Nordic Cool 2013 season: Tero Saarinen Company
Westward Ho!, Wavelengths, HUNT
Washington, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
12 March 2013
About Nordic Cool 2013 festival
Among the companies appearing at the Kennedy Center’s Nordic Cool 2013 festival was the Tero Saarinen Company from Finland, who presented a program of three visually striking and captivating dances created by the company’s founder and artistic director, Tero Saarinen – Westward Ho!, Wavelengths, and HUNT.
A poignant study in minimalism and humanity, Westward Ho! (1996) was the first dance Saarinen created for his company – known back then as Company Toothpick – and it is widely regarded as his calling card. This piece has a special hypnotic, yet unmistakably Nordic, feel to it. According to Saarinen, who grew up next to the sea, it’s about “sailors and friendship.” As such, the dance offers a compassionate – sometimes touching and sometimes humorous – portrayal of three people on their lifelong journey of struggle and survival.
The dance begins in complete silence. As the curtain rises, three men (Henrikki Heikkila, Mikko Lampinen and Pekka Louhio), dressed in white costumes with little black aprons, move in unison in simple, repetitive patterns, their hands rhythmically rising and waving as if greeting the morning sun. With cool detachment, they reprise their melancholy routine, traveling toward and away from the audience, building up suspense as well as anticipation, as lighting designer Mikki Kunttu floods the stage with a magnificent blue light, turning the background into an infinitely deep sky and establishing an air of calmness and harmony.
Then the music finally starts, but at first we hear only the faint voice of an old man, his words barely recognizable. As the voice repeats the same chorus in a seemingly endless loop (Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet / Jesus’ blood never failed me yet / This one thing I know that He loves me so), a minimal yet steadily evolving accompaniment, played by a string orchestra, appears and grows in its intensity and color, imbuing this humble soundtrack and the dance itself with an astounding emotional power. (The music, composed by Gavin Bryars, incorporates the song of an anonymous homeless man recorded at London’s Waterloo Station in 1971.)
The hypnotic aura created by the music and the choreography occasionally shifts when one of the men steps out of sync or falls on the floor. At times, the dancers look cartoonish, even ragged. The atmosphere of the piece gradually darkens and the men’s wanderings evoke a sense of desperation and hardship. But, in the end, as they keep on stumbling through the adversity and absurdity of life, we trust that they will persevere by dint of their spirited determination and undying faith, like that conveyed in the old man’s song.
In Wavelength, a fluid and alluring duet created for the Finnish National Ballet in 2000, Saarinen explores the complex relationship between a man and a woman, attempting to answer whether burning resentment and deep affection can exist at the same time. Passionately performed by Henrikki Heikkila and Maria Nurmela, Wavelength evokes a battle of wills raging between the two lovers. The piece is set to the pulsating, repetitive electronic sound composed by Riku Niemi. As in the previous work, Mikki Kunttu fills the stage with evocative lighting, incorporating shadow play and silhouette animation to spectacular effect.
There have been a hundred springs since the stormy premier of Igor Stravisnky’s The Rite of Spring, but the aftershock of that night has continued to reverberate in the world of music and dance ever since. In the final work of the evening – Saarinen’s signature solo HUNT – the choreographer uses the celebrated score of the Russian composer as a vehicle to express the conflicting nature of a society overwhelmed by technology and information. Bare-chested, in a long white sarong, Saarinen performs this fascinating work himself, showcasing his perfectly sculpted muscular torso and demonstrating that, at 48, he is still a formidable and charismatic dancer.
Like the Stravinsky score, HUNT is a tour de force. The monumental orchestral chants of The Rite inspired the choreographer to create a dance-as-ritual in which music, movement, and multimedia blend together into one extraordinary whole.
At the beginning of the dance, lit by a warm glow of light, Saarinen circles the stage with spasmodic, vigorous steps, his body twisting, his arms awkwardly outspread like the wings of a trapped bird trying to get free. At one point he gets enveloped by a huge white tutu-like skirt made of transparent panels, which slowly descends onto him from the ceiling, and his body becomes a screen (or a canvas) for the surrealistic images created by Finnish multimedia artist Marita Liulia. Pulsating collages are projected onto his face, torso and costume, their disturbing intensity matching the inexorable dynamics of Stravinsky’s score. In the dance’s thunderous finale, as Saarinen leaps in midair, strobe lights flicker and freeze his astonishing flights until it all ends with his ultimate, fated collapse.