Category Archives: Sweden

Vikings and the Sunstone Crystal

The sunstone crystal has been one of the most widely debated topics by historians about the drama Vikings. Long before History Channel released the series, historians had been debating whether Vikings used a common calcite crystal, also known as an Icelandic spar, to find the sun in the high latitudes where they would have had to navigate despite long twilights and cloudy, overcast skies. “The Vikings could have discovered this, simply by choosing a transparent crystal and looking through it through a small hole in a screen,” wrote Guy Ropars. “The understanding of the complete mechanism and the knowledge of the polarization of light is not necessary.”

Ragnar uses a “sunstone” for ship navigation in the show, a piece of seemingly magical rock that will light up with the sun’s rays even on a cloudy day (the “sunstone” allows for the use of his sundial-compass even on long voyages, allowing him to eventually plunder England).

A Viking legend tells of a glowing “sunstone” that, when held up to the sky, revealed the position of the sun even on a cloudy day. It sounds like magic, but scientists measuring the properties of light in the sky say that polarizing crystals – which function in the same way as the mythical sunstone – could have helped ancient sailors to cross the northern Atlantic. A review of their evidence was published in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (31 January 2011).

The Vikings, seafarers from Scandinavia (today’s Norway, Sweden & Denmark) who travelled widely and settled in swathes of Northern Europe, the British Isles and the northern Atlantic from around 750 to 1050, were skilled navigators, able to cross thousands of kilometres of open sea between Norway, Iceland and Greenland. Perpetual daylight during the summer sailing season in the far north would have prevented them from using the stars as a guide to their positions, and the magnetic compass had yet to be introduced in Europe – in any case, it would have been of limited use so close to the North Pole.

But Viking legends, including an Icelandic saga centring on the hero Sigurd, hint that these sailors had another navigational aid at their disposal: a sólarsteinn, or sunstone.

The saga describes how, during cloudy, snowy weather, King Olaf consulted Sigurd on the location of the sun. To check Sigurd’s answer, Olaf “grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible sun”. In 1967, Thorkild Ramskou, a Danish archaeologist, suggested that this stone could have been a polarizing crystal such as Icelandic spar, a transparent form of calcite, which is common in Scandinavia.

Light consists of electromagnetic waves that oscillate perpendicular to the direction of the light’s travel. When the oscillations all point in the same direction, the light is polarized. A polarizing crystal such as calcite allows only light polarized in certain directions to pass through it, and can appear bright or dark depending on how it is oriented with respect to the light.

Scattering by air molecules in the atmosphere causes sunlight to become polarized, with the line of polarization tangential to circles centred on the sun. So Ramskou argued that by holding a crystal such as calcite up to the sky and rotating it to check the direction of polarization of the light passing through it, the Vikings could have deduced the position of the sun, even when it was hidden behind clouds or fog, or was just beneath the horizon.

Historians have debated the possibility ever since, with some arguing that the technique would have been pointless, because it would only work if the crystal was pointed at patches of clear sky, and in such conditions it would be possible to estimate the position of the sun with the naked eye, for example from the bright lining of cloud tops.

Gábor Horváth, an optics researcher at Eötvös University in Budapest, and Susanne Åkesson, a migration ecologist from Lund University, Sweden, have been testing these assumptions since 2005. The special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B in which their review appears is dedicated to biological research on polarized light.

In one study, the researchers took photographs of partly cloudy or twilight skies in northern Finland through a 180-degree fisheye lens, and asked test subjects to estimate the position of the sun. Errors of up to 99 degrees led the researchers to conclude that the Vikings could not have relied on naked-eye guesses of the sun’s position.

To check whether sunstones would work better, they measured the polarization pattern of the entire sky under a range of weather conditions during a crossing of the Arctic Ocean on the Swedish icebreaker Oden.

The researchers were surprised to find that in foggy or totally overcast conditions the pattern of light polarization was similar to that of clear skies. The polarization was not as strong, but Åkesson believes that it could still have provided Viking navigators with useful information.

