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Robotic Swan awakens the soul within the machine

Rusty, soggy and crooked, Olimpia’s coloratura sopran hangs apparently lifeless over the pit, which marks the heart of R1, Sweden’s first nuclear reactor 40 meters underground at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Nowadays, the impressive space is an experimental scene. And here, the choreographer Åsa Unander-Scharin and her co-workers, among them composer Carl Unander-Scharin, have found a perfect place for their mechanical creations. It is an encounter between advanced technology, dance and music, where each work is based on classic myths known from the opera and ballet world.

Åsa Unander-Scharin describes in her doctoral dissertation from 2008 the lure of using digital technology and puppets to get an idea of human qualities in the bodily movement. The name of her dissertation called Human Mechanics and Soulful Machines, and it can also summarize the tour of Opera Mecatronica. Here are eight works from 1998 onwards, three of which are interactive and three are presented in film form.

Olimpia makes her world debut at R1. It is a rare experience to see the skinny marionette become live, so human frail and yet virtuoso in their expansive movements. The head, a decomposed exhaust gas purifier, moves laconically to a crazy and dramatically echoing aria which is a synthetic processing of Offenbach’s opera Hoffmann’s adventure.

There is melancholy and beauty in this retro-futurism. You read emotions and life in the mechanical objects, which with dazzling simplicity encompass the hypermodern and archaic, thus opening up for associative irrigations of the mystery of life.

Robocygne is also a new acquaintance, an adorable black swan that with trembling feathered wings and a body in tulle dances to the wizard Rothbart’s theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The long, slender neck has small-sized vertebrae that allows it to bend with impressive vigour. It is a humble and yet somewhat dangerous creation that incorporates both animal and human being. A ballerina that it is hard to leave.

Among the interactive works is the Stockholm premiere of Ombra mai fù found, a copper tree with sensors responsive to movements. As you approach, the aria from Handel´s opera Xerxes is performed – where the main role lovingly praises the tree and its shadow. It is beautiful and at the same time a bit comical to wander under metal leaves that tremble by the sound waves.

In the winding corridors of the reactor cellar, you can see The Lamentations of Orpheus (in a film version), an orange industrial robot that expresses the sorrow for Euridice. With its 500 kilograms of high tech, Åsa Unander-Scharin began her endeavour twelve years ago. Do not miss this strange acquaintance, suggestively lit by Anders Larsson

(Svenska Dagbladet, Anna Ångström, Nov 18, 2010)

At every turn, this rare swan

The last one is Åsa Unander-Scharin’s robot swan with its elegant line and touching fragility. It has been part of a ”mytho-poetic landscape” of video projections and music montage, and is now part of a performance with 14 dancers, filmed by the Swedish television for all the people.

(Margareta Sörensson, Danstidningen, 2011)


The robotic-opera. A seductive meeting between art and technology.

When singer Matilda Wahlund suddenly enters into the Golden Foyers of The Stockholm Royal Opera in pink rubber boots, it is a quite shocking operatic start for Carl Unander-Scharin’s ”Regnaria”. One of the pieces that makes up the performance ”Opera Mecatronica Live” by Åsa and Carl Unander-Scharin that last Saturday gathered hundreds of enthusiasts. The audience is offered more chances this week (7-9 May) before ”Opera Mecatronica Live” continues its tour to Rotterdam. Before the live performance, I strolled around among the two artist’s many projects since the 90’s, where classics have been processed with advanced technology forming wonderful and robust mechanics. Like the installation ”Petruchka’s cry” where the spectator himself with a crank makes Petruchka come to life while the beautiful ballerina-doll (with a CD as her tutu) spins around.

The main part of the show is nevertheless the live performance where the audience follows the five singers Kristin Gornstein, Henriikka Gröndahl, Signe Lind, Matilda Wahlund, Anna-Sara Åberg up and down the stairs.

 Arias by Purcell and Händel are transformed, changed and distorted by various forms of digital technology. Operatic classics are embedded in a fascinating futuristic soundscape. The whole is the result of the Extended Opera course at the Opera School in Stockholm, led by Carl Unander-Scharin in collaboration with Åsa Unander-Scharin.

The most innovative and exciting takes place when Åsa and Carl Unander-Scharin really goes for it and let ”high culture” – opera and ballet – meet or rather almost crash against high technology. My favourite is the crazy flapping and jerky dancing Robocygne (here on film only). And of course Ombra Mai Fu, the copper tree, that is controlled by motion sensors and that wakes to life singing Handel´s aria while its fans calm the audience as we approach.    A seductive rendezvous between art and technology that results in a cooling meditation over the existence in the shadow of the tree.

(Dagens Nyheter, Örjan Abrahamsson, Maj 2013)


Dream play with delicious effects

Rarely have I visited a performance where so many art forms have been combined on stage at the same time. Images, music and text blend into a very beautiful stage building where we, in the near future, follow the struggle of some people that try to save the world from destruction, in a last desperate struggle. Mankind, in its vigorous appetite for energy, has destroyed the environment in which she lives.

