by Hilary Maxwell

Tero Saarinen calls himself a seeker, not a choreographer. “It’s how I’m built,” the Finnish dance artist says. “My DNA is curious.” Guided by an openness to learn and by questions about the world and his place in it, Saarinen searches out his own truths in dance. His quest has led to building an international career as a performer, choreographer, educator and artistic director.

Since founding the Tero Saarinen Company in 1996, Saarinen has created more than 40 works, many for notable groups such as Batsheva Dance Company, Nederlands Dans Theater, Gothenburg Opera, National Dance Company of Korea and, in January, for a collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In his company’s own repertoire, signature works — including Westward Ho! (1996), HUNT (2002) and Borrowed Light (2004) — have maintained long lives, some touring more than 10 years. While based in Helsinki, Saarinen’s company spends most of its time on the road, performing throughout North America, Asia and Europe. Despite Saarinen’s 30-plus-year career, the 53-year-old remains eager for discovery. “I feel like I’m always at the beginning,” he says.

The actual beginning for Saarinen was sports. Growing up in the small west coast city of Pori, Finland, he engaged in every athletic pursuit from ice hockey and football, to ping pong and skating. “We were sports freaks,” Saarinen says of his family. He remembers having an affinity for physical endurance activities, not being afraid of training hard and sweating. It was when he began taking tumbling in gymnastics that Saarinen felt drawn to a new kind of expression. “Something was happening to me: I felt connected to the movements and to the choreographic elements.” Once gymnastic club ended, his father encouraged him to try dance.

Tero Saarinen in Carolyn Carlson’s Man in a Room
Photo: Laurent Philippe

Standing by the door of the studio before one of his first classes as a 16-year-old, Saarinen recalls being drawn to the artistry involved and to the collaboration between the movement and the music. Not aware that he could have a profession in dance, he nonetheless followed an inner drive to pursue it. At 18, he was accepted into the Finnish National Opera Ballet school, training with students who were only 12 years old and with more experience than him. “I was a fighter,” says Saarinen. He joined the Finnish National Ballet in 1985, where he stayed for six years and became a soloist.

After winning first prize in the contemporary category at the Concours International de Danse in Paris in 1988, dancing a solo by Jorma Uotinen, his career as a soloist took off in Finland and internationally, and he began receiving opportunities beyond the ballet company. His artistic realm opened up as he experienced “other flavours and truths of dance,” from the poetic expressions of butoh to avant-garde contemporary dance works. Ultimately, Saarinen left his tenure contract with the Finnish National Ballet to deepen his understanding of dance.

In 1992, he travelled to Nepal to study Nepalese dance, followed by a year in Tokyo, where he trained intensively in traditional kabuki theatre (at the renowned Fujima school) and in butoh, mentored by the eminent artist Kazuo Ohno. Upon his return to Finland, Saarinen worked for several years as a freelance artist, creating and performing, until establishing Company Toothpick, as his own group was initially called.

His first work, Westward Ho!, a trio for three men about friendship and betrayal, is considered his breakthrough piece, and set the tone for the visually striking and multilayered environments characteristic of his choreographies.

Often described as total artworks, Saarinen’s creations unite strong visuals with powerful sound scores, stylized costumes and highly physical, nuanced movement. An example of this all-encompassing design is found in Morphed (2014), set to composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s orchestral music, with lighting by Saarinen’s longtime collaborator Mikki Kunttu. Working with seven male dancers from different generations and dance backgrounds, Morphed explores the various layers of masculinity.

Framing the stage on three sides is a cage-like set made of numerous thick ropes that hang from the flies. The image suggests a prison barricading the men inside. Slowly, as the piece progresses, the representation shifts. The men, dressed in hooded costumes (by Finnish fashion designer Teemu Muurimäki), transition from robust assertive actions to more individualized, sensual and minimalistic choreography. They start to strip off articles of clothing and interact with the ropes, manipulating their form so the bars bend and sway like wheat in a field. The scene reveals a breaking free from literal and internal confines.

Saarinen’s urge to create is sparked by the different facets of humanity. This is demonstrated in Borrowed Light, centred around universal themes of community and devotion. Inspired by the culture of 18th- and 19th-century American Shakers, the work brings together a large cast of dancers, both men and women, with the musical ensemble Boston Camerata. The dancers, dressed in long black garments resembling priests’ cassocks and wearing dark boots, pitch and sway, with their limbs sweeping and carving through the space to the ritualistic sounds and chanting of Shaker music.