“I tried such a crystal on a rainy overcast day in Sweden,” she says. “The light pattern varied depending on the orientation of the stone.”

She and Horváth planned further experiments to determine whether volunteers can accurately work out the sun’s position using crystals in various weather conditions.

Sean McGrail, who studied ancient seafaring at the University of Oxford, UK, before retiring, says that the studies are interesting but there is no real evidence to indicate that the Vikings actually used such crystals. “You can show how they could be used, but that isn’t proof,” he says. “People were navigating long before this without any instruments.”

Surviving written records indicate that Viking and early medieval sailors crossed the north Atlantic using the sun’s position on clear days as a guide, in combination with the positions of coastlines, flight patterns of birds, migration paths of whales and distant clouds over islands, says Christian Keller, a specialist in North Atlantic archaeology at the University of Oslo. “You don’t need to be a wizard,” he says. “But you do need to combine a lot of different sorts of observations.”

Keller says he is “totally open” to the idea that the Vikings also used sunstones, but is waiting for archaeological evidence. “If we find a shipwreck with a crystal on board, then I would be happy,” he says.

One of these crystals has yet to be discovered in any Viking settlements, however one was discovered in an Elizabethan shipwreck from 1592 in the English Channel. Historians and researchers are currently trying to confirm whether or not this crystal could have been used to find the sun when it was out of sight, which they think might be true; as a large cannon on board the ship would have interfered with a magnetic compass. Regardless of whether or not the Vikings used such stones, it is clear that other nearby cultures used them to navigate the seas.

Original article on Scientific American

Astrid, Ingrid and Pippi

Astrid Lindgren (14.11.1907 – 28.01.2002) revolutionized the world of children’s books.
(Photo taken 04 April 1977)

Astrid Lindgren is the eighteenth most translated author in the world (and now we know that UNESCO publishes the top 50 list), and one of the most well-known Swedish authors. She became an author relatively late in life, and an influential voice on everyday issues even later. In 1958, she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the most distinguished prize in children’s literature and in 1999 she was voted the most popular Swede of the 20th century.

Karin with her mother Astrid Lindgren

Her daughter Karin remembers the night Pippi Longstocking was conceived.

I was ill in bed for a long period in 1941, my first school year. I was bored, and kept begging my mother to tell me stories. One evening she said, exhausted: “But what more can I tell you?” An answer came bursting forth, in an attempt to keep her by me: “Tell me about Pippi Longstocking!” It was a name out of the blue, only a child’s play on words. But it did the trick. She started to tell me a completely new story.

“I didn’t ask her who Pippi Longstocking was,” Astrid Lindgren told The New Yorker in 1983. “I just began the story, and since it was a strange name it turned out to be a strange girl as well.”

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking was indeed a strange girl. Her firey hair stuck straight out from either side of her head in two tight braids. She wore one black stocking and one brown, with black shoes twice as long as her feet. Her mother was long dead; her sailor father had been lost at sea, though Pippi was confident he had fetched up on a South Sea island, where “he had become king of all the cannibals”. She had a horse and a monkey named Mr. Nilsson for company, and a trunkful of gold pieces to provide for her wants.

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

For the next several years Pippi flourished in the oral culture of the Lindgren family. Then in March 1944 Mrs. Lindgren slipped on the ice and sprained her ankle. Propped up in bed and writing in secretarial shorthand — the working method she would use for the first drafts of all her subsequent books — she set Pippi’s adventures on paper as a present for Karin’s 10th birthday. Afterward, with considerable trepidation, she sent the manuscript to a Swedish publisher, signing the accompanying letter, “In the hope that you won’t notify the Child Welfare Committee.”

“I had two children of my own, and what kind of mother had they who wrote such books!” Mrs. Lindgren later explained.

The publisher rejected the book, but meanwhile Mrs. Lindgren sent a different manuscript to the Swedish publisher Raben & Sjogren, which was sponsoring a contest for girls’ books.

Her book, Britt-Mari Opens Her Heart, which featured a much more conventional heroine and which has never been translated into English, won second prize and was published in Sweden in 1944. For the following year’s contest, Mrs. Lindgren dusted off the Pippi manuscript and sent it in. It was awarded first prize.

