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Finnish choreographer and performer Tero Saarinen has had a distinguished international career characterized by raw physicality and visual expressiveness. He has created more than 40 works for his Tero Saarinen Company and other prominent dance troupes around the world. Dance ICONS’ own Charles Scheland spoke to Mr. Saarinen in advance of the Tero Saarinen Company’s upcoming season at Tanssin Talo in Helsinki.
ICONS: How did you get into dance in the first place?
Tero Saarinen: Well, I got into dance very late. When I was 16 my dad put me into a dance course. It was quite rare here in Finland in the 80s that the father was “pro” dance. I was in gymnastics and all kinds of sports, and dance was an elongation of being physical. I started with jazz dance and already when I was 17, I was advised to go to the National Ballet in order to go forward. It was the only way to become a professional dancer in the 80s.
ICONS: What prompted the transition from performing at the National Ballet to choreographing?
TS: I was in the National Ballet for 10 years. And while I was there, I started to get interested in the other forms of dance. I got interested in butoh dance, and I left my permanent contract, which was a big statement in those days. I went to study butoh and traditional dances in Japan and also Nepalese dance in Nepal. I was always attracted to other kinds of dance and older forms of dance. I find it exciting that old forms of dance have survived, stayed coherent, and appreciated. In Finland, our roots of dance, especially contemporary dance and even classical ballet, are very young. I wanted to enhance the “dancing man” in me, to have other influences, and to enrich my experiences in dance.
It was more about enhancing the dancing spirit in me to get more information and tools for my own dancing. Then shapes and themes started to appear in my mind and then I started to connect and experiment [with] these things in the studio. Ohad Naharin was the first artistic director who invited me to choreograph for an internationally acclaimed company — Batsheva — and it was only then that I began to think, “Oh, I suppose I am a choreographer.” Before that, it was just hearing these voices and being improvisational. It was more about exploration and letting intuition take over.
When I started to receive more invitations, I was amazed that I was able to travel beyond borders and connect through my movement and choreographic thinking. Only then the idea of ‘being a choreographer’ and the responsibilities associated with it began to deepen.
ICONS: You’ve created over 40 works for your company and other companies. What is consistent in your creative process when working with different types of artists?
TS: It is about the dancers, of course, and meeting with the dancers. I’ve been lucky to work with well-known Western companies as well as other exciting projects in cultures such as Japan, South Korea, Africa, etc. In the beginning, there are always different timelines, certain rules, and restrictions within which to act. The creative process always starts with emotions: things that distract, interest, excite and boil inside of me. Then I share these thoughts with the people and listen to them. A big soup of possibilities, movement ideas, and thoughts appears, and the creative process starts to take shape. So, yes, I think there are some similarities.
Also, the way people move in my works is something recognizable. The style itself is an amalgamation of all the experiences I have been lucky to have. Someone once described it as “butoh with wings,” and I like the friction that this idea holds. I like the idea of being heavily rooted but still elevated at the same time. It has the utmost curiosity of body and soul, and this state of mind is able to activate the dancer both technically and mentally — being rooted but still expanding and touching peripheries. That is the style I’m interested in, in a nutshell. Of course, the most rewarding is when dancers are taking these attributes to individual directions.
There are also similarities in the visual design of the works. I’m a very visual person, and I work very closely with the other designers. Many times, I work with the same artistic team. I suppose we carry a certain artistic stamp. We all believe that the idea of a "total artwork" should be constantly updated so that dance can also be felt, sensed, heard, and seen more holistically.
ICONS: What characterizes TERO technique?
TS: It’s an approach for waking up all the senses. It’s about creating density in space. I’m eternally interested in finding new ways for this corporal expressiveness of ours. I’m not keen on amalgamating spoken words or lyrics into dance. I think we are already drowning in words and the dominance of spoken language. I want to find different sensitivities and frequencies in the performer. In that sense, it is about waking up the nerve endings, talking about the skin - and letting the skin talk – and using the power of the eyes. Maximizing the capacities and resonance of a performer. I talk a lot about rooting, being on the ground, and feeling the soil. I talk about the depth of inhabiting the space, by rooting, growing, and blooming. It’s exciting to meet dancers from different backgrounds, traditions, and age groups and continue to learn from them.
The goal, both in the class and during the creative process, is to create an environment where the participant feels safe to take risks and develop. When dancers are 360 degrees aware and 100% present, they become authentic, vibrant, and also more diverse. All of this leads to a dance that is constantly morphing and surprising, like flora and fauna.
ICONS: You are known for choreographing solos, not just for other dancers but also for yourself. How do you approach creating solo work?
TS: In both cases, one key question is, how do you transmit privacy? The solo comes from private reflections on life, so how do you transmit those feelings? How to find a connection with the dancer so that the solo won’t be only empty steps? How do you guide dancers to find their own views on certain sentiments? When you are working on a solo, it’s always a very intimate, hard, and condensed period. You need to know that you really want to take up the challenge. When you create for another dancer, you need to give them time to find their own personal take on it. It’s about offering different entrances and feeding the mind with a rich, imaginary world.
I’ve been lucky to have danced other people’s solos and solos specially created for me. Murray Louis gave his solo Deja Vu for me to perform after I won the Paris International Dance Competition 1988, and later, I danced a famous solo called Blue Lady by the choreographer Carolyn Carlson. In both cases, I had the freedom to interpret in my own way and capacity. Through these great experiences, I felt I got a lot of tools for making and performing a solo.
On a more general level, I find it important for choreographers to be able to revisit old works and not always be forced to create new ones, especially as the time frames for creating something new are constantly getting shorter. It has also been good to see those directors of international companies have begun to include solos in their triple bills. What a beautiful opportunity for a dancer to learn, grow, and shine!
