Interview: Don Gnu – ‘We were confused about what it was to be a man today.'
Danish dance duo Don Gnu have set their sights on examining what it is to be a man right now
Masculinity: it’s not exactly invisible in mainstream culture. From The Odyssey to Hamlet and the mono-gender domination of this year’s Oscars, male identity is very much front and centre in our cultural consciousness. You could even argue that it might not need more attention. But Danish dance company Don Gnu don't agree, believing the subject requires a rethink.
For the past six years, this duo – ‘Don’ (Jannik Elkær) and ‘Gnu’ (Kristoffer Louis Andrup Pedersen), with guest appearances from Simon Beyer-Pedersen as ‘El Chino’ – have been building a trilogy to explore beyond the existing archetypes projected onto men in order to discover a balance with which they feel more aligned.
‘We were confused about what it was to be a man today,’ says Elkær. ‘We were both born in the 70s, a time when the man had to be soft. You have to be able to have all your feelings and start to listen. At the same time we have to be masculine. In 2010 there was this thing: how can you be a real man? People were starting to go out to nature: a sort of male therapy.’ The result of their exploration is Men in Sandals, with MIS: All Night Long being the final instalment and the one they’re bringing to Dance Base.
We meet just after they’ve kicked off the Danish Plus festival in Aarhus with a gala performance. The show has gone down well with its mash-up of slapstick, posturing, misplaced competitiveness, 70s ‘taches and martial arts stunts, all blending into a weird tangle of celebration and mockery. The pair admit that their onstage characters, Don and Gnu, channel extreme versions of themselves: Don is alpha and mischievous while Gnu is quieter and ‘passive aggressive’. El Chino, meanwhile, represents a challenge to straight white masculinity with his elegant chaos.
But beyond sending-up masculine folly, there’s also tenderness at play in a striking tango, a tragi-comic attempt at grace involving a plank and a couple of well-placed socks, and a bizarrely beautiful finale (starring yet more socks, this time paired with sandals). ‘In Denmark, there’s this really bad fashion of having men in sandals,’ Elkær says. ‘For us it was like a symbol of trying to take everything apart.’ Pedersen jumps in: ‘to take all the layers away’.
‘It’s about being tough but still having the soft layer of socks in between,’ Elkær says. ‘We are pretty secure in Scandinavian countries but at the same time we want to search for the roughness inside us. So there’s a bit of joking about this male tendency of trying to push borders and push the limits, but still needing to be safe.’
There are some who would argue that giving more time and space to gaze at the male self is just perpetuating a gender bias that has been prevalent on stage and screen for centuries. When I ask whether the two men, after all their exploration of gender, have become feminists, they are bashfully evasive, saying they don’t know enough about it to commit to an answer. Still, MIS: All Night Long is hugely entertaining, and with its eccentric humour and aim of challenging rather than cementing ideas of masculinity, it’s a welcome breath of self-reflection.
MIS: All Night Long, Dance Base, Grassmarket, 18–28 Aug (not 22), 1pm (18–21 Aug), 9pm (23–28 Aug), £12 (£10). Preview 17 Aug, 1pm, £10 (£8).