When Lindgren published Pippi Longstocking in 1945, shortly after the end of the war, it was a sensation: A book with a heroine who can eat an entire cake at once, hangs unpleasant boys over tree branches and, in the circus, defeats the “Mighty Adolf, the strongest man in the world”. “Dideldibum und dideldidei.”

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

Sometimes a book is published and its impact is like a thunderbolt. Pippi Longstocking turned the established order upside-down, because it had a girl as a heroine, a girl stronger and many times smarter than any adult, and because the anarchy in the book triumphs over middle-class decency.

Like many heroes of traditional Scandinavian lore, Pippi was fearless, ageless and endowed with superhuman strength: when she wanted to ride her horse, who passed his days on Villa Villekulla’s front porch, she picked him up with one hand and set him gently on the ground.

Above all, Pippi was rude — deeply, outrageously, satisfyingly rude. She lived, as the critic Jonathan Cott observed, “completely outside bourgeois conventions.” Invited to a fancy coffee party, she devoured an entire cream cake before the assembled guests. “Now you mustn’t feel bad about such a little accident,” Pippi told the horrified neighbor ladies. “The main thing is that we have our health.”

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

While Pippi Langstrump was embraced by young readers on its publication, some adults in the tradition-bound, conformist Sweden of the 1940’s were unsettled by a children’s heroine who never went to school, stayed up until all hours and was openly ill-mannered in front of her elders. “No normal child sleeps with her feet on the pillow or eats up a whole cake at a coffee party,” one indignant reader wrote.

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

“No normal child,” Mrs. Lindgren replied, “lifts a horse straight up in the air either.”

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

Over the years Pippi has been translated into dozens of languages: she is Bibi Meia-Longa in Portugal, Bilbee Bat-Gerev in Israel and Nagakutsushita-No-Pippi in Japan. The Pippi books have also inspired numerous films in Sweden and several in the United States. Columbia Pictures’ live-action feature The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, for which Mrs. Lindgren collaborated on the screenplay, was released in 1988.

It was Ingrid Vang Nyman who helped Astrid Lindgren immortalize the strongest girl in the world, Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraimsdotter Longstocking. The rebellious image of a bold, red-headed girl with plaits that stick out and an alternative dress sense was created by Danish illustrator Ingrid Vang Nyman, herself a red-haired woman who broke with convention.

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

“Every author who has been fortunate enough to find a congenial illustrator for their books, would be eternally grateful to that artist”, Astrid Lindgren once said.

Ingrid Vang Nyman wasn’t a quiet girl. She wore pants, long before it was customary for girls, had unruly red hair, lost the sight in one eye in a sledging accident, and ran away from home as a 12-year-old to go to sea. Her plan was to go to South America, but she only got as far as Padborg before being brought back home.

Danish illustrator Ingrid Vang Nyman (21.08.1916 – 13.12.1959)

Home economics school was of no interest to her and she instead attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in 1939, where she hung around in artist circles and met her future husband, Bohemian Swede Arne Nyman.

Her breakthrough as an illustrator came in 1945, when she was commissioned to illustrate Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi by Hans Rabén from publisher Rabén og Sjögren.

Both Lindgren and Nyman were relatively unknown at the time, but the book was a hit, and the wild, red-haired girl who lives alone and does whatever she wants became synonymous with Nyman’s drawings.

Ingrid Nyman as a young mother holding her son Peder, who eventually became an illustrator too.

Nyman drew children who were independent of adults. She was keen on a child’s right to freedom and Pippi was far removed from the frills and plastered-down hair that was otherwise compulsory for girls at a time when children were to be seen and not heard. Astrid Lindgren was also concerned throughout her work with the ways in which children struggle against loneliness and marginalization.

In 1978 Astrid Lindgren was awarded the German Booksellers’ Peace Prize. Her acceptance speech was titled Never Violence, and she had sent the speech to Frankfurt in advance of the event. She received a letter in return from a man she called the “Supreme Decider”, who suggested that it might be a good idea for her to accept the prize without giving a speech. It was not a good idea, she wrote back, and she made it clear that she would either give her speech or not travel to Frankfurt at all.

