She entered the theater last and stood at the far right of the choir line, well out of range of the stage lights (and, as usual, was the last to leave that night long after the lights went out as she indulged in her lifelong addiction of tidying up).
But much as she sought to have others shine, there was no way Anne Lise Klungseth Sandvik was not going to be the focus of attention when it came to reliving some of the most laughable and illuminating moments she has brought to the stage of that historic building for the past quarter of a century.
Sandvik, who earlier this year celebrated her 70th birthday with a party that also stretched the the norms, was literally at center stage during one of the most unusual local book debuts in recent memory on Friday night. About 20 family members and friends joined her to perform highlights from “Et Svalbardliv i Revy” (“A Svalbard Life in Revue”), a a new book compilation of the best satirical/sentimental songs/skits about life in the world’s northernmost community featured in an annual revue show every spring summarizing the past year’s events.
The collection is arguably the most honest and insightful guide to Svalbard’s community (meaning all of the people here, not necessarily just the residents of Longyearbyen) during the past quarter century, assuming you have a fundamental knowledge of the topics and the often quixotic Norwegian idioms – as in, you need to do more than scan “Norwegian in 10 Minutes a Day” to grok the lyrics.
Mining minions and masters are revered and ridiculed depending on the boom-and-bust times; longtimers freak out as freaky outsiders increasingly become part of an invading caravan of residents and tourists, and there’s never a shortage of individuals doing stuff too silly not to satirize on stage.
(Full disclosure: the author of this article was among the latter after spending four days in the local hospital several years ago with one broken hip and two functioning laptops, which apparently is why I never noticed every nurse in the place was trying to seduce me with exotic bedside dances. Since it made the book, I’m including it because…well, just because I feel like it.)
Staging the show has been a formidable challenge the past few years because coal mining – the backbone of Longyearbyen’s economy and society for its entire existence until a few years ago – has been nearly eviscerated during the past few years, to the dismay of nearly everyone involved with the revue over the years (although not everyone, as will shortly be seen). It’s pretty tough, after all, coming up with jokes about how lots of your decades-long friends have been laid off and been forced to move to the mainland. Not to mention a couple of major avalanches that killed a couple of people with strong local ties and destroyed a couple dozen homes.
But – oh, shame, to resort to cliché – the show must go on. So there were skits about renaming Store Norske to Store Torsk (the Norwegian word for “cod”) after Norway’s government opened the area up to fish processing. The suggestion the shortage of housing could be solved by moving people into an infamous (and ultimately illegal and torn down) towering Santa’s mailbox the size of an apartment building. And Sandvik, wigged as Svalbard’s recently appointed governor, mourning the massive burden of being taken from the relative calm of overseeing Norway’s prison population to dealing with the captive constituency of Svalbard.
But the skits weren’t all about silliness. Many, often performed solo by Sandvik or others, were true pieces of prose seeking moving moments rather than mirth. Which, she said after Friday’s book launch, are the works she embraces most because they allow her to best share her emotions and thoughts about the community.
Still, the timing of the release of this book was ideal, since the revue itself was cancelled this spring because there weren’t enough local participants to compose/plan/perform it during the annual Solfestuka festival that takes place every March. It was a huge hole in the most popular local festival of the year, but the release performance meant not only revisiting the best of the many revues over the years, but a change to stage a new skit that so perfectly summarized oh-so-many political, community and (yikes) family feuds that have been ignited by struggles in recent years.
“They” say to explain a joke ruins it, so we’ll just say the new skit features 1) longtime miners saying they can keep the history of good jobs at good pay alive, 2) a government official (Sandvik behind a mask) offering a sweet-tongued version of “piss off wazzocks” and 3) Sandvik’s hard-core Greenie son-in law (oh, the mental image of a family holiday meal chat) imploring a soot-free future to miners clearly willing and able to kick ass. While newbies reading this are missing out on about ten years of inside jokes, those five minutes alone mostly made up for a 90 minutes of missing mischief in March.
Frankly, transferring the 3D vibrancy of those performances into a 152-page book consisting largely of lyrics (and noting how it should be sung to some classic tune) seems like the results might inevitably end up flat. But for those who’ve seen the shows over the years (and not to mention are familiar with Sandvik’s lyricism both locally and on social media), just being able to relive the words of many years ago is the reward. As for newer folks – and/or those not entirely fluent in Norwegian, especially with the differing dialects used by Svalbard’s diverse population (guilty!!!) – maybe the most enjoyable language lessons ever might be borrowing the DVDs of past shows from the library and using the combination of text/video to grasp the gossip.
That said, this isn’t entirely the book Sandvik hoped to see published and it took a long time for the less-than-perfect results to see the light of day.
About 15 pages at the beginning are devoted to Sandvik’s biography and her role in the revue. The remainder is a compilation of compositions over the years, usually a few from each year, with a relative handful of full-page photos scattered in the pages near the beginning and end of the book.
“I would have had a lot more pictures,” Sandvik said. “Of other people, but not that many of me.”
There’s also some factual glitches in her biography, some of which were addressed in classic “revy” fashion by referring to them on stage during the book launch. Sandvik – noting that as with the photos, she’d have preferred less of the text be about herself, said she didn’t get a chance to see the final copy before it was published.
The text was written by Leif Magne Helgesen, the priest at Svalbard Church and a local icon in his own right until he departed at the beginning of October. His involvement brought to fruition an idea first suggested by Robert Hermansen about 10 to 15 years ago when he was the administrative director of Store Norske, which Sandvik worked for as a server for decades before her retirement. But there were various delays until Helgesen met with Sandvik and Hermansen two years ago.
“We talked about this project and said ‘this needs to be done,'” Helgesen said. “The main reason I did this is this is important for Longyearbyen. This has been a part of the culture and history of Longyearbyen for 24 years.”
As for why Sandvik didn’t get to see the final bio text ahead of time, Helgesen offered an explanation akin to journalists who don’t allow sources to preview and/or approve content in advance of publication.
“Sometimes you need surprises,” he said.
Regardless of any behind-the-scenes issues, personal feedback during the debut party, the days after and social media suggest the co-authors and subject material ensure this is about as critic-proof as a Svalbard book is likely to get (and as the critic, who arrived here 35 years after Sandvik, I’m really not looking forward to a debate if there is one).
But as the critic, I seriously don’t give a friggin’ fig leaf if one of her kids was delivered normally or by c-section (one of those fact check issues mentioned on stage Friday). And while it might be sacrilege to say I also don’t care all that much about the bio of Sandvik (full disclosure number three: she’s done a lot to raise funds and keep this fishwrapper alive during the past few years), when I heard about this book months ago what totally stoked my interest was reading the revues, especially since I haven’t been here for most of them.
Ultimately, “Et Svalbardliv i Revy” is truly a Svalbard cultural treasure – but Sandvik is dead-on in saying there should be more compositions and photos from over the years, especially considering its 349-kroner price tag. And not to go all multimedia on an old-school product, but considering there’s pretty good videos of many years of recordings it seems a multimedia offering (dare I hope with multilingual subtitles?) is something that should happen soon.
But for the moment this book is a huge breath of relief, knowing that preserving some of Svalbard’s most inspired verse won’t rest on discovering some obscure file folders containing materials from past revues in a closet in someone’s basement.