Nordstrom Who Lives On Top of the World

Famous Swedish director works in Minsk
The well-known Swedish director Alexander Nordstrom gets up many plays and presents new productions quite often. His plays gather full houses in Stockholm, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg, Riga, Krasnoyarsk and Kazan. Minsk followed suit: the small stage of the Yanka Kupala Drama Theater presented a premiere of the mono-performance “Island of Sakhalin” based on a Chekhov’s play. In June the Swedish director plans to present Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” in the National opera Theater. Nordstrom used to live in St. Petersburg and even worked with Tovstonogov. The famous director, whose father is a Swede, builds a picture, a canvas of different cultures, and no stitches ever come into view. The seemingly various mentalities do not prevent Nordstrom from observing the evident spiritual closeness of Minsk and Stockholm, Moscow and Riga.

Following the premiere of “Island of Sakhalin” we spoke with Alexander a bit about theater, a bit more about money, Swedish temperament and attitude of Swedish students to Russian curse language, emigration and European childishness.

— How did Belarus, or to be more precise, the Yanka Kupala Theater, appear in your biography?

— It all started with a joint Belarusian-Swedish project “Theater in Prison”, which was covered very well in your media. The project was carried out by the association N-Studio that I head in Sweden and the Club of Business Ladies of Belarus headed by Tatyana Safronenko. My wife is my producer, so she was involved in negotiations. Besides, I had known Rayevsky a little from the Soviet times: we took part in workshops and joint labs, as they were called.

— So how did you get into opera?

— I had been dreaming of directing an opera! This was not my first time, and it is an immense pleasure. It was my initiative to work with your opera theater.

— Will you keep working with the Kupala Theater?

— Yes, the talks are underway. I believe it is the strongest and the most interesting Belarusian theater, anyway, the best theater in Minsk. They have a great company, talented youth and interesting older generation. If there is something to do in a theater then it should be done with them.

— Did you work with Tovstonogov when he was already a maestro?

— Oh yes, he was not just a director, he was a guru. By that time he had directed “Kholstomer” and never appeared in public without a retinue. If he joined us once a month we thought we were lucky. By the way, when I talk to my students in Sweden and tell them about my studies they don’t believe me. I often have to keep many things to myself.

— What sort of things?

— About cursing, for example. It was a very common thing for us, no problem… You could use a four-letter word, but no one seemed offended. For my Swedish students it would seem inadmissible.
Emigration looked like a walk in the park.

— Was emigration painful?

— No, no pain. I am a Swede, my father is a Swede, and I was a Swedish national until I was 16. I worked as a chief director in Petrozavodsk, in the Finnish Drama Theater, and I staged plays in Finland. I then decided to go to Sweden, so I went to the embassy and told them I wanted to see my father’s native land. It was 1990. They told me “Great, but you need an invitation”. I said I had no relatives in Sweden, so there was no invitation. “Then you can’t go there,” they told me. “But how can I get there?” I insisted. “If all your documents are ok, then you may apply for a residence permit.” My wife was mildly surprised, as it was very easy. We left in April, but in June I was back in Novosibirsk to make another show.

— Was it easy to adapt? Both climatically and psychologically?

— It was hard at first, as I did not speak Swedish. I had to speak English there. It was always nice to come to Sweden from Russia: it is so clean, calm and peaceful there. I often come to St. Petersburg with my Swedish friends, and they tell me the city looks like Stockholm in the 60s: everything is a little bit uncared-for, neglected… And they get nostalgic. Stockholm is so clean and sterile, but they are not happier there. They have more suicides per capita than in Belarus. I think the drug problem is even worse, especially pills and grass.

— This is a hackneyed subject, I know it, but why do you think the trouble-free Europe gives birth to such morbid stories as “La Pianiste” by Elfriede Jelinek or radical films of Michael Haneke?

— I guess the childishness and frigidity of the Swedes are to blame. They have not had a war in 200 years. They will celebrate 200 years of the no-war period in 2009. This leaves a mark. They have not experiences the catastrophe of WWII or WWI.

…My wife sometimes works as a guide for a very respectable travel agency. Most of the clients are very serious and rich pensioners. They pay loads of money to come to Moscow or St. Petersburg. So she tells these charming and well-educated old people about the war. “During the blockade one million people died, and the population of the city was at 3 million people…” They just can’t react, they are not impressed, because the number is unbelievable. They have their own associations, to tell the truth: an old lady told my wife on hearing about a severe winter “Oh yes, I do remember, a terrible winter, all apples in our orchard were frozen then.” This is WWII for them — “apples got frozen”.

They have no experience in emotional sufferings, this is a unique country: their neighbors, Norwegians, Finns and Danes, had to go through the war. They saw and felt this terror, whereas Swedes are innocent, and this is just marvelous. It is a sin to wish some nation a war, I just want to explain the difference.

Most of the citizens of Stockholm, like Minsk residents, have come to live in the capital city from the village. They hate when you cross the line and break the distance. This is the characteristic feature of the Swedish nation — they always want to prevent a conflict, this is a sort of genetic predisposition to non-conflict. They would never make a remark or comment, they may only reprimand a child. At the same time, I believe a conflict is necessary for a human. With no struggle for survival, with no stress a human being may have an inner conflict and problems with mind. There is a hell of a mess in their minds, they keep digging for something. There is something of the kind in the Slavic nature, but it is not so morbid, it is kind of deeper and remedial.

I had never read anything more morbid than the books of the lady that you mentioned, and I think I know why she won the Nobel Prize. She is a woman, and feminism and gender equality are popular in Europe as never before, besides, she is very close to Swedes. They understand such things. I see the situation from within, my daughter grew up there, she is a real Swede.

— What does she do?

— She managed to enter one of the best technological universities, but she also plays in an amateur theater, so I feel embarrassed sometimes.

— Your influence, isn’t it?

— By no means.

— What does she think about the Russian culture?

— You can guess yourself… Her mom and dad talk about it all the time. She speaks Russian, Swedish, English and French. Swedish children never learn English, it seems it comes to them somehow…

— Is it important to you as an artist that your daughter should have a high social status?

— Sure. She entered a very serious educational establishment, and her college was pretty tough. It is of major importance. Despite the equality they have in Sweden, there is a great social gap there. Your home address can say a lot about you. Modern society may get very cruel…

by Valentin Petrovsky
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