Astrid Lindgren in Frankfurt in 1978

On October 22, she stood in St. Paul’s Church, wearing large, horn-rimmed glasses, and talked about how aggression and war have their beginnings in nurseries. “Even the characters of future statesmen and politicians are formed before they reach the age of five – this is horrifying, but it’s true.” Her speech was a plea for raising children without violence. She talked to impressive effect about how children must feel when their parents deliberately hurt them. In 1978 Germany, and all other countries, parents still had the right to inflict corporal punishment. More than 30 years after the publication of Pippi Longstocking, the world was still not at all the kind of place children liked.

Sweden was the world’s first country to ban corporal punishment in 1979. Today, there are 51 countries that have enacted laws prohibiting violence against children in the home and school. The list is fascinating for both the countries that have made the list, and the ones that haven’t.

Elevenses with Pippi Longstocking

Seven! We have seven kinds of cookies for elevenses….

Sju sorters kakor (seven kinds of cookies) is a Swedish tradition from the 19th century. In 1720, there were around 15 “kaffehus” (cafés) in Stockholm, where coffee was served with buns in a French manner. From time to time drinking coffee was prohibited in Sweden, and wheat (for baking) wasn’t much harvested until the 19th century. When drinking coffee became legal in 1822, it also became a custom to serve “småkakor” (little cookies), but the ingredients were usually too expensive for most people.

During the 19th century, more and more recipes were developed for cookies and a certain competitiveness developed between hostesses, which in turn led to the seven kinds of cookies at each visit. Some sources say it refers to the minimum number of cookies considered proper for the kafferep (coffee parties for ladies). According to some, the hostess was considered stingy if she baked fewer than seven varieties and pompous if she baked more than that. And while the Swedes might not care what other nationalities think of them, they do care what other Swedes think!

These cookies might not be Swedish, but they are cookies little bears like 🙂 And now they are all set to watch the adventures of Pippi Longstocking.

She is the strongest girl in the world, lives by herself in a colourful house in the forest, and has a pet monkey and a horse. Who wouldn’t want to be friends with Pippi Longstocking?

Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking (in Swedish, it’s Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter LÃ¥ngstrump) is the invention of Swedish children’s book author Astrid Lindgren. Astrid Lindgren always believed that all you had to do was

Give the children love, more love and still more love – and the common sense will come by itself.

And Pippi Longstocking, her most famous character, comes really close to being the personified proof of that… So where did Pippi come from? One night, Astrid Lindgren’s daughter Karin asked her to tell her the story of “Pippi Longstocking”. And so she did.

Pippi is not like other children. First of all, she lives all by herself in a house called Villakulla Cottage. Or rather, she lives there with her monkey, Mr Nilsson, and her horse. And she has two best friends, Annika and Tommy, who sometimes come over to play. Because Pippi is not only strong and independent, she also a great friend, and always up for some fun!

Annika, Pippi, and Tommy on an adventure

What’s more, Pippi doesn’t live by anyone’s rules but her own, and she’s perfectly fine with being a little different. So instead of asking for anything on her birthday, she gives her friends presents, and she regularly sticks bullies and rude policemen in trees. She just never does things as expected. And that’s why we love her.

Here are the 10 best Pippi Longstocking quotes:

‘He’s the strongest man in the world.’
‘Man, yes,’ said Pippi, ‘but I am the strongest girl in the world, remember that.’

Pippi lifts her horse – with her friends Annika and Tommy sitting on top.

Don’t you worry about me. I’ll always come out on top.

But still, if it’s true, how can it be a lie?

‘I don’t think you have a very nice way with ladies,’ said Pippi. And she lifted him in her strong arms — high in the air — and carried him to a birch tree and hung him over a branch. Then she took the next boy and hung him over another branch.

Tommy didn’t want to show that he was frightened, and in a way he really did want to see a ghost. That would be something to tell the boys at school! Besides, he consoled himself with the thought that the ghosts probably wouldn’t dare to hurt Pippi.