ICONS: One of the most iconic solos from your career, Hunt, is being “reimagined” for the upcoming season. What does “reimagined” mean?
TS: Hunt is a 20-year-old work set to the music of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In my version, the “chosen one” becomes a “live screen” and eventually drowns in a flood of information. I believe the message of the piece is even more relevant than in 2002. The first two questions that I had to ask before starting the process were: Am I ready to let go of something that has been very personal (and toured over a decade all around the world) and how to make the creative process such that dancers have the space and freedom to “inhabit” the solo in their own unique way. I am currently working with two beautiful dancers — a woman and a man — and it has been the most rewarding period. I can’t underline enough how important it is to find dancers with whom you feel connected and even in some kind of “kinship.”
My place as a choreographer is to take responsibility for the creative process, nurture and motivate the person in front of me — be it one, twelve, or fifty-five of them. So in that regard, there is no big difference in working for a solo or a group scene. But I love that intensity and special density as we work with the dancer to find the right form, energy, and identity for the solo.
In order to “reimagine” I have to trace the original motives for why I created Hunt in the first place; it’s a multi-layered work on the dichotomy of life; femininity — masculinity, good — evil, sacrifice — choice. It also deals with the endless investment in a dancer’s life, moments of beauty, and the fragility and fleetingness of it all. The third layer deals with the media, how a violent flood of information takes over our bodies, minds, and lives, and how we should not lose all the ancestral wisdom that lives in our bodies.
ICONS: What is the connection between past and present, and tradition and innovation?
TS: I think there is a connection between the past and creating something new. I like to have sensitivity to what has been done and respect history on our path to new innovations. I think it is necessary. And we should be proud of what has been done and continue to cherish and save the beautiful legacy of dance.
ICONS: Tero Saarinen Company just celebrated 25 years. How important is this milestone?
TS: We turned 25 last year! What a year for that to happen! It has taken 25 years to build a repertory and a structure that can start to provide opportunities also for the next generation of dance makers. Last year we opened our new studio and office space. We launched two residency programs, one for choreographers and another — a Genelec residency — for projects that emphasize and promote sound design. TSC is also starting to invite other choreographers to create for the company. The first evening with a guest choreographer will be premiered in March at the Tanssin Talo — the brand new house of dance in Helsinki. It is going to be a double bill combining Hunt with a new creation, Hz, by Johanna Nuutinen.
Having said this, I have all my interests and passion to continue making choreographies. My latest choreography, Transit, was a special co-production with Skånes Danstheater and Malmö Opera Orchestra in Sweden. We were able to organize our calendars so that both companies could perform the work. The sets and costumes were also shared. I think this could be a great and more sustainable way to make future creations. It also allows choreographers to continue working and gives their creations a longer lifespan.
ICONS: How would you summarize your experience of running the Tero Saarinen Company for all of those years?
TS: Nothing would have been possible without a devoted and passionate artistic, production, and administrative team. The collaboration with the group’s managing director, Iiris Autio, has been elemental to get to where we are now. We started from scratch; we just turned 26 years old and we believe we can still build this organization further to serve future generations.
In general, there is a lot of enthusiasm and real talent in the Finnish dance scene, and in addition to developing our own activities over the past 25 years, we have always had to fight for the entire field of dance to increase its profile and funding. The pandemic has shown that the resonance of the cultural sector as a whole and its effects — both tangible and intangible — are still not deeply understood at the decision-making level.
Having said this, many positive things have also happened during these decades we have been active! Audiences for contemporary dance have multiplied and the overall status of the discipline has risen. Most recently, Tanssin talo, a brand new building dedicated exclusively to dance, opened in February in our hometown of Helsinki. TSC is one of the official house partners and we plan to present regular seasons — of both TSC works and visiting companies — at the main stage, the 700-seat Erkko Hall.
TSC doesn’t want only to preserve my choreographic legacy but we’re excited to offer opportunities for future choreographers to create for our company. Combining the new with the existing older works will be a wonderful curatorial task and, at best, increase knowledge about dance — its recent history, significance, and depth.
ICONS: What advice would give your younger self about choreography?
TS: I congratulate myself for daring to leave my contract at the Finnish National Ballet in the 1990s and go on unknown roads to study. I would recommend to every young student to go and expose themselves to different kinds of dance truths. Enrich your understanding of what dance could be, so that this art form can move forward. Be curious and persistent and trust your intuition. Work tirelessly, but still give yourself time to recover. I should have done that more often.
Active, constructive, and respectful intergenerational dialogue and communication is not only informative but very inspiring and also helpful when looking for your own way to create. So, for anyone interested, there are great places worth a “pilgrimage” to when you want to know more about dance, its history, its authors, and see recordings of their works. My favorite archives are at the Jacob’s Pillow (Massachusetts, United States) and at the Maison de la Dance in Lyon, France.
To experience a combination of this classic and a premiere in the brand-new Tanssin talo in spring 2022, visit:
More about Tero Saarinen and his biography can be found at:
Tero Saarinen portrait, photography © Tanja Ahola
Transit, photography © Kai Kuusisto, choreography by Tero Saarinen
Transit, photography © Carl Thorborg, choreography by Tero Saarinen
Borrowed Light, photography © Sakari Viika, choreography by Tero Saarinen
Morphed, photography © Mikki Kunttu, choreography by Tero Saarinen
Morphed, photography © Darya Popova, choreography by Tero Saarinen
Morphed, photography © Darya Popova, choreography by Tero Saarinen
Morphed, photography © Darya Popova, choreography by Tero Saarinen
Interviewer: Charles Scheland
Exceutive Content Editor: Camilla Acquista
Executive Assistant: Charles Scheland
Executive Director: Vladimir Angelov
Dance ICONS, Inc., March 2022 © All rights reserved.