Midnight Skate, by Mark Axelrod

Probably the most unusual ice skating competition ever held was the one in the Swedish village of Sorgebud in celebration of the 800th anniversary of the writing of Världssmärtans Saga, the greatest Scandinavian saga ever written on the themes of life and death and suffering.  The finest skaters from the Nordic region were in attendance for that competition.  Skaters such as August Strindberg and Hjalmar Söderberg, Selma Lagerlöf and Pär Lagerkvist, Henrik Ibsen and Kaj Munk, all with one thought in mind: to skate as pathetically as possible.  For those were the rules.  The only rules.

The competition was run very simply.  There were no compulsory figures, no short programmes, no compulsory jumps, spins, step and spiral sequences, double axels or double toe salchows, just the presentation of pain and suffering. In four minutes.  A tie would be broken at the judges’ discretion.  There were five judges, one from each of the Nordic countries, and one from Holland, all of whom judged each skater on presentation, composition, technical merit and artistic vision.  A scoring of one point was bad; six, faultless and there the divisions ended.  A number of skaters applied to compete, but not all were accepted.  Even skaters with noble international credentials like Eric Axel Karlfeldt and Verner von Heidenstam were not asked.  No, not everyone was invited.  Only sixteen skaters arrived on that bitter Swedish night for a competition that would last just over an hour.  Just long enough for each of them to skate, before a silent crowd, the majesty of their individual sorrows.  Those invited to participate were, in order of appearance and with the title of their performance as printed on the program:


(In order of performance)


Stig Dagerman


(De dömdas ö)

Island of the Doomed


Knut Hamsun





Hjalmar Söderberg


(Martin Birck’s Ungdom)

Martin Birck’s Youth


Axel Käpp


(Det är bara Hjärnspöken)

They Are Idle Imaginings


August Strindberg




Camilla Collett


(Amtmandens Døttre)

The Sheriff’s Daughters


Hjalmar Bergman


(Blå blommer)

Blue Flowers


Selma Lagerlöf



The Outcast


Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson


(Over Aevne I)

Beyond Our Powers


Søren Kierkegaard





Sigrid Undset


Kristin Lavransdatter


Henrik Ibsen


(Naar Vi Døde Vaagner)

When We Dead Awaken


Louis Couperus


(Van oude menschen, de dingen die voorbijgaan)

Old People and Things That Pass


Pär Lagerkvist



The Dwarf


Elmer Diktonius





Kaj Munk


(Han sidder ved smeltediglen)

He Sits at the Melting Pot


Some were very curious names, relatively unheard of in ice skating circles.  Others were the foundations of skating in their respective countries.  But names did not matter.  It was the performance that counted and the execution of the performance.  Execution that is what the judges all agreed upon.  Execution.  The competition was held in a turn-of-the-century ice skating arena with wooden bleachers and a clapboard roof that hung over just far enough to keep the spectators from being windswept by the dusts of snow that scattered themselves from the corners of the rink.  It was a small arena for such a major competition, with seating for only one-thousand and a handful of oddly-placed Strålkastarlysen that dimly illuminated the contestants who more often than not skated in the shadows.  But there the contest was held.  In the absolute stillness of Sorgebud.  In the bitter cold, with only a dozen onlookers, with only the wind as a howling accompaniment to the skaters’ dances and the rattling of an unseen wooden plank that was in need of some repair.

The first skater to take the ice was Stig Dagerman who was well-known in skating circles as a skater of enormous talents and who brooked no conscience when it came to skating against the rules.  Widely held as a skater who would alter the course of Swedish skating because of his rather young age, the major flaw in his style, according to the skating critics, was his preoccupation with Angst, which, no doubt, was the main reason he was invited.  And no where was that more apparent than in his programme titled Island of the Doomed a performance in which Dagerman played all seven survivors of a shipwreck who are cast away on an island.  Each one is faced with choices, moral choices, choices of survival based upon their existence in that absolutely absurd world.  Only one of the seven survives and he, ultimately, commits suicide out of loneliness.  Out of desolation.  The physical anguish of each of the characters was portrayed poignantly in Dagerman’s presentation, a presentation marked with brilliant surrealistic leaps as well as the Angst to which all who were acquainted with Dagerman’s work had come to expect. The performance was a beautifully arranged composition of extreme intensity, and at its conclusion, Dagerman, obviously drained by the exposure, refused to wait for the scores and merely skated off the ice, weeping in a haze of what he had just accomplished.  Upon an empty rink, accented by willowing wisps of snow, dancing agelessly on the frozen bed, the judges flashed the scores of: 6, 5.9, 5.9, 6, 5.9: 5.94.  It would be a difficult pathos to match.

