We were led into a cobblestone courtyard after a short trek through the layer cake city of Belgrade. The old and the new built alongside and on top of each other. All stonework and stairways in and around the ancient walkways of the city. They took us up away from the river, past stately parks and brutalist buildings, up a hill through old world neighborhoods to the Center for Cultural Decontamination. Greying plaster walls with red tile roofs. Slightly crumbling at the corners. Wooden shutters on the windows and wrought iron railings and gates. Our venue for the evening, just a few blocks from the Nikola Tesla Museum, we were told. What a fitting place, I thought, to see the performance they had planned for us. Thunderstruck.
I was among an assortment of producers, directors, artists, public officials,etc. who had convened in Serbia’s capital to discuss ways of making space for contemporary dance. You can check out the program here. Two long days of heady presentations and conversations capped with a performance or two. It was the second night of the convening and the performance I was most looking forward to. I had been staving off my jet lag with instant coffee and even ventured a Serbian energy drink, to be alert for the show that night.
I couldn’t wait to see this!
And so we crowded together in the courtyard after dark waiting for the show to begin. It was cool out and not unpleasant. A warm autumn night in the Balkans. Through the din of the mingling a voice began to beckon us from one end of the courtyard. There was a woman standing above us there on a landing across from, what I learned was, the doorway to the theater. And like the good theater goers we were, we gathered towards her. Stina Nyberg in a grey flannel suit with blond hair pulled back, welcoming us to the evening’s proceedings. Telling us a story about Nikola Tesla and not about Nikola Tesla. Setting us up for her power play.
That’s what I saw in the work (no spoilers, don’t worry). Play with power. Literally, with the power of electricity, and I was ready, then in Belgrade, for that to be it. To have my socks knocked off by some spectacle. But Stina isn’t satisfied with spectacle, thankfully. The power at play in this show is also one of a woman embodying the ego, bravado, swagger, intellectual superiority, and uninhibited confidence almost exclusively reserved for maleness. As she says in the work, she is a woman out of time, both in the way that powerful women are often discordant with the ‘acceptability’ of their times and in the way that woman with power often find it comes with time limits attached. In the sciences this is especially true. (See the recent scuffle around Dr. Katie Bouman and her black hole imaging.) Stina creates a space where a woman is the egomaniac with a big idea. Where a woman harnesses and wields the power. Where we are endangered and entranced by her maniacal magnificence. We sit on the edge of our seats. We want more.
Leaving the theater that night I was rocked. This was one a few unforgettable works I’ve seen in my life. One of those works that sits in my bones and grips at my heart upon remembering. We had a Q&A with Stina after the show to learn more about her and the project. Her fascination with invisible forces. It reminded me of my own appetite for knowing what I don’t know. My own wish for a greater public fascination with the natural forces around us. I was positive there was an audience for Thunderstruck in the Bay Area and so I decided I would bring it to CounterPulse. You know. I’d at least try. Find out what kind of power I had and flex it.
That was October 2017. I ended up having dinner with Stina and her producer in Belgrade. Talked more about the work and her tour plans. I wanted to come back from the trip with something to show for it, after all. A foundation had paid good money for me to be there. Fast forward 18 months, dozens of emails, and several video chats later and Thunderstruck makes its US premiere at CounterPulse this week. No easy road and I won’t bore you with details, but important to say I didn’t do it alone.
Thanks to Stina and her (amazing!) team for taking a risk with me and CounterPulse and much gratitude to the Swedish Consulate, the Pro Suecia Foundation, FACT/SF, and OX, for putting in your dollar bills for the production. We did it! Well, almost. We’re nearly there…
Don’t miss the US Premiere of Thunderstruck at CounterPulse Thur & Fri, April 25 & 26, 8PM. Q&A with Stina following the April 25 show. Reception with the Swedish Consulate following the April 26 show.
Want to read more about powerful women? Check out The Power by Naomi Alderman and watch the (fictional) sparks fly. Or, spend some time with the modern dance power mama herself and pick up My Life by Isadora Duncan.
Jeanne Pfeffer is a dance-nerd, wordsmith, production whiz, and the former Director of Producing & Advancement for CounterPulse. She is the lead producer for the US premiere of Thunderstruck. She lives with her partner in Oakland, CA. If she had a power, it would be to make people want less and wonder more.
Photo of Stina Nyberg by Casper Hedberg