On stage at the Shed, Björk is in her own world. The Icelandic icon’s residency at Hudson Yards’s performance space began last night (she’ll be there until June 1), and her new show transforms the venue’s 17,000-square-foot main theater, the McCourt, from a large black box into a fantasyland called Cornucopia. There, Björk is accompanied by a septet of flautists, the Hamrahlid Choir from Iceland, harpist Katie Buckley, percussionist Manu Delago, and electronic musician Bergur Thorisson as she performs songs from her 2017 album Utopia (and a few other tracks as well).
When the show opens, the choir stands in front of the stage, with a colorful curtain of fringe behind them. Soon the layers are peeled back, first to reveal another sheer curtain onto which videos are projected, then to reveal the onstage microcosm where Björk and the other musicians (clad in costumes designed by Iris van Herpen and Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing) move about on multilevel structures that resemble mushrooms, sea anemones, or perhaps a yet-to-be discovered species.
“Nature was a massive inspiration,” explains set designer Chiara Stephenson, whose previous gigs include theater design for the West End plays Starry Messenger and Glengarry Glen Ross, creating festival stages for Sampha and The xx, designing Lorde’s Aria Awards performance, and more. “The sensual side of nature and the curves and organic forms and femininity in that. It’s like an exploration of perspective. You know, Björk is totally interested in nature and technology and where those two combine, and how they can combine in the future as we move forward.”
Stephenson says her job first and foremost was to create “a canvas” for the vision of the show’s creative director, Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. The set also serves as a literal canvas for video art by Tobias Gremmler, which is projected onto the curtains in front of the stage, the wall in back, and even onto the custom-made reverb chamber into which Björk and the flautists disappear from time to time. “We’re using kind of unconventional materials to project on. We’re not just projecting onto a screen, we’re projecting onto layers of a fragile membrane,” explains Stephenson. The result is that Gremmler’s swirling, morphing images appear to envelop the Cornucopia environment.
“His video art is very nature-based, but it’s an incredible example of how technology and the digital can enhance the themes of nature that we know and take them to a new level that kind of blows the senses more than a walk in the park does,” says Stephenson. “It’s quite kind of ethereal, I think.”
To build the stage’s main structures, Stephenson enlisted the help of British scenic artist Richard Nutbourne. The entire set was assembled in London, where initial rehearsals took place, and then packed up and moved to the Shed in New York City. “I think the fragility of the materials we used is surprising. Often, rock shows, they’re kind of big and butch and engineered and, like, right angles and steel. This has a very different, more delicate feel to it,” she explains, noting that she called upon her past experience to ensure that this production has “a theatrical sensibility, as opposed to this being a rock concert with video.”
And though Stephenson certainly delivered on her part of creating the world of Björk and company’s dreams, she credits the singer’s larger-than-life presence for making the show what it is. “You could put Björk on a blank stage with a light bulb and it would be a good show,” she jokes. “I think we’re hopefully enhancing everything that she is about and everything the music is about.”