And for that reason it was only fitting that Knut Hamsun follow Dagerman and precede Ibsen since Hamsun was always rather indignant of the latter’s style of skating and more than once advocated a “new” style of skating to supersede the old.  Hamsun had a major repertory of his own from which to choose.  Early performances included Pan, Mysteries and Victoria all presented with great style and flair and his later programmes, such as Growth of the Soil showed him at his disciplined best even if it were primarily written to impress the Nobel Ice Skating Committee.  But instead of choosing a later work, he returned to the piece that established him as the skater of new Norwegian impressionism: Hunger, and his performance reaffirmed, if reaffirmation were needed, his claim to being a world-class skater.  A young man, near to extinction from starvation, privation, wanders homelessly, friendlessly through the streets of Christiania.  The alternations induced by his condition between mental fatigue, rage, and hallucination is coupled with his sudden spurts of revolt or joy, and were skated in a backdrop of utter isolation, stunning in its sparseness.  But even though the style was flawless, the execution brilliant, most of the judges concurred that the performance was too self-indulgent, except for the Norwegian judge, Georg Brandes, who added that there may have been a bit too much Aryan arrogance in the technique.  And even though that seemed to be Hamsun’s only weakness in a grand performance which netted him a 5.96, as he skated off the ice, Hamsun refused to shake Brandes’ hand, a gesture that seemed of little concern to Brandes who apparently was not offended by the apparent indiscretion.

If there ever were a dandy on skates it would have been Hjalmar Söderberg, a skater whose aplomb was only superseded by his extraordinary gifts as a skater and one his most gifted works, Martin Birck’s Youth, was the classical Swedish skating incarnation of melancholy, eroticism and determinism of the fin de siècle decadence.  Though the story is about Martin Birck’s life from childhood to his early 30’s, Söderberg creates a mood of melancholy by wearing dark clothes, skating in the shadows, creeping along the edges of the arena as if he were an outside constantly searching for the truth of existence, but perpetually being disillusioned about discovering it.  The programme brilliantly portrayed a man’s frustration and ultimate resignation amidst the petty limitations of living a bourgeois existence.  Of a man who inevitably gives up his dreams for the security of banal existence in a clerical job and a mediocre erotic life.  Söderberg’s marvelous sensitivity and economy of skating style was, as usual, stylistically perfect, and in an exquisite finale Söderberg reenacted the illusion of a passionate kiss, burst into flames and, engulfed by his desires, disappeared into oblivion.  The special effects were extraordinary and the judges felt compelled to give Söderberg a 5.98 even though all that remained upon the ice were the ashes of a life just passed and an illusory love.

There was a momentary delay as the ashes were swept off the rink, and the next performer, Axel Käpp, tightened his skates.  Axel Käpp was a relative newcomer to Scandinavian skating.  Though he had been performing for a long time, mainly in America, only a handful of his fellow skaters recognized his brilliance.  Well-known in those circles for his rather eccentric style of skating, Axel Käpp often took chances in his performances which annoyed critics because of the unorthodox style.  Some critics compared his style to certain South American skaters, a rather derogatory suggestion since the South American skaters were looked upon as being somewhat inferior to their Northern European counterparts.  Ignorant of what to say about his work, critics would often remark that they were either too witty or too abstruse, but neither comment really paid justice to the works themselves.  So the judges were prepared to expect most anything from Axel Käpp and they were not disappointed.  They Are Idle Imaginings struck at the very fabric of Scandinavian Angst and the fleeting measure that is life.  In a brilliant display of free-form skating, Axel Käpp presented a series of four vignettes, from birth to death, in which the arrogance of youth bled rapidly into the disillusion of middle-age and the fragility of old age until, at last, the skater found himself crawling, on the ice, as he had begun the performance, in a natural cycle of compelling force.  The judges felt the programme scored highly in all categories except technical merit where they all agreed that Axel Käpp’s intentional displays of ironic skating, a technique he learned under the tutelage of Kierkegaard himself, detracted from the execution of the overall performance.  They gave Axel Käpp a 5.85 which must have infuriated the skater since as he left the ice he screamed that he would never again skate in his homeland and punctuated the promise by urinating on the leg of the Swedish judge, a move which was applauded by the following skater, someone equally as eccentric, August Strindberg.

