Olgas Among Us – Part 3: Sven the Frontiersman

A guest post by SID TAFLER

 

There are two important things to know about meeting Sven Johansson.

The first is, don’t shake his hand. At 90, he still has an iron grip, so my advice is, avoid the pain and offer a fist pump.

The second is, if you ask him how he’s doing, he’ll invariably say in his high-pitched Swedish lilt, “Never had a bad day yet.”

With the glint in his ice-blue eyes and an impish smile, you have to take him at his word, even though he’s known many dark days living in a tent with ice-cracking temperatures in Canada’s far north. And more recently, many days trying to break through the barriers facing a struggling new arts company.

His denial of the downside of life is long-living proof that healthy longevity is as much about attitude as it is about genes and lifestyle.

“If you want to preserve meat you put it in the freezer,” he chuckles. “I lived in the Arctic in 40 below, 50, 60 to 72 below for 25 years–frozen solid. So the meat never went bad.”

Sven is a solidly built, compact man who immigrated to Canada in 1962 and spent much of his life herding reindeer (he won an Order of Canada in 1994 for reviving Canada’s herd) and sailing his ship the North Star in the Beaufort Sea for the Geological Survey of Canada. Then in his 60s, he developed a new form of aerial dance, moved to Victoria and established the Discovery Dance Society, reigniting his life-long interest in the arts.

With proper lighting, Sven’s dancers appear to fly in the air, suspended on a boom, with the performer at one end above the stage and an operator on the floor at the other, the two working as a team to defy gravity and delight the audience.

Sven calls his technique ES (for Excedere Saltatio, or exceeding the limits). He says it releases dancers from the limits of their own bodies as well as the force of gravity and encourages new forms of choreography and performance.

Even disabled people confined to wheelchairs have experienced the thrill of dancing in air, strapped into his crane-like device which he calls a dance instrument.

Sven has presented more than 20 of his own dance productions, including one at the closing ceremonies for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. His work has been featured in six films and is showcased at the summer Shakespeare by the Sea festival in Victoria and at performances in Winnipeg, Vancouver and other centres.

In his tenth decade, he says his ever-active mind is as sharp and agile as it was in his 20s. His hearing has weakened, but he still lives on his own and walks without a cane with occasional rest stops.

In his book-lined bachelor apartment in downtown Victoria, he works on upcoming dance performances and his ever-expanding autobiography. He has no plans to retire for another ten years, but knowing Sven, he’ll probably find the motivation to keep going into his 100s.

There’s a lot to accomplish. Despite some successes and awards, ES Dance hasn’t achieved the recognition he believes it deserves, perennially rejected for funding by the Canada Council and the BC Arts Council and given short shrift by the local news media and “the very archaic dance community.”

He’s not the first outlier to be slighted in his own lifetime. He mentions Emily Carr, considered in her day as “just a funny old lady with a monkey in a baby carriage–not the great Canadian artist she in fact was.”

Looking ahead, Sven is searching for a young person “talented in all the arts” to lead Discovery Dance to new heights in the next 30 years.

“It often takes two generations for innovative artists to be recognized. By 2044, the second generation of ES Dancers may do it.”

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