All the children sat looking at Pippi, who lay flat on the floor, drawing to her heart’s content. ‘But, Pippi,’ said the teacher impatiently, ‘why in the world aren’t you drawing on your paper?’
‘I filled that long ago. There isn’t room enough for my whole horse on that little snip of paper.’

Then she had sat down in front of her chest and looked at all her birds’ eggs and shells, and thought about the wonderful places where she and her father had collected them and about all the pleasant little shops all over the world where they had bought the beautiful things that were now in the drawers of her chest.

‘Aren’t you going to dry the floor?’ asked Annika.
‘Oh, no, it can dry in the sun,’ answered Pippi. ‘I don’t think it will catch cold so long as it keeps moving.’

As the children were sitting there eating pears, a girl came walking along the road from town. When she saw the children she stopped and asked, ‘Have you seen my papa go by?’
‘M-m-m,’ said Pippi. ‘How did he look? Did he have blue eyes?’
‘Yes,’ said the girl.
‘Medium large, not too tall and not too short?’
‘Yes,’ said the girl.
‘Black hat and black shoes?’
‘Yes, exactly,’ said the girl eagerly.
‘No, that one we haven’t seen,’ said Pippi decidedly.

The children came to a perfume shop. In the show window was a large jar of freckle salve, and beside the jar was a sign, which read: DO YOU SUFFER FROM FRECKLES?
‘What does the sign say?’ asked Pippi. She couldn’t read very well because she didn’t want to go to school as other children did.
It says, ‘Do you suffer from freckles?’ said Annika.
‘Does it indeed?’ said Pippi thoughtfully. ‘Well, a civil question deserves a civil answer. Let’s go in.’
She opened the door and entered the shop, closely followed by Tommy and Annika. An elderly lady stood back of the counter. Pippi went right up to her. ‘No!’ she said decidedly.
‘What is it you want?’ asked the lady.
‘No,’ said Pippi once more.
‘I don’t understand what you mean,’ said the lady.
‘No, I don’t suffer from freckles,’ said Pippi.
Then the lady understood, but she took one look at Pippi and burst out, ‘But, my dear child, your whole face is covered with freckles!’
‘I know that,’ said Pippi, ‘but I don’t suffer from them. I love them. Good morning.’
She turned to leave, but when she got to the door she looked back and cried, ‘But if you should happen to get in any salve that gives people more freckles, then you can send me seven or eight jars.’

Junibacken Museum, Stockholm

Little Puffles and Honey are very excited that they will visit the children’s museum Junibacken in Stockholm where the spirit of Astrid Lindgren’s magical stories is kept alive. They will climbing aboard Pippi’s massive white horse for a photo op and take the Story Train to the magical world between the pages of Astrid Lindgren’s books.

Junibacken Museum, Stockholm

Nordic Sense of Humour

Sweden’s deputy prime minister and climate minister Isabella Lövin signing a climate bill surrounded by her closest female colleagues, apparently mocking you know who.
Photograph: Isabella Lövin

Sweden, a pioneer in women’s rights, is known for its high level of women in the workplace, including in parliament and government.

Nordic Prime Ministers: (L-R) Stefan Lofven of Sweden, Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark, Erna Solberg of Norway, Juha Sipila of Finland and Bjarni Benediktsson of Iceland, in Bergen, Norway, apparently mocking you know who.

Norway holds the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2017, and Prime Minister Erna Solberg has hosted a meeting of her Nordic colleagues in Bergen on 29 and 30 May. The agenda items included: further development of the Nordic region to ensure that it remains the most integrated region in the world, the fight against extremism and the Nordic region in the world. The ball the PMs are holding in the photo has sustainability targets written on it. They hope they will be a roadmap for the future.

The Nordic Countries look like a very interesting place to visit!

