Miracle In Denmark
Feature by Willard Manus

Thirty years ago Holstebro, a tiny town in the western corner of Denmark, was a dispirited and dying place. It had 35,000 inhabitants and absolutely nothing about its architecture, history or environs to brag about. The technological and agricultural changes sweeping Denmark had hit hard: mechanization and marketing cooperatives had ended Hosltebro’s role as a market town and left it facing a dreary future of unemployment and depopulation.

The city council decided that only a drastic change of life could lead to economic recovery. The politicians embarked on a remarkable course of action which not only saved Holstebro but turned it into a boom town. This wasn’t achieved by conventional methods. No attempt was made to attract new enterprises by offering tax reliefs or rebates, or by building factories or malls. Instead Holstebro fought back by launching a rapid and ambitious cultural revolution, like that of an Italian Renaissance city-state, where the rise of bourgeois economics was accompanied by dreams of artistic splendor. The standard-bearer of the revolution was the Odin Theatre, a 350-seater planned as an avant-garde “laboratory” where unconventional, cutting-edge drama would be developed and produced.

Under the leadership of a young, audacious Italian, Eugenie Barba, a disciple of such modernists as Grotowski, Brook and Chaikin, the Odin quickly achieved fame on the continent as the place to go for provocative theatre. Audiences traveled to Holstebro in such numbers that the theatre was not only credited with having put the town on the map but turning its troubles around.

When I pitched the Holstebro story to a British theatre magazine the resulting assignment brought me there for a long weekend. When I checked into a hotel, the desk clerk, noting my nationality, asked me what I thought of the then-current bombing of Belgrade by NATO and predominately American war planes.

“It’s perfectly understandable,” I said. “The U.S. air force has been in desperate need of target practice for some time now.”

Mistake. Not only was it a stupid joke, it was taken seriously. By the time I had showered, changed and begun to walk to the Odin Theater, the word on the street was that an Ugly American had come to town. I got cold, hostile stares from everyone I encountered, even at the Odin where I learned, much to my dismay, that the theatre would be dark for the weekend, the director and most of the company having taken off for Copenhagen to take part in an anti-war demonstration. The box office person refused to allow me to enter the theatre, fobbing me off with a brochure describing some of the plays that had been performed there lately.

Back to the center of town I went, for a closer look at Denmark’s “cultural miracle.” Holstebro was pleasant-looking and built on a human scale: no high-rises or heavy industry. Most structures had been given a facelift; traffic was banned; streets were strewn with flags and flowers. There was a Giacometti sculpture in the town square, not far from a music hall where Tampa Red would be giving a blues concert that night. When I inquired after a ticket, I was told the recital was sold out.

“We rarely have empty seats for our concerts,” the clerk said. “Holstebro is packed to the brim with tourists on weekends.”
What had helped Holstebro’s revitalization is that Denmark is a planned state whose high taxes provide amble revenue for social tinkering. Still, the town had gambled on culture being the answer to its problems—and had come up a winner. As the mayor, Knud Nielsen, said proudly, “We have no unemployment now. Our population is growing at 2 ½ per cent a year. The town’s image is good, and pubs, shops and inns keep opening.”

Nielson credited the Odin Theatre with having led Holstebro’s renaissance. “Barba’s work attracted the top critics in Denmark. They were followed by critics from the rest of Europe. We couldn’t have purchased such media coverage. Theatrelovers responded to the attention and began attending performances on a regular basis. Many fell in love with Holstebro itself and recommended it to their friends, who began to spend their holidays here. Soon we found ourselves enjoying an affluence and popularity we had never imagined possible.”

Nielsen suddenly interrupted his peroration to offer me a drink—and to ask me a blunt question: “Just what in hell are you Americans doing in Serbia? Do you really think you can bring the civil war to an end by killing innocent civilians?”

This time I played it smart. I bit my tongue until it bled.