As Strindberg took to the ice, one could sense the approach of a true skating genius.  And with both Bjørnson and Ibsen to follow, the judges were eager to see what kind of programme Strindberg would skate and how well it would compare.  No other skater was so obsessed with self-analysis as he and no other skater was so possessed with matters of the individual.  Actually, the judges were concerned that with Strindberg’s pietistic emphasis on incessant self-examination, condemnation, denial and control whether he could actually skate at all.  So it was no surprise when he chose to skate the Inferno, the personal record of a terribly disturbed man deliberately withdrawn at times into total isolation with the singular purpose of suffering to his own visions.  And in the programme he presented his torments, both real and fantastic, were recreated; the diseases that plagued him, like psoriasis and emphysema, were manifested; the emotional dilemmas over his past marriages and children were presented; and finally, the fear that he might be losing his mind, was brilliantly portrayed.  His excursions into drugs, indiscriminate sex and alchemy were all vividly executed in a style that was uniquely Strindbergian.  Like a poem in prose it was a highly personal, painfully accurate display of ordered chaos.  The judges, however, complained as they did about Hamsun.  They were mixed about Strindberg’s “skate poetics” being a fusion of life and art and for some reason believed that such a combination devalued the performance and somehow made it less valuable.  Strindberg, not one for delays nor petty squabbles, refused to wait for the results and skated to his dressing room.  Like Hamsun, Strindberg received 5.96; unlike Hamsun, when Strindberg found out of the results he returned to the judges and in a fit of pique slammed the table so hard it splintered.  In an unprecedented decision the judges deducted another tenth of a point for unsportsmanlike conduct, a move which so outraged Strindberg that, like Axel Käpp, he urinated on the Swedish judge’s other leg before being escorted off the ice by his most-recent wife.

One might have thought that the controversy would have subsided after that, but it was to continue in the form of the first female contestant to appear.  Camilla Collett was one of only three women skaters invited to the competition which was noteworthy in itself considering the other two were reckoned as the grand dames of Scandinavian ice.  But her lack of recognition was due more to the ignorance of the skating cognoscenti than to any inabilities Collett had as a skater.  Her program, The Sheriff’s Daughters, dealt with a brilliant young woman relegated to rural life and to the misplaced priority of being groomed for an unimpassioned marriage on her part.  Destined to live the rest of her life, sexually and intellectually unfulfilled in the Norwegian hinterlands, the heroine accepts her ultimate fate of indolence through marriage.  Though she asked to have the additional title “A Feminist Repertoire” included in the programme notes as a way of commenting on the piece, the judges refused the request indicating that it would set an unreasonable precedent, and though the theme was adequately portrayed and her skating technically correct, the judges felt the style was a bit forced, and not in keeping of one heightened by feminine grace.  In spite of the fact that its presentation of women’s issues was extraordinary, the judges agreed that the execution was not painful enough.  Overall she received a 5.75, a mark against which she lodged a formal protest which too was denied.  Collett was consoled by both Selma Lagerlöf and Sigrid Undset, but she vowed never again to skate before a panel of judges composed entirely of men.

