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Danish city takes stage as culture capital

AAP logoAAP 8/01/2017 Julia Waeschenbach

The western Danish city of Aarhus is one of two European capitals of culture in 2017, and plans to use the events to reinvent itself, as well as tracing its roots.

Perhaps the most exciting way to arrive in Aarhus is by amphibious aircraft, landing in the bay. The waves splash around the small red and white plane as it bobs in the harbour. This is the gateway to a young, creative city, set on stepping out of the shadow of Copenhagen, Denmark's more hip capital.

"The world's smallest big city" is how the inhabitants of Aarhus affectionately describe their city. Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard says the year is "one of the most ambitious cultural projects of all time in Denmark".

In order to cope, the city of almost 320,000 people that is home to a university, a large container shipping port and a lively music and culture scene, has opted to co-operate with the surrounding region.

Events under the theme "Let's Rethink" will be scattered over 19 municipalities involving several hundred cultural institutions in the Central Denmark Region.

Even the island of Samso, known for its annual sustainability festival, will be part of the offer.

Rebecca Matthews, head of the Aarhus culture year's organisation, promises "epic works" and "intimate moments".

The first category includes Red Serpent, the saga of a young Viking and his adventures as he seeks to find his great love. The open air performance will be staged during the summer on the grassy roof of the Moesgaard Museum near Aarhus.

The people of Aarhus want to explore and build on their own history during the year - and who, if not the Vikings, should play a decisive role? Not least as the city traces its history to an eighth-century Viking settlement.

In contrast to their warring ancestors, contemporary Danes are mainly peaceful, even on the road.

Programmer Juliana Engberg says she would recommend visitors - both from other parts of Denmark and other countries - explore the city and its surroundings by bike.

"It is a great way to discover the country," Engberg says. "That's how people get around here. Do as the Danes and get on a bike."

Suggested routes include riding from the west to the east coast of Jutland, and dawn rides are also planned to mark the official January 21 opening day at several venues.

Mayor Bundsgaard also wants to attract tourists - especially Germans - from their summer houses on the Danish west coast.

"You can experience both," he says, referring to the beach and the city. "The distances are not so long."

A bigger problem for a visitor is rather what to pick. The almost 500-page program book lists hundreds of events, ranging from interactive art to high culture.

Nikolaj Scherfig, a screenwriter known for his work on the crime drama series The Bridge (Bron), will for instance attend a writing workshop in the holiday resort of Hvide Sande.

The contemporary ballet Tree of Code, based on Jonathan Safran Foer's novel with choreography by Wayne McGregor, design by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and music by Briton Jamie xx will be performed at the end of April at the Aarhus Concert Hall.

Shortly before that, the concert hall hosts a performance with conductor Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

Three of award-winning Danish director Susanne Bier's movies - Brothers, Open Hearts, and After the Wedding - will be performed on stage. They will transformed into an opera, a dance performance and a musical.

The Aros Art Museum will host the largest exhibition, entitled The Garden. It features works by international artists and will be spread across the city and along four kilometres of the coastline.

In addition to numerous festivals, concerts and exhibitions, there are also smaller intimate moments for visitors, organisers have pledged.

Aarhus estimates that five million people will visit the region in 2017, boosting a rise in recent years.

Bundsgaard is aware that media attention also plays a role. "We hope to leave a lasting impression," he says.

"In Europe, but also elsewhere, there is a trend towards 'second' cities as more and more people visit the second-largest cities because they have already been in the main cities and want to experience something new," Bundsgaard says.

Engberg says Aarhus is a brand of its own and does not have to play second fiddle to the capital, which in 1996 was European capital of culture.

"The city feels quite different from Copenhagen," she says, a bit like Melbourne where she hails from. It has an atmosphere of "young charisma, this really pretty grassroots feeling".

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