“In Finland, things are a little bit different” promised the press pack. I had the opportunity to witness this for myself in February, when Helsinki was host to the first Tanssiareena festival of contemporary dance, planned as a biennial event and tied in to the presentation of the Finnish entries to the Bagnolet international choreography platform.
The first piece I saw was in fact by a British choreographer, Nigel Charnock – though with his white-blond hair, transparent blue eyes and convoluted soul he could easily pass for Finnish. The Big Because was commissioned by the City Theatre Dance Company, a long-established troupe founded in 1973 which enjoys resident status at Helsinki’s City Theatre. Early on in the piece a compere introduces each of the nine dancers (five men, four women) with a little personal profile, which are all, I was told (not understanding Finnish), transparent tissues of lies. If The Big Because begins with make-believe, it ends back in the real world, the dancers shrugging off their performing personae and casually strolling offstage. These two poles mark out the terrain for the work as a whole, a hall of mirrors that makes much of playing around between fact and fiction, the natural and the artificial, style and substance. ‘This is very postmodern,’ comments one of the dancers half way through (we had translation sheets for this part), which merely leads to a chain of responses – ‘your saying that this is very postmodern is very postmodern’… and so on. Like I said, a hall of mirrors.
The theme of the work appears, ambitiously, to be nothing less than life itself – or the dancers’ lives at least, both real and fictional. Its sprawling, roller-coaster episodes encompass a range of dance styles from ballet to lindy hop, a section about growing up and growing old, various rowdy arguments, both vocal and physical, tangled couplings, a Psycho-style stabbing frenzy, and (this being Finland) a cacophony of mobile phones. Highlights for me included a brassy chorus-line of dancers mugging come-hither gestures at the audience and giving us peephole previews of body parts before turning tail and jiggling back upstage. Then there was some playful mockery of the dancer as aerial sylph: a woman, floatingly transported across the stage by two men, imperiously waggles a pointy finger at the exact spot on the floor where she wants to be lowered onto tippy-toe. Or again, the dancers hum the theme from Love Story as accompaniment to two tortuously combative duets.
a woman imperiously waggles a pointy finger at the exact spot on the floor where she wants to be lowered onto tippy-toe
Occasionally patchy, The Big Because is nevertheless consistently engaging and greatly enjoyable – no mean feat, given that it lasts over an hour and half with no interval. This is in no small part thanks to gutsy performances by the dancers themselves, who besides being technically very able are also convincing actors and speakers – a rare accomplishment for dancers in my experience.
They were similarly feisty for Tero Saarinen’s Pulcinella, here joined by dancers from Saarinen’s own Company Toothpick (for whom the piece was originally created). Set in a circular performing area, the movement throughout is awkward, gangling, almost comic-strip in its effect, full of flap-footed stumbling and jerky interruptions – especially tricky in some of the fast partnerwork, which typically avoided any sense of natural flow or rhythm. As in The Big Because, the dancers are called upon to act, shout and sing, and again they acquit themselves very well. Pulcinella sets off the individual against the group, with, as far as I could make out, certainly two and possibly three loner types: Pulcinella, a young woman, and a female singer. To a pick-and-mix score that ranged from Wagner and Satie to fairground music, their isolated interactions contrast with big group numbers from the white-clad ensemble. The piece hinted at several simultaneous narratives, but I found these tantalisingly hard to follow, just as I found the relentlessly grotesque quality of movement eventually more wearing than stimulating, and in the end was more engaged by the non-sequiturs and atmosphere of absurdism than by the drama of the characters themselves.
Another work where I had trouble following the plot was Sami Saikkonen’s Petrol Heaven, for a large group of dancers from the Finnish National Ballet. In a modern-ballet style somewhat reminiscent of Mats Ek, the dancers, dressed in formal suits and dresses, enact an obscure plot which seems to involve courtship, rivalry, a family unit, and sex. The clearest part was at the end: a couple behind a screen are going through the motions of foreplay, while a row of men merrily bump and grind at the audience, to be replaced by a solitary woman who teases us with her skirt-lifting. But when the couple finally get together the rest of the cast respond with anguished contortions, and all fall down. So… performing sex is less agonising than practising it? Coming on is easier than getting it on?
