go to see living museums. Historic buildings, many of which are old farmstead log buildings with sod roofs, have been moved to one place and docents dress in costume appropriate to the times. The one in Lillehammer is Maihaugen. Our friends arrange a picnic for us there up by the summer houses where people in ancient dress are making goat's milk cheese in the old way.

Erik is our English speaking guide who has been doing this as a summer job for seven years. He studies political science and is studying to be a high school teacher. He also speaks German. Most of the guides speak three or four languages. Even Japanese is represented. Agnes, a more seasoned guide, tells us that yes, they did have drills in the Middle Ages that allowed them to make wind-eyes (windows drilled through the log walls), and also that the only vegetable they had was probably some kind of turnip.

In mid-July a handful of us are left to take in the Landsfestival in Valdres. First we stay a night with Mary and Olav Jørgen Hegge a few miles outside Fagernes. The stave church up on the hill above their farm has been in the Hegge family for several hundred years.

Mary tells us that she had been here a number of years ago on her first trip to Norway, before she met Olav. People had come up here, as we did, to visit the church. She was so impressed with a certain gravestone, all laced about with tiny yellow flowers, so beautifully taken care of, that she took a picture of it.

Years later, she met Olav in Minneapolis. They married, and when they moved to Norway, she realized she had been in his house before. All his recent forebears are buried in the churchyard up on the hill. (The dates, by the way, go back only a hundred years or so. "Where are the ancient ones?" we ask Olav. "They leave to make room for the new ones. I, too, will lie up there," says Olav.) On a sudden impulse, Mary dug up her pictures from years ago when she had taken that photo. The name on the gravestone was that of Olav's mother!

On a sunny afternoon we go to visit the home of Sigmund Aarseth, the internationally known painter and rosemaler. He says in America it is his rosemalings that sell well, but in Norway they like his landscapes. His home is a set of old log buildings, very well cared for and decorated. His studio is in one of them, and we spend an hour or so falling in love with his landscapes.

In Fagernes, the Landsfestival dance evenings consist mainly of mazurka. Leif Inge and Ivar are there to play in the fiddle competitions during the day. There is also a wonderful hardingfele concert at the Valdres museum (another outdoor, living museum) one evening.

Some stayed on the following week for the Jørn Hilmne Stemne (Valdres festival of folk music and dance--Valdres style only) at the Valdres Folk Museum. The week after that there was the Telemarkfestivalen, Telemark's festival of folk music and dance--both Telemark style and international.

Most of us had an opportunity to do some traveling on our own outside the group. There was the wedding dance performed at a church in Bergen. Some got off the Oslo-Bergen train at Myrdal and took the winding and scenic ride down to Flåm at the tip of Sogne Fjord, rented a cabin for a few days of relaxation, and explored the fjord by boat. Some who felt a trip to Norway was not complete without a good hike in the mountains managed to get up to the top of spectacular Lysefjord near Stavanger in southern Norway.

Many had a chance to explore museums and parks in Oslo. The Gustav Vigeland park with the many many life- sized granite carvings of human figures in all configurations is especially recommended. Was he trying to depict all of humanity in these tableaus of human life? Each sculpture seems to hold a poignant story. Here is a woman holding a child almost as large as herself, running, looking back (in fear?) while the head of the child rests on hers in sleep. Here is a man swinging a child with outstretched arms. Here are two young men talking over the head of a very old man who sits and stares. Some inspire happiness, others are a confusing mixture of violence and delight. Some portray the loss of grounding in the world brought about by old age. The faces are full of emotion. In some we can't tell whether they are happy or sad. We climb the stairs to the circle of life and spend an hour walking around and up and down, feeling the way the stone back of this woman feels just like a real back, and photographing the juxtapositions of youth, men and women, birth, old age and death and real flesh and blood life in between. We want to laugh and cry at the same time. It is a powerful place in this very serene and expansive park of grass and trees and people of all walks plus a lot of tourists.

This year, 1997, Trondheim celebrates its millennium. Cultural and music events are arranged for every day of the year. As the announcement says: "Are you planning to visit Norway in 1997?" Don't. Nobody will be home. Unless you go to Trondheim--where everyone will be celebrating the city's millennium.

The Nordlek Festival is held once every three years, each time in another Scandinavian country. In the year 2000 it will be in Stavanger, Norway. We may go back.