We meet the chairman who, in blind belief in science, wants to launch an experiment before it has been properly developed; a secretary who is significantly more doubtful and a volunteer who is prepared to expose herself to the experiment. We also meet the scientist Blake (a resurrection of the English 1700th-century poet) who has invented a way to reduce energy consumption for mankind by entering into a so-called Crystal Cabinet.

Overall, the experiment is promising – only a slight side effect seems to affect the volunteer, however – on further testing it becomes increasingly obvious that the side effects will be too negative. Only when man has learned ”what is enough” by experiencing ”what is more than enough” can one come to a solution of the problem. The music is of a very straight-forward kind. On some occasions, for instance when Angela, the volunteer, for the first time enters the cabinet, the ballad is not far away. It is simple and very beautiful. And above all quite melodic. I really like the musical language that permeates the entire opera.

The singers perform overall with excellence. However, the opera is given a further dimension by the two roles that Claudine Ulrich and Jan Vesala perform. They are dancers originally but contribute with vocal performances as well. The contrast between the professional singers’ virtuoso vocal rendering and the dancers’ somewhat more normal dito allows for a very luscious effect that increases the proximity to the stage for the audience. For example, when John Erik Eleby and Jan Vesala present the experiment, the mix between song and sprech-gesang becomes something that literally brings us listeners into the story.

Kristina Hansson’s play with a fly (The Fly) is a great vocal number and Johan Christensson performs several songs where you as listener really get your fair part of fine singing.

All this is accompanied by an enhanced Norrbotten NEO. As far as they are concerned, one is used to hearing them perform excellently, and I can imagine that resigning CEO Kjell Englund will fall asleep tonight with a smile on his lips when this composite of his two creations, the chamber opera and NEO – harvests such a success. As you notice, I am very impressed with this performance. However, there is so much more to tell but that does not fit in this review. Just take all the video animations, beautifully and truly contributing to the overall rendering of the work, all the amazing sounds that arise through the combination of electronics and acoustic instruments. It cannot be described as it must be seen or heard. Take the opportunity now when the work goes on tour.

(Norrbottens-Kuriren, 2008)

Mother earth off course

There is no doubt that the English writer and artist William Blake (1757-1827) was literally unknown and questioned during his life and likewise he is today regarded as a highly influential person in poetry and visual arts. In several of his works there is an almost incomprehensible mix of mythological images linked to the realm of war and misery of his times. He was difficult then, and for many, too, would be that still today. Piteå Chamber Opera, which for ten years has become known as an ensemble that illuminates and clarifies different aspects of human nature, further proved this with the performance of the newly composed chamber opera The Chrystal Cabinet on Saturday night. It is a highly multi-dimensional performance, using advanced electronic solutions that enable interactive scenes where the movements of dancers and singers on stage correspond to interfaces for voices and soundscapes. The movements also created projected text fragments that show Blake’s highly original way of writing poems where his word compositions were more or less illegible, but nonetheless gave associations. The stage, signed Lene Juhl and Mark Viktov, is simple, with an enthroned translucent vertical tunnel passage for the singers on the one side – and the gold-colored crystal cabinet on the other. The whole background consists of a projection screen that constantly shows more or less authentic worldly images of war and misery but also psychedelic color patterns in fast changes in the other of the eleven tableaux.

Carl Unander-Scharin’s opera The Crystal Cabinet is inspired by Blake’s artistic endeavour, and has clear connection to humanity´s current neglection of Mother Earth. It is a fictional depiction of futuristic societies in dissolution, in other words, societies and an earth in a nightmarish state. It is approaching a kind of apocalyptic pandemic of worldwide character. The three singers are largely equal even though there are separate sections for them in the 80-minute performance. But taking on a total of 10 roles requires great flexibility, something that the three singers possess. Kristina Hansson shapes her roles with a recognizable stage presence and her powerful soprano – with both clarity and width – has not only a striking ring but also a characteristic character that further adds the performance.

The tenor Johan Christenson carries four roles on his lot, but despite that he was able to easily change his mind and quickly change his renderings. Certainly, his vocal projection is slightly slim in certain passages, but still he makes a safe and complete rendering. However, the singer that I think has the most convincing appearance, is John Erik Eleby, who performs as Blake himself. His voice is impressive with its persistent sound and colour. Unfortunately, director Keith Turnbull does not fully succeed in this task. The stage poses are sometimes stiff and the motion patterns are not convincing.

The dancers play a central role in the opera, not only for the dance’s expressive possibilities on an individual level, but also for the interactive parts with recorded sound. The choreographic expression of the dancers Claudine Ulrich and Jan Vesala takes place with great physical presence and control. Conductor Mats Rondin manages the little chamber ensemble, with members from Norrbotten NEO to a close and well-spoken interpretation of Carl Unander-Scharin’s music. It lines up beautiful arias but also dramatically breaking tones, intersecting Baroque style and dreamy contemporary style. The Chrystal Cabinet is an exploratory opera, albeit in a gloomy perspective, but also allowing the listeners to enter into their own imaginary realm of possible solutions.