The press had written that the competition should have been called the competition of the “twin Hjalmars” because Hjalmar Bergman learned to skate with Hjalmar Söderberg and perhaps that was why their approach to skating seemed so very similar.  Like Söderberg, Bergman’s existential angst was to continue and deepen throughout his life, affecting his skating technique on every level. Though his three major works, God’s Orchid, Herr von Hancken and Thy Rod and Thy Staff were preparations for what Bergman felt as the art of self-discovery before death, he chose not to skate any of them, but, rather, decided upon Blue Flowers.   Bergman’s anguish was always at the forefront of his technique and in Blue Flowers he weaved a fabulous tale of realism and symbolism cloaked within a forbidden passion.  A middle-aged man falls in love with his foster daughter and his feelings are projected as a dream of reaching out for blue flowers of longing yet he can never reach those flowers, but finally grasps, in the end, the white flower of death.  This theme of Bergman’s, forbidden love, dreams of love and, ultimately, the peace of death are found in most of Bergman’s programmes.  The most fascinating thing about that particular performance was that as Bergman grasped the white flower he became the flower.  Bergman and the flower became one and the same, and as the performance ended all that remained were a few petals from the white flower, a single leaf and a stem of spring green resting, frame-like, upon the snowy whiteness of the ice.  Such a provocative ending compelled the judges to award him marks of 5.95 even though the competition was delayed for some time as the custodian of the rink had to retrieve the flower from the ice and dispose of it in the proper trash container.

The judges were actually in a tizzy when Selma Lagerlöf opened her programme with a sketch from Gösta Berling’s Saga, a story about a man who changes from a carefree youth into a socially responsible man who learns to love others more than himself.  What disturbed the judges most was the fact that she did not skate what she was programmed to skate, The Outcast, the programme for which she was invited.  The judges actually stopped her in mid-performance to as why, in fact, she was not skating what she had proposed to skate.  Lagerlöf merely responded that she just changed her mind, a response that, too, caused considerable consternation among the judges; however, after an extensive discussion, hastened due to decreasing temperatures, they decided to evaluate her program independently of what she had proposed to skate.  As performances went it was a rather curious one and though the style was flawless with leaps of personification, hyperbolic moves and free rhythmic patterns, the content of the saga did not motivate the judges to award her high marks.  The judges were very critical about Lagerlöf’s performance, basically because of her optimistic attitude towards and her strong portrayal of the redeeming powers of love.  The judges, to a man, were a bit miffed by her selection since it was not in keeping with the spirit and the tenor of the competition and though a few judges actually wanted to disqualify Lagerlöf, they reconsidered because of her stature and awarded her nominal marks of 5.65 for participating.  As the Swedish judge put it, there was no place for love at the Sorgebud competition.  Lagerlöf grinned at the comment as she skated off the ice, apparently satisfied with the fact that she completed the programme she had intended to skate in the first place.

Some found it absolutely astonishing that Bjørnson, Ibsen and Strindberg were skating on the same bill.  Each was considered a giant of Scandinavian skating and to have been included on the same program was an extraordinary event.  Prior to the competition, speculation was rife that Bjørnson would not compete with either Ibsen or Strindberg and for that reason would respectfully decline, but master skater that he was he decided to pursue the competition and leave the decision-making to the judges which turned out to be the wisest choice of all since Bjørnson skated what many believed to have been a superlative performance of Beyond Our Powers.  The programme was steeped in a personalized experience of the power of religion in which the supernatural and spiritual rage in conflict until the supernatural is denied through the failure of a reputed miracle-worker to heal the hero’s wife.  To most if not all of the judges, the emotional intensity of the performance reflected Bjørnson’s own ambivalence and the judges, especially Brandes, admitted that the performance was probably his best, and an obviously exhausted Bjørnsen was assisted off the ice with a score of 5.95.  Even Kierkegaard applauded the score even though it was not in keeping with the rules.

Tragic to the point of humor, Søren Kierkegaard took to the ice like a doe in search of bleak forage.  Doubtlessly one of the strongest skaters invited, it was hard to believe as one watched him take such puny, almost tentative steps onto the rink.  But once he got accustomed to the ice, everyone knew what his capacity for skating was.  Kierkegaard, the only Dane invited, could have chosen any number of programmes to skate–Fear and Trembling, The Repetition, The Concept of Dread–all of which would, presumably, have fit perfectly into the categories suggested by the Sorgebud Skating Committee.  But Either-Or was the cornerstone of Kierkegaard’s skating repertoire and of his philosophy of life, so it was fitting that he chose it.  As always with Kierkegaard, the skating was magnificent.  Ironic twists, laconic spins and turns, flawless skating of incredible amplitude.  His simple steps, captured wit, his leaps, the profound knowledge of the piece, and the programme was ripe with aesthetic maneuvers that were tributes to the finest in the art of skating.  But the judges were not so predisposed.  Except for the Danish judge, and the Dutch one, the others felt that though the moves were extraordinarily executed, the content was impossible to reduce to a mere four minutes and felt the program was ingenious, but incomplete given the severe time restraints.  The Finnish judge even said that the Sorgebud competition was the wrong kind of competition for Kierkegaard’s programme given the kinds of moral and ethical dialectics imposed by the imperatives of converting water to ice.  Be that as it was, he was finally awarded marks of 5.85 which, when announced, brought an unseen hiss from somewhere high above the clapboard roof that sheltered the countenance below.  Kierkegaard, never one to make too much of an issue, skated off the ice thanking each judge individually for the honesty of his opinions and his ethical approach to judging.