Typically, Saarinen begins any collaboration by first working alone with a period of questioning around his point of fascination, then goes into the studio and improvises. “I start to collect the dance,” he says, making a kind of “alphabetical landscape,” which he later shares with the cast and creative team, who each bring their own thoughts and voices to the landscape. “Interaction with other artists is vital and provides new perspectives.”

In his process, Saarinen aims to create a secure physical and mental environment, where everyone can “feel safe to take risks and let their intuition talk.” Working with this mindset allows for creative flexibility and means that “pre-planned scenes and actions can take their own direction, and then something totally unexpected and exciting can happen.”

Saarinen’s choreographic voice draws from his experiences in ballet, contemporary and Eastern dance traditions, but is marked with his own eccentric edge. There is a fullness to his vocabulary, with an emphasis on the use of space and weight, and on sending energy out through the body’s extremities. You can see a dichotomous play between movements that extend, spin, and spiral up and outwards, and those that root down into the earth, pull and widen along the ground. This negotiation can bring the body into graceful equilibrium and then suddenly throw it off-kilter into a lilting lumber.

Layered onto his physical language is an acute presence that resonates from the performers. This quality is distinctly inherent in Saarinen himself, who, whether in the studio or onstage, maintains an unwavering attentiveness to the moment. David Mead in Ballet-Dance Magazine (2010) speaks of Saarinen’s “magnificent presence” in Man in a Room, a solo choreographed by Carolyn Carlson. “His gripping performance took us right into the artist’s irrational mind. He was totally haunting and engaging. That he held the attention for nigh on 25 minutes speaks volumes.”

The importance of mindfulness and working with the idea of “360 degrees of presence resonating” is central to Saarinen’s philosophy in both his practice and teaching. He has been building a training arm of his company to transmit his methodology to other dancers and artists. The company’s educational component offers an internship and teaching program, as well as workshops and master classes in the TERO Technique. While still evolving, the technique stems from a system of being “alert and awake to the endless possibilities that lie in one’s physical existence,” and features a toolbox of metaphors and poetic language that go hand in hand with particular movements and exercises.

Tero Saarinen teaching a workshop in Tokyo
Photo: Matron

To achieve this state of awareness, Saarinen pays attention to the feet, fingers and eyes, and to having what he calls “curious skin.” This heightened focus creates an expression in the body and face that can appear hyper-animated. Saarinen believes that when a dancer is conscious of all their nerve endings, they become more authentic, alert and versatile. “All this leads to a dance that is constantly alive and surprising,” he says.

Audiences can witness this ever-present dance in Breath, Saarinen’s duet with Finnish electric accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen, which premiered in March 2018 at Le Grand Théâtre de Québec in Quebec City and continues to tour. The work examines the idea of borderless thinking and themes of solitude, losing contact and the desire for human connection. At its core lies Saarinen’s interest in what potential may spring from the collision of one strong voice with another.

Saarinen first collaborated with Pohjonen in an improvisation in Beijing at the Moi Helsinki (Hello Helsinki) outdoor festival in 2016. “We instantly found ourselves on the same wavelength in our onstage dialogue,” wrote Saarinen in his choreographer’s note for Breath.

In Breath, Saarinen creates a post-apocalyptic world, where he and Pohjonen remain in isolation from one another throughout most of the piece. Each occupies his own raised platform, which join at one end at the back of the stage and jut out to the front in an open V-shape.

Like all his works, lighting, music and visual elements play an important role. The performers are dressed in elaborate full body costumes, designed by Muurimäki, which have removable pieces, resembling protective wear or futuristic spacesuits, and Pohjonen has his 20-pound accordion strapped to him like another appendage. Breathing, echoing wails and sounds made from the men’s moving bodies picked up by microphones built into the platforms reverberate into the space and layer onto the dissonant music of the electric accordion. At various points, Saarinen and Pohjonen speak in gibberish to one another as they attempt to communicate from their silos.

 The piece progresses from a desperate and foreign place to something quite human and familiar as they finally step off their platforms and meet in the open space between them, swinging, heaving, leaning and breathing together. 

Breath leaves us to contemplate the curiosity that provoked Saarinen while making the work. “So often we protect our borders and do not interact,” says Saarinen, “but what could happen if we came together with a handshake?”

DI FALL 2018

Tero Saarinen and accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen in Saarinen’s Breath
Photo: Mikki Kunttu