Still, if nothing else the festival taught me that there is no accounting for tastes – and that I must include my own in that statement. For example, three pieces that were clear favourites for both audiences and (some) critics left me cold. Jyrki Karttunen got the popular audience vote at the Bagnolet platform for his quirky Mr & Mrs Betlehem, which continues some of the concerns of Karttunen’s earlier duet Digital Duende, shown in London at The Place in January. For four dancers, Mr & Mrs Betlehem makes merry with Spanish music – from popular songs to flamenco guitar – as well as with some Irish folk music. The movement makes much reference to flamenco without actually imitating it – it’s present more in the abrupt changes of dynamic, in the sinuous circling of the arms around the torso. By way of contrast, Karttunen also tosses in a little Riverdance parody, the dancers weaving forwards and backwards with tripping little steps, arms clamped stiffly to their sides. I found it all mildly diverting without actually being funny.
Also well received were Susanna Leinonen’s No One, Just Your Friend, and Katarina McAlester’s Moonweavers: A Hero Tale of Ordinary Women. In the former, a trio of white-clad women engage in a series of interactions, some co-operative, some conversational, some argumentative. With its white, back-revealing costumes and snakey hair-dos (think Bo Derek with a frizzy topknot), I thought of the piece as a behind-the-scenes peek into the home lives of the Medusae. McAlester’s Moonweavers was another wild-woman trio, and I found it remarkably similar in atmosphere, movement and even hairstyle; here, in fact, the programme note explicitly refers to the Graces and the Fates. The most effective aspect for me was the lighting, which cleverly transformed the texture of the set from stone, through bark, to silver, copper and gold. I agreed with others that both pieces were danced by technically able performers, but I found neither especially interesting either choreographically or dramatically – though others were moved to tears.
beneath this surface surge intriguing undercurrents of human interactions that occasionally break through into moments of infinite tenderness
I was much more impressed by Tommi Kitti’s Still Life for Four Dancers, in my opinion the finest piece of the festival. Kitti is one of Finland’s longest established choreographers, having been working professionally since the 1970s, most recently experimenting with solo improvisations to jazz music. Performed by Kitti and three women – Virpi Juntti, Jenni Laukkonen and Inka Tiitinen – Still Life stood out from other pieces in its focus on compositional without any narrative, and by the bareness and simplicity its staging. With an avant-garde jazz score by regular collaborator Sampo Lassila, this was a cool, spare piece that made much of the formal and dynamic interplay between the dancers. We sense the thought that has gone into the composition and appreciate the dexterity and fluidity of motion. But beneath this surface surge intriguing undercurrents of human interactions that occasionally break through into moments of infinite tenderness: one dancer softly turns over another’s hand to reveal an empty palm; another brushes against Kitti’s arm, but when he turns towards her she shies away tremulously. While our minds are engaged by the dance composition and our senses by its feel and flow, it is moments such as these that inexplicably tug at our hearts.
Kitti writes in the programme, ‘The initial task is simple: to have four dancers on stage… but is that really all there is?’ In fact he does seem to have that rare knack of suggesting that there is indeed far more going on, the play of desires and reticence, hidden feelings that remain unexpressed – and all the more powerful for that. The closing scene shows one woman softly painting onto a blue tile, a square of brushstrokes, four sides of white on white. It’s a perfect metaphor for the piece as a whole, and while doubtless some of the audience experienced it as blank or faceless, for me it was well-crafted, engaging and richly suggestive. I’d love to see more of his work.
Another work that stood out, for very reasons, was the festival commission, Opal-D, a collaboration between choreographer Arja Raatikainen and video artist Kimmo Koskela, performed by Raatikainen and Katri Sioni against a screened backdrop of Koskela’s film. Whatever the original intentions of the work, the effect was more like an artwork than a stage piece, a video installation in which the choreography performed a supporting role. The dance itself is minimalist – slow repetitions of sequences, extended arms tracing large arcs against long-held lunges – and it is overpowered by the hypnotic film, a gradually evolving series of images of astonishing, hallucinatory beauty, with waves and water dominating the first part of the piece.
The dancers’ images are also simultaneously projected onto the screen, often blurred. The floor of the stage consists of long blue water-filled strips, and somehow the ripples created by the dancers’ steps are projected and magnified onto the screen. The film distorts its images into barely recognisable abstractions of light and colour: at one point the dancers’ repeated geometric movements are trans formed into a kaleidoscopic, almost druggy play of shape and form. In the second part, the film moves from the natural environment to the city, speeding up with neon colours and thrumming with edgy, nervous energy – but the dance maintains its steady, careful dynamic. The overall effect is a little like Koyanisqaatsi with added interactive live elements – and, I would suggest, would work best in a gallery rather than a theatre.
Several other pieces also used film, and one actually took place in the theatre of the stunning new Kiasma art gallery. Entitled Java – Confusing People (a wry take on mobile phone company Nokia’s ‘connecting people’ slogan), this duet by Tuomo Railo and Simo Keiskanen opened very promisingly. Its premises are certainly captivating: two suited-booted performers voyaging wide-eyed through a digital landscape of miked floors, projected images and cryptic text messages, hardhatted against potential technological buffets. Intriguing possibilities were often suggested, but in the end the piece promised much more than it delivered. My advice (for what it’s worth) would be to carry on exploring but to stick with particular ideas to wring out the juice from them.
