by Hannele Jyrkkä

Tero Saarinen’s Kullervo provides a whole new take on the figure of Kullervo from The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Saarinen’s elaborate production, premiered by the Finnish National Ballet in Helsinki in February, fearlessly examines expansive national themes, combining interpretive dance, operatic expression and vocal symphony, placing them all on an equal footing.

The music is Jean Sibelius’ powerful Kullervo (1892), an early breakthrough work by Finland’s national composer, scored for soprano, baritone, male-voice choir and orchestra; the presentation of Saarinen’s Kullervo was part of Sibelius’ 150th anniversary celebrations. The work represents a natural extension of the choreographer’s career: the intense fusion of movement and music has always been of central importance in his oeuvre, which now encompasses more than 40 works. This extravagant multidisciplinary production featured three solo dancers and an ensemble of 24 taken from both the Finnish National Ballet’s corps and the Tero Saarinen Company, as well as two operatic soloists and a 63-piece male-voice choir, formed from the combined forces of the Finnish National Opera Chorus and the Helsinki Philharmonic Chorus.

Originating in the stories of The Kalevala, based on Finnish oral folk poetry collected by Elias Lönnrotin a project begun in 1828, the tragic figure of Kullervo is born under malignant circumstances. He repeatedly goes off to war, inadvertently seduces his own sister, loses his family and, like his sister, eventually takes his own life. For Saarinen, the figure of Kullervo is universal. He finds similar themes in Sophocles’ Electra and in contemporary life. “New Kullervos are born every day, whether in Syria or the Ukraine, places where there is no hope in sight,” Saarinen said in an interview a few weeks before the premiere. “Why do people’s minds become clouded with thoughts of revenge?”

In this modern take on the Kullervo legend, Saarinen examines the cycle of revenge and the ways in which history repeats itself. The notion of cyclical repetition can be seen in the dancers’ movements (which amalgamate elements from contemporary dance and ballet), in the overall structure of the work and its visual features, and in Sibelius’ music. This ambitious work paints a picture of beginnings and ends, acceptance and denial, life and death. Though many of Saarinen’s earlier choreographies have contained narrative elements, Kullervo has the most linear narrative structure.

Kullervoopens with a minimalist movement language, including rhythmic stamping on the ground that progresses in repetitive unison. Samuli Poutanen, étoile with Finnish National Ballet, brought depth and primitive energy to his great interpretation of Kullervo, elements which become all the more intense as the tragic story unfolds. Soloist Terhi Räsänen as Kullervo’s sister and Tero Saarinen Company dancer David Scarantino as the tirelessly loyal friend Kimmo — a character borrowed from Aleksis Kivi’s 19th-century play Kullervo— were also convincing in their skilful interpretations of the companions-in-misfortune. Opera soloists Johanna Rusanen-Kartano and Jaakko Kortekangas perpetuated the characters’ tragic fatesin their own powerful interpretations, always following the dancing protagonists’ actions.

Events in the story eventually go into a tailspin when the dancing crowds begin moving on the rotating floor designed by Mikki Kunttu. The spectacular whirls and seas of lights created by Kunttu (Saarinen’s trusted lighting designer), the rising and falling nets that serve as a screen across the stage and Erika Turunen’s stylish costumes seem at once fresh and familiar.

One of the most beautiful and affecting scenes features a group of female dancers, the augurs of the ultimate tragedy, in loose white dresses on the rotating floor, bathed in brightening light. Here, typical of Saarinen’s gestural vocabulary, the diagonal backwards rotation of the women’s hands is slowed down so much that everything seems left momentarily hanging in the air, the better to tell a universal story of the experience of suffering.

Saarinen’s simultaneously romantic, robust and sensual movement language requires performers to break free of clearly controlled forms and lines, and to move toward a rougher, more potent form of personal interpretation. At the premiere, the movements of the dancing choir seemed rather too unified, though the shape of their gestures will doubtless deepen with subsequent performances.

In the world of the modern Kullervos, there is a sense that young men are constantly following the wrong path, but are powerless to make different choices. The singing choir, moving eloquently alongside the protagonists, constantly commenting and reflecting on the unfolding story, seems to be talking also to the audience — to anyone of us — in a touching way. What are the repercussions of our choices? Can we learn from our mistakes and alter the course of our lives?

Samuli Poutanen and Terhi Räsänen of Finnish National Ballet in Tero Saarinen’s Kullervo Photo: Sakari Viika