The Princess Cake Story

Princess Cake Story

Did you know that the Prinsesstårta (Princess Cake) has a story?, says Puffles who knows all the stories worth knowing 🙂

Princess Cake Story

The Princess Cake is practically the national cake of Sweden. That would explain why Miss Maud, a Swedish Pastry House, makes it. And they make a really delicious cake! And it’s very impressive how they managed to fit all that writing on the cake 🙂

Princess Cake Story

Apparently, and according to Swedish Food, Jenny Åkerström is the originator of the recipe. Jenny Åkerström was a Swedish home economics guru at the beginning of the 20th century and was an instructor to the three Swedish princesses, Margaretha, Märtha and Astrid, daughters of Prince Carl (brother of King Gustaf V).

Princess Cake Story

She published a four volume series of cookbooks called Prinsessornas Kokbok: Husmanskost och Helgdagsmat (Princesses Cookbook: Home Cooking and Holiday Food). The first edition came out in 1929 with the princess’ portraits gracing the cover. With it’s great success, helped by the cover, came 18 reprints with revisions up to 1952.

Princess Astrid
Princess Astrid

The princesses were seen as role models. Their education included child care and cooking which was innovative at the time. Not so much now! You certainly won’t find Isabelle cooking! She’ll just wave Mummy’s credit card at Miss Maud and get a pink cake, inscribed with her name no less 🙂

Princess Cake Story

The original edition Prinsessornas Kokbok did not have a recipe for a cake anything like the prinsesstårta that is so popular today. Ha! The recipe did not appear in the 1937, 1945 or 1952 editions, but there IS a recipe for grön tårta (green cake) in the 1948 edition, which is similar to the recipe for prinsesstårta that’s in use today. For some reason the recipe was dropped from the 1952 edition, but the name grön tårta explains why the cake is normally green. Miss Maud now makes a pink and a blue version as well.

Princess Cake Story

The name change to prinsesstårta was a good marketing move as it is certainly more appealing than “green cake”. The change is believed to have been made because the princesses loved the cake so much. The princesses weren’t alone: the cake rapidly became very popular in Sweden, with around 500,000 sold every year.

The fourth week in September is officially Prinsesstårtans Vecka (Princess Cake Week) in Sweden. For every prinsesstårta purchased during the week 10 SEK (about £1, $1.50) is donated to Crown Princess Victoria’s Fund that benefits chronically ill and disabled children and adolescents in Sweden. Every prinsesstårta sold during the week is topped with a gold crown to show it is part of the fund-raising effort. During prinsesstårtans vecka sales are usually double any other week.

The Princess Cake is one of the bears’ favourite cakes 🙂 Låt oss äta!

Princess Cake Story

Swedish Dance Royalty

The royal bears are at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts to watch the Royal Swedish Ballet in a production of Juliet and Romeo choreographed by Mats Ek, who is Swedish dance royalty.

Segerstrom Center For The Arts
Segerstrom Center For The Arts

Mats Ek is the son of choreographer Birgit Cullberg, who founded the Cullberg Ballet in 1967, and actor Anders Ek, who appeared in a number of films by Ingmar Bergman. He is married to the dancer Ana Laguna who is a key interpreter of his works, along with the ballerina Sylvie Guillem. Dance has his whole life, and at 71 years old his sensibility remains entirely modern.

In January, Mr Ek shocked the dance world when he announced that he would be retiring his repertoire of works from the world stage at the end of this year. After 50 years of creation, Mats Ek is taking a break. For the next two years, he will get off the road, off the spinning wheel, to experience what it is not to have things waiting ahead. He will stop all performance and production and selling his works. In two years he might come back, or he might not.

Swedish Dance Royalty

So it was a special experience for Puffles and Honey to see Mats Ek’s choreography in motion with Juliet and Romeo.

Juliet and Romeo
Juliet and Romeo

Yes, the ballet is titled Juliet and Romeo. “It’s time to turn the tables,” Mats Ek says. “One of Shakespeare’s early drafts was actually called Juliet and Romeo, so you could say that we’re going back to the source.” Mr Ek believes that his dramatization of Juliet’s conflict with her father, Lord Capulet, over her refusal to marry Paris is more along the lines of what Shakespeare had in mind when he first penned the play. “If you read the text you will see that he threatens her life,” Mats Ek says. “He says, ‘I wish you were never born. And if you don’t obey, don’t ever show yourself here. I will consider you not my daughter.’ So that is a death sentence already.”

