A Reluctant Star, Sort Of. . .

Tero Saarinen Company
"Westward Ho!," "Wavelengths," "Hunt"
The Joyce Theater
New York, NY
March 28, 2006

by Lisa Rinehart
copyright 2006, Lisa Rinehart


Tero Saarinen has kivekset (that's Finnish for hutzpah—in a manner of speaking.) Fortunately, he also has talent and the smarts to choose gifted collaborators. Already recognized internationally as a powerful performer (although I'm afraid he's allowed himself to be described in the program as "one of the most brilliant dancers of his generation"), Saarinen brings to New York a tasting platter of his own choreography. Trained initially as a ballet dancer with the Finnish National Ballet, then traveling to Japan to study martial arts and Butoh, Saarinen abandons balletic elegance in a fury of bent elbows, wide spread fingers and intentionally awkward jumps and landings. The vocabulary is fresh, if not expansive, and is greatly enhanced by the inventiveness of Finnish lighting designer, Mikki Kunttu. In fact, using churning skyscapes, dramatic shadow play, and even strobe lighting, Kunttu lifts Saarinen's dances out of a certain intellectual despair and makes them art.

"Westward Ho!" is a strangely beautiful rumination on the staving off of hopelessness. Bathed in celestial light, three men in loose-fitting white shirts and pants scan the horizon while performing rhythmic repetitions based on an arm-sweeping-the-sky gesture. The effect is initially soothing and becomes more so with each repeated refrain of Gavin Bryars' gravel-voiced "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet." Saarinen's intriguing twist is that, as the music drones its comforting message, the movement gets loose and choppy until the men look like three lost Pierrot dolls stumbling across the sky. Sometimes a threesome, sometimes a loner with a pair, the men cover every bit of stage with restless wanderings. The piece ends with one dancer crawling toward blue-lit oblivion while the other two lurch through rough approximations of the opening move. It's a haunting study of struggle and survival.

Far less successful is Saarinen's duet "Wavelengths." Set to a commissioned score by Riki Niemi, it's an attempt to explore the sometimes rocky emotional terrain between two people, but musters up little more than ruffled feathers. Thrusting, "whaddaya talkin' about" arm gestures may pass for mad emotion in Finland, but I've seen more heated exchanges in a New Jersey deli. Saarinen's choreography isn't creative enough to sustain the long pas de deux, and Niemi's bland New Age score doesn't help. Even Kunttu's striking shadows and silhouettes can't save "Wavelengths," from predictability. It's surprising Saarinen brought this clunker to New York, but I suspect it is to showcase the beautifully bare-backed, long time company member and rehearsal director, Sini Lansivuori.

The star of the evening, however, (and this is where the hutzpah comes in) is unquestionably Saarinen himself in his solo "Hunt," a multimedia tour de force set to nothing less than Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Dance history is littered with attempts to realize this magnificent score, but Saarinen is startlingly successful by teaming up with multimedia artist, Marita Liula, as well as costume designer, Erika Turunen, and again, Kunttu. The dance unfolds with the fitful reluctance of early spring and is infused with references to the Diaghilev era. There are bits of Anna Pavovla in "The Dying Swan," as well as archaic positions reminiscent of Nijinsky in his "Afternoon of a Faun." Saarinen has the delicate rawness of a butterfly fresh out of the chrysalis. About midway into the dance, a structure resembling an exploded sheaf of papers fashioned into a tutu descends from the rafters and Saarinen wriggles into it. Mirroring the wild dynamics of Stravinsky's score, Liula's projections begin to flash across skin and dress alike. The images range from hypnotic circular tracings to pulsating collages of barely discernible, but somehow disturbing, objects. Rapid fire editing catches the breath and pulls us into Stravinsky's primal cacophany. If