With this performance, the now-departing CEO for Piteå Kammaropera, Kjell Englund, has completed his well-thought-out task during his ten-year period, namely depicting human nature from various aspects. In Umeå we have been able to follow the ensemble’s many pioneering productions, and they give a good balance many fantastic possibilities and versatile solutions of the operatic genres. Opera is a largely fictional art form even when reflecting our modern era. To quote Blake himself, ”What’s enough cannot be known until you know what’s more than enough”.

(Västerbottenskuriren, Bengt Hultman, Oct 19, 2008)

Brutally beautiful dystopia

When life becomes overwhelming, the stressed American can enter a so-called Flotation spa to transcend on a bed of salt. But whoever enters the 2028 Crystal cabinet – the name of the title of Carl Unander-Scharin’s one-act opera – does not do it for therapeutic purposes but in order to save the last rest of mankind.

The intention is to free the soul from the body in a more energy-efficient manner. But after three visits in the cabinet struck by strange experiences based on different Blake motifs, the subject (performed by dancer Claudine Ulrich) has become completely paralyzed. She was bitten by a worm hiding in an imaginary flower.

The work has been commissioned by Piteå Kammaropera, which under Kjell Englund’s ten-year term, as CEO, has explored human nature from different aspects. The Crystal Cabinet puts the logical exclamation mark after this period of his overall planning.

The book for this dystopian morality is written by the composer in collaboration with the Canadian director Keith Turnbull and is braided by wise words and metaphors by the English visionary and author William Blake. The title, from his famous poem dating from 1803, is the name of the egg-shaped enclosure of crystal that the inventor, Master Blake, has built and that is now being tested in his underground laboratory.

In this future depiction, no one can live anymore on the surface of the earth. Rainforests are burned and the land areas drenched by the melting waters from the glaciers and are haunted by apocalyptic storms. Lene Juhl’s and Mark Viktov’s brutal video show make it clear that the outrage is not a harmless tempesta a la Rossini, but rather something terrible that has already taken place.

What’s ”enough” for the planet, in Blake´s words, you cannot know until you’ve first experienced what ”is more than enough”. But all his thoughts are not easy to perceive in this sophisticated text – full of quotes – even though the composer’s melodious, mellow, medievally inspired and dreamlike tone language creates a room for the listener to enter. But the cocoon of music moves faster than the imagery of the text – faster than the brain is able to process. Preferably, the libretto should have distributed together with the ticket.

It is my only point of view in opposition to an otherwise phenomenal performance. For those who wish to groom their jealousy, a visit to Acusticum in Piteå is strongly recommended. It does not stop at the ideal premises; When Mats Rondin lifts the baton over Norrbotten music’s solid ensemble for contemporary music, he meets the gaze from hand-picked top musicians, such as violinist Christian Svarfvar, pianist Mårten Landström and hornist Sören Hermansson.

The fourteen roles of the Opera, divided into three singers and two dancers, place enormous demands on flexibility. You cannot imagine a more beautiful English pronunciation than dancer Jan Vesala’s. And Claudine Ulrich’s little but lovely voice profiles well against Kristina Hansson’s delicious soprano, Johan Christensson’s increasingly temperamental tenor and the security of John Erik Eleby’s warm bass in the lead role as inventor.

(Svenska Dagbladet, Carl-Gunnar Åhlén, Oct 16, 2008)


The Dance Museum launches the October Festival with an explosive encounter between youth and wisdom. And do not miss the rare bird in the underworld, in the Galerie de Maré one floor down.

After the mid-day dance – nine performances until 13 October – the underground must be visited. In Galerie de Maré downstairs, the choreographer Åsa Unander-Scharin & Partners have designed the fabulous installation ”Swanlake Revisited”.

The entire gallery has turned into a ”mythical poetic lake” with flowing enigmatic video animation (by Lene Juhl and Mark Viktov) which creates an underwater illusion around the main attraction: an animated video of Unander-Scharin’s robot swan, created in 2010, now performing live, in person, at the entrance to the gallery.

The robot swan is a mechanical, technical but above all moving miracle (technology by Lars Asplund and Alexander Larsson at Mälardalen University). Here you can see, with your own eyes, how human movements, first deconstructed and then given a new body in the robot swan. Since the 1990s, Åsa Unander-Scharin has developed and refined this human non-human movement language. The robot swan is the master piece.

During four intense minutes, the swan dances towards its death, of course, to Tchaikovsky’s music. But like Bird Fenix, the robot swan resurrects at the Dance Museum. Not as in the myth every five hundred years, but every hour.

Do not miss this rare bird.

(Örjan Abrahamsson, Dagens Nyheter, 2011)

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