The source, of course, is the tragedy of the two lovers and Mr Ek’s choreography captures their story. He created lively dances for Romeo (Anton Valdbauer for this performance) and, even more energetic choreography for friends Tybalt, a fun-loving Dawid Kupinski, and the sacrificial Mercutio, played by the Clyde Emmanuel Archer in a tutu. Oscar Salomonsson played the unsettling Paris.

Mats Ek created Juliet and Romeo for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 2013 and presented it as part of the Sadler’s Wells Northern Light season. Mr Ek unwraps Shakespeare’s tale, seeking to unearth the psychological truths beneath the story’s surface, showing how the young couple’s tragedy is born of, and inseparable from, the strife-riven society in which their lives unfold.

Swedish Dance Royalty

Danced to a composite score of Tchaikovsky works, rather than the typical Prokofiev music, the production takes on a 21st century vibe with a stark, urban setting of smoky lighting, shifting mazelike walls, ominous trap doors created by set designer Magdalena Aberg, who is also credited with the costumes – motorized Segway scooters and costumes that mix Renaissance chic with jeans, hoodies, and metallic suits.

Told from the perspective of a wide-eyed and defiant Juliet, who falls for sentimental dreamer Romeo, the rest of Mats Ek’s reimagined world is strewn with brutal conflict among Juliet’s brooding family and Romeo’s street-smart comrades.

Juliet and Romeo
Juliet and Romeo

Mr Ek’s stage is a place of mist and darkness, more Elsinore than Verona. The mobile set suggests armoured ramparts and no-go areas. Hostile waves of dancers, each imbued with their own agenda, meet in swirling, skirmishing crosscurrents that leave the stage strewn with the dead and dying. The Prince (Pascal Jansson) is an impotent, marginalised figure, locked into bizarre and repetitive private rituals. The Capulet parents (Andrey Leonovitch, Daria Ivanova) are cold, inflexible tyrants whom their daughter (Ema Yuasa) is expected to obey without question. The only sympathetic adult in the household is Marie Lindqvist’s splendid, tempestuous Nurse.

It’s in the person of Juliet that Mats Ek’s choreography at its most subtle and tender. His incredible choreography portrays the awkwardness and grotesqueries of adolescence. Juliet pulls daft faces and throws weird shapes; at times she’s all twitching, puppyish impatience. But beneath these attitudes, in the choreography’s lyrical underpinnings and fluid musicality, we see the fully realised woman that she might have been. The extended duet for the leads is a marvel, proceeding from hesitant, disbelieving mutual exploration to rushing cascades of joy. At a climactic moment, Romeo (Anton Valdbauer) swings Juliet upside down on his back, so that he is crowned by the inverted V of her legs.

Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder has inspired the end of Juliet and Romeo. In the right-hand corner of the painting, Icarus, just fallen from the sky, kicks up his legs out of the sea. Doomed to drown in the ocean’s depths, he frantically fights to survive. Meanwhile, the world goes on spinning, as a peasant plows a field, a fisherman angles for his daily catch and a ship sails on.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder

From the artwork’s illustration of a young life cut short, Mats Ek created the ballet’s final scenes. “I’m using this image at the end of Juliet and Romeo, as a picture of death, but something maybe still can come out of it,” Mats Ek says. “Life goes on. And the Earth still exists. It’s a wonderful irony and something beautiful, hopeful about it.”

It served well for the ending where the trap door opened for Juliet and Romeo to live eternally. There’s a lasting image of mourners raising their legs upward to mimic the lovers in their deaths.

Juliet and Romeo
Juliet and Romeo

Ema Yuasa and Anton Valdbauer
Ema Yuasa and Anton Valdbauer
Carl St. Clair, Music Director and Raymond Kobler, Concertmaster
Carl St. Clair, Music Director and Raymond Kobler, Concertmaster, Pacific Symphony
Mats Ek
Mats Ek