On Oceanic: A performance that investigates the power of listening and force

Jeffrey S. Stratton

Choreographer Marie Topp and composer Julia Giertz speak to us about their long-standing artistic collaboration and the culmination of their newest work Oceanic.

Using the term ‘Tour de Force’ to describe an artistic work is often cliche and overused. However, with the work Oceanic by Marie Topp and Julia Giertz—in collaboration with dramaturge Igor Dobricic and light-designer Mårten K. Axelsson—there is both a literal and figurative truth in referring to the piece in that way. Not only is the work “an accomplishment that has been achieved through great skill,” as the classic definition states, Oceanic is also a performance where the subject of force is also a catalyst for its underlying experience. And yes, we are aware that we are taking some significant liberties with the translation of “force” from French to English, but the play on words is something we find appealing in relation to this particular work.

However, how does this investigation of “force” manifest itself in Oceanic? And how has this topic permeated its way through numerous works in Marie and Julia’s oeuvre?

Force as both a focus and a catalyst

Tapping into the history and background of Marie Topp and Julia Gierzt goes back to their shared education as dancers. They have effectively worked together since both exiting school. However, Julia’s interest deviated from dance toward music and sound composition. Including the dramaturgical expertise of Igor Dobricic and the lighting design of artist Mårten K. Axelsson, the small group has established a lasting partnership that has spanned numerous works.

Throughout those works, “force” has been a topic the group has continued to build their research upon—with the work from one performance informing the next, and so on.

The concept of “force” is something that both Julia and myself have shared an interest in researching and developing work from each of our perspectives. The idea of force is one that often finds its way into our ongoing dialogue. More specifically, the relationships between the forces of nature, emotional forces, and the body’s energetic forces.


Their investigation of “force” as something that can be tangible and felt—or in the case of Oceanic, can resonate throughout a space to be experienced at multiple levels—has been a byproduct of continuous collaborative practice. 

Staying with the research

Within many forms of “project funded” artistic works, there is often an expectation—sometimes subtle, other times explicit—that the project funding should go towards the investigation of a whole new concept or idea. Arguably a byproduct of the capitalisation of cultural works, with the intention of assigning commodity to something intangible, like a performance.

Marie and Julia have made a purposeful effort in rejecting these influences by continuing to investigate the topics, subjects, and practices that have shaped their work from nearly the start of their work together.

We have these topics and methods of working together that seem to be constantly present, so it is not like we abandon a subject once one work has been created—as if it has reached its limits. These ideas like force, haptic listening, blurred vision; they stay with us. They keep circulating around us, and we continue to accumulate more and more to the pool of work, and we never step out of it.


So, with five works preceding it, how did those collaborative practices influence and inform the work of Oceanic?

To listen and witness listening

According to Marie and Julia, the core proposal within the work of Oceanic is to experience the work as both a listener and a witness. This applies to how the audience should experience the work, as the sounds of the organic instruments and Marie Topp’s singing resonate as a force throughout the entire performance space. However, it also applies to the practice that Marie undertakes during the performance.

For my process, the idea of listening came as a natural extension of the work we had done previously, Liaisons, which focused on blurred vision. At first, our thoughts on how I could engage with the act of listening and responding came through the process of maybe speaking or singing—but I felt hesitation because of the sound of my own voice. 

This led us to then question how we could offer a feminist critique of “listening” while at the same time choosing not to make sound with the female voice? How could I listen to the space, to my presence, to the environment, but not offer my own voice to that resonance? How could the audience listen if I were not adding to the sonic force of the room?


I think the act of listening comes down to honing or activating the practice of empathy. So, it was essential to find methods of activating empathy in the performance space for Oceanic—as in being touched by something or someone or “called” by something or someone.


What to expect

For the Copenhagen premiere of Oceanic, audience members should expect a performance that taps into various emotional states brought on by being encapsulated in sonic and visual forces. It will be an experience that can be felt on multiple levels, depending on whether you simply bear witness to a listener (Marie Topp) or if you want to listen to your own body and how the performance is affecting it.