The last woman participant was Sigrid Undset who, unlike her compatriots Collett and Lagerlöf, skated without complaint what she set out to skate: Kristin Lavransdatter.  However, midway through the performance, she also skated without clothes.  The judges were prepared for just about anything by that time, but were quite unprepared for Ms. Undset’s naked exhibition.  She completed the first part of her programme in typically Undsettian fashion with a carefully crafted sequence of visions and with falling suspense which flowed naturally and inevitably as Kirstin’s passion for the character Erland increased.  But at the point at which Kristin and Erland make love, Undset suddenly shed her clothes and executed the lovemaking wearing nothing but a tiny, silver crucifix strung around her neck.  For those familiar with her work the gesture should not have been unusual since the sexual impulse in her programmes played such a prominent part.  And because sexuality plays such a vital part in human existence she felt compelled to show that in her programme.   Not to have done so would have been hypocritical.  Still the judges were at a loss as to what to do as Undset stood there, completely naked, hands on hips, impatiently waiting for her marks.  The judges rifled through papers, spoke rapidly to one another, glanced up, glanced down, wrote notes in the margins of their scorecards, and, finally, after what seemed like hours, awarded her a score of 5.95.  As she skated off the ice, she glowered at the judges, none of whom would give her eye contact.

It was a compelling program indeed, and by the time the judges had recomposed themselves, or tried to, Ibsen had already taken to the ice, and most everyone was puzzled as to why, of all the repertory pieces he could have skated, When We Dead Awaken was his choice.  Most everyone thought that he would have skated Hedda Gabler, but as age descended upon the master, Ibsen felt to skate anything other than a programme of self-judgment and contemplation would have been meaningless.  All that said, he could only have skated The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman or When We Dead Awaken.  The choices were just, the latter being a mode of self-expression, elderly self-indulgence if one will, that skaters of his calibre could skate.  And so it was in When We Dead Awaken that the main protagonist, an aging sculptor, suddenly realizes that by devoting his entire life to art he has lost all hope of livsglæde, the joy of life.  Reunited with a former model, they try to recapture the years that were denied them only to die together in an avalanche.  At the conclusion of the performance, a performance steeped in unquestionable enigma, Ibsen tottered on his skates and fell to the ice, the result of a massive stroke.  The competition was delayed until the ice was cleared and Ibsen taken to hospital and though the judges were relieved to hear he would recuperate, the enigmatical conclusion and the puzzling execution of the piece confused them enough to award him only a 5.8.  When told of the marks, Ibsen apparently smiled and allegedly uttered that he would skate no more.  The critics know best.

There was some mention of canceling the rest of the competition as an homage to Ibsen, but it was quickly overruled as a precedent not in keeping with the spirit of competition and the Dutch skater, Louis Couperus, was invited to take the ice.  Couperus’ range was as diverse as poetry is from prose and his remarkable repertoire of programmes ranged from the failure of finding true homosexual love to the horrors people closet in their past to the ultimate anguish of old age, the latter two being subjects he chose to skate in his programme, Old People and the Things That Pass.  In an extraordinary bit of makeup and costuming, Couperus performed the programme clad in waxen skin, with tremulous, wandlike fingers, mumbling toothlessly, and waiting for soul and memory to die in a body already ravaged beyond the banal pastimes of youth.  There was a combination of subject and treatment to his performance that portrayed the senses brilliantly and executed the disease of senility, of old age, in a manner that was painful to witness.  At the conclusion of his performance, Couperus skated, hunchbacked to the judges’ stand, and wearing a face framed with the horrors of dying, vomited blood upon their programs.  Against the rules, an overly enthusiastic spectator, sitting somewhere high above the Strålkastarljus, clapped, the sound echoing, like a shrill laugh, through the slumbering streets of Sorgebud.  The indiscriminate enthusiasm cost Couperus points since reaction of any kind was totally against the rules and the judges proceeded to award him a total of 5.85 as he limped off the ice on one rusted blade being assisted by Pär Lagerkvist.