Amongst several other pieces, a few more deserve mention. As 2 Wrists, by Minna Tuovinen and Martin Heslop, was performed in a cavernous shipbuilding factory. Tuovinen actually worked in the shipyard for a month, observing the tasks, movements and efforts of the factory workers. These are effectively translated into the choreography, but not in any literal way. The piece, for four dancers, portrays both human and mechanical aspects of labour: personal interactions as mediated through tasks or machines. The choreography suggests labour through relayed sequences of action, workmanship and precision timing. The dancers sometimes fit together like angular pieces of machinery, or else they cluster tightly, partnerwork and teamwork invoking – but never simply portraying – the action of pistons, conveyor belts, the transfer of heavy weights. The punning title neatly encapsulates both the subject of the dance and its context: manual work on the one hand, cultural tourism on the other.
By contrast, Kirsi Monni’s Movement Chanting – seen in a shortened version for the Bagnolet platform – is a fluid, speedy perpetuum mobile, punctuated by abrupt stops and falls, that builds in intensity through accumulation rather than development. An opening group of three is joined by another trio, and the whole work is structured as repetitions of units of two or three. Initially frustrated by the repeated cycles and lack of variation, I eventually succumbed to its cumulative effect, the movement seeming to increase in volume and weight, achieving the quality of a chorus or chant, as suggested by the title.
An added extra on the Bagnolet platform was Ari Tenhula’s short solo Once Upon a Time in the West, a seriocomic elegy for a lost age of masculine posturing and pioneering spirit, with Tenhula more Leningrad Cowboy than the genuine article. Part tribute, part send-up, this is a whimsical, slightly melancholic tribute to the figure of the cowboy, occasionally shading into a kind of Wild West version of The Dying Swan.
And finally we come to Virpi Pahkinen’s wholly unexpected Uniooma, for the Sun Ballet Company from Turku. Pahkinen has a well-established reputation as a solo artist in Scandinavia and Germany, so Uniooma may be atypical. Whatever the case, I loved it for what I’m sure are the wrong reasons. The piece portrays a lunar landscape with a priest figure, three innocent explorers and two sphinx women, one white-blonde, the other Cleopatra-black, kohled up to the eyeballs and looking like vampires from another planet. The women’s slowly contorting limbs and penetrating X-ray stares signal their alien nature and awesome psychic powers. One by one they capture the innocent explorers, who are initiated into the Other Side (in one case this was effected through a strange rite involving a plastic lobster). The priest struggles manfully against the sphinx women, but finally he is overcome by their psychic forcefield. The evil women have triumphed, and darkness rules the world!
I fondly came to think of this work as ‘Cat Women from Outer Space’. It was all very Ed Wood.
Performed straight and delivered deadpan, Uniooma‘s lethal stylistic doublewhammy of sci-fi B-flick and low-budget horror achieved that camp combination of high seriousness and low subject matter that’s a rare find outside graveyard TV schedules and cult cinema screenings. I don’t know what Uniooma means in Finnish, but I fondly came to think of this work as ‘Cat Women from Outer Space’. It was all very Ed Wood.
So how do I sum up Finnish contemporary dance on this brief viewing? I’d say that the technical standard of the dancers was mostly very impressive, though generally rather higher than the artistic standard of the choreography (but it is ever thus). There is a strong tradition of theatrical dance in Finland, and here it seemed most often expressed in fragmented narratives involving mixed media such as film and speech. I haven’t spoken much about music and design, but let me say that there was a surfeit of technological soundscores that involved a portentous, industrial bass register underpinning unearthly night-time noises. More variety would be most welcome. I was particularly struck, however, by the lighting designs – not something I’m normally especially attuned to – and I returned to London with a heightened sensitivity for this aspect of stage production. And finally, Helsinki is blessed with an enviable range of good quality performance venues for small to mid-scale work.
There was much more going on in the dance field than I’ve had the space to describe here. And with Helsinki currently one of the European Capitals of Culture, there’s plenty to be seen for the rest of the year, not just contemporary dance, but ballet, an urban street dance festival, Saburo Teshigawara’s Education Project (running concurrently in London and Helsinki), tap dance, Egyptian dance and folk dance, as well as other cultural activities of all kinds, such as thrashing yourself with birch twigs in a steam room before plunging naked through a hole in the ice into the sea – but that’s another story.