When is a theatrical event not a theatrical event? It’s an interesting question, and one that could easily have multiple answers, but for my money, Björk’s Cornucopia – playing at The Shed, Manhattan’s gleaming new $475 million arts venue located in the swanky, if not yet completed, Hudson Yards development – falls just the wrong side of the line. Not that, strictly speaking, it was billed as more than a “staged concert”, nor does it lacks theatricality – it comes complete with enervating projected visuals, majestic sound and lighting, dazzling costumes and a host of participants, from a 50-voice young persons’ choir to a dancing flute septet. What it lacks, however, is any sense of dramatic through line, perhaps the reason it lost the gifted British director John Tiffany (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) a couple of months out from the premiere. None of the above is exactly a bad thing, but with a greater cohesive vision one senses it might have been much more.
Björk’s Cornucopia. Photo © Santiago Felipe, 2019. Courtesy One Little Indian/The Shed
The Icelandic songsmith, now 53, has been experimenting over several decades with a range of multimedia disciplines to realise her bold ideas, ones that explore the perilous boundary between science and science fiction, man’s relationship with the natural world and the importance of eco-activism. Motherhood and rocky relationships in recent years have seen her focus increasingly on aspects of feminism. All of that is here – indeed the show culminates in a passionate video message from Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who has led an entire youth movement against the greed and complacency of an aging, money-focussed elite establishment – but the show also does what it says on the can, ie. cornucopia: “an abundant supply of good things.”
Described by Björk as digital theatre or a kind of sci-fi pop concert-cum-fairy tale, the show has a wealth of visuals to support that premise. Acclaimed Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, who took over at the helm from Tiffany, has done what she could with a sprawling, diverse set of songs, moving her numerous pieces around Chiara Stephenson’s gorgeously shiny multi-level set with a deceptive ease. Glossy platforms seem to float atop pinkish coral outcroppings, while a movable, silvery fibre curtain and clean-limbed scene cloth at rear allows for giant projections front and back. Tobias Gremmler’s digital visuals are frequently breath-taking, ranging from sensual, morphing anemones and swirling flowers that burst and swirl, to Björkish avatars that float, fly or emerge out of nothing before our very eyes. Bruno Poet’s surprisingly subtle lighting design takes all this effortlessly in its stride.
Members of Viibra. Photo © Santiago Felipe, 2019. Courtesy One Little Indian/The Shed
It’s a visual feast too thanks to the fertile imaginations of James Merry (Björk’s co-creative director) and the remarkable costumes of Iris Van Herpen and Olivier Rousteing, the lead-designer for French fashion house Balmain. Working in a basic palate of dazzling whites and pastel blues, with occasional splashes of bolder colours and plenty of glitz thrown on top, the performers resemble a cross between fantastic birds, mysterious aliens, and a shoal of curious sea-creatures. Intricate masks (handmade by Merry) and makeup add to an already heady brew.
Björk herself is on form, clad in a gleaming white dress and boots, her bejewelled head rising out of a sea of black fur while her shoulders are encased in what looks a little like a pair of ginormous eggshells. Belting it out into a hand-mike, the voice is robust, yet she embraces a fragile vulnerability when withdrawing into an onstage reverb chamber for more intimate acoustic moments. At other times, she indulges in the odd moment of typical (for Björk) weird/nerdy/endearing dancing. John Gale’s sumptuous, detailed sound design – yes, you really can hear a single harp over all of the rest – offers a blend of pre-recorded and live effects, frequently presented in impressive 360-degree. surround sound. The only disappointment is the way Björk’s live vocals often dip dangerously in the mix making it impossible to catch the lyrics.
Björk. Photo © Santiago Felipe, 2019. Courtesy One Little Indian/The Shed
Her co-performers include the outstanding American-born, Reykjavik-based harpist Katie Buckley and Bergur Þórisson, who manipulates a whole raft of keyboards and electronics. Equally impressive at multitasking is percussionist Manu Delago, who plays everything from standard drum kit to semi-hemispheric fiberglass bowls, which when dipped into a tank can create the sounds of running water, yet upended turn into something akin to a floating set of tabla. There’s even a sweet duet for Björk and Brooklyn-based experimental musician serpentwithfeet.
Then there are the 50 young singers from the Hamrahlíð Choir (an ensemble that once included Björk herself as well as rising star pianist Víkingur Ólafsson). Led by conductor Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir, they provided a six-number, front-of-curtain, close-harmony warmup act, later joining their fellow musicians onstage and singing with precision and passion, even when on the move. And last, but far from least, is Viibra, an Icelandic, all-female flute septet so talented it’s worth listing all seven of them: Melkorka Ólafsdóttir, Áshildur Haraldsdóttir, Berglind Tómasdóttir, Steinunn Vala Pálsdóttir, Björg Brjánsdóttir, Þuríður Jónsdóttir and Dagný Marinósdóttir, take a bow! Now firm friends, Björk describes their contribution as “flute folk music for the future”, and not only do they play a wide range of flutes with style and great musicality, they do it while embracing Margrét Bjarnadóttir’s graceful and complex choreography.
Percussionist Manu Delago. Photo © Santiago Felipe, 2019. Courtesy One Little Indian/The Shed
The song list is a combination of tracks from her mostly upbeat 2017 album Utopia (Arisen, The Gate, Utopia, Body Memory, Features Creatures, Courtship, Losss, Sue Me, Tabula Rasa, Claimstaker and Future Forever), with classic hits going all the way back to her 1993 debut album (Venus as a Boy, Big Time Sensuality), 2001’s Vespertine (Hidden Place) and 2015’s Vulnicura (Family and Notget). But perhaps the greatest pleasure is the sheer diversity of arrangements that take in all of the above performers and veer from the intimate to the head-banging. Wackiest moment, for me, had to be Body Memory, which found Björk enclosed in a giant circular flute being played by four flutists, while two gargantuan organ pipes descended from the ceiling emitting a subterranean bass drone.
Björk and the Hamrahlíð Choir. Photo © Santiago Felipe, 2019. Courtesy One Little Indian/The Shed
The eight-show run is a pre-opening sell out, but the odd return is popping up here or there. Cornucopia is, of course, self-recommending for Björk fans, but would easily hold the attention of anyone curious to see just what can be done with imagination and a budget. Just don’t expect a plot.
Cornucopia is at The Shed until June 1