Pär Lagerkvist was an absolutely masterful skater and for many seemed to be the dark-horse to win the competition.  He had an extraordinary skating repertoire to choose from, from very short programmes, like Evening Land,  to longer, more substantive programmes such as The Sibyl and Barabbas, programs which addressed the nature of man to God.  But the program he chose to skate was much less deifying in the spiritual sense.  Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf displayed maleficent moods of horror and of the dark forces that hibernate in all humans.  Lagerkvist played the dwarf who, isolated and sterile, has no spiritual aspirations and whose strongest emotions are hatred and a demonic pleasure in destruction. And even though the dwarf obeys the Prince who pays him, he is also the one with the ultimate control of deceiving.  In an ironical twist, Lagerkvist presents the dwarf’s dark forces of evil changing into thoughts of God in a very simple stylistic manner.  Lagerkvist’s greatest strength lay in his ability to embody his ideas in almost sculptural figures who constantly invoke the questions of good and evil, life and death, material and spiritual worlds.  However, Lagerkvist got mixed reviews for the performance.  Though the skating was technically superb, as much of his longer performances were, the judges felt that pleas to higher beings had no place at Sorgebud.  Certainly the first part of the performance was excellent in portraying hate, but the execution of finer graces seemed to dissuade the judges from giving Lagerkvist anything higher than 5.9.  When asked about his feelings on such a decision, Lagerkvist merely said that skaters were often misunderstood by judges and that someday he would write about it.

This opened the way for Elmer Diktonius to take the lead.  The only Finn in attendance, Diktonius was well-known for his lyrical skating ability, as well as his Marxist ones.  Diktonius felt that the tenor of the competition demanded something as powerful as his longer programmes, but more brief, and so he drew upon a little known piece from his shorter works titled, Impotence.   The story deals with a shoemaker who convinces several followers that he is the creator of the world and that he had the ability, drawn from forces within the freshly buried corpses, to summon visions and locate buried treasures.  The shoemaker retrieves a kind of sexual potency from his necrophiliac visions and in the course of his megalomania believes that one of his woman followers has betrayed him. He beheads her only to be murdered by his second in command thus ending his short, albeit gruesome, reign.  The judges were all a bit bemused by the performance.  Some felt it a bit too literal.  Brandes saw the execution as a brilliant metaphor for the little Nazi leader whose dreams of power also had the stench of death and gave Diktonius a perfect score.  The others, not so convinced, gave him less numbers which all added up to 5.85 which Diktonius felt to be a score based purely on a Swedish aversion to anything Finnish.  As he left the rink Diktonius expressed his displeasure by spitting on the ice which in itself was a marvelous metaphor for the final programme.

The last performer in the competition was Kaj Munk, the poet-preacher who mesmerized the judges with a brilliant performance of He Sits at the Melting Pot in which the protagonist, an avowed Nazi, finally realizes the ignorance of his adoration in pursuing an ideology based on deceit, murder and blind zealotry.  What the performance lacked in technical virtuosity was made up for in artistic vision and moral purpose and as Munk concluded his programme, waiting patiently for the scores to be computed, three men dressed as Gestapo officers approached him as he was kneeling, praying, at the edges of the rink.  One officer pulled out a revolver and at point blank range shot him in the forehead, then, as rhythmically as they arrived, left through a public exit, their heels crunching magnetically against the rigors of the ice.  The judges conferred at some length about Munk’s performance and all agreed that the execution was undeniably worthy of first place.  A perfect six they gave him.  A perfect six.  And as they laid the gold medal as his side, as his eyes stared, without reflection, into the sullen barrenness of the snow-dimmed lights above the Strålkastarljus, at the snow-dimmed barrenness of the sullen stars above the blackened village, the blood streamed across his lips and cheek, dispassionately filling the tiny, blade-like carvings etched in white in the ice rink at the midnight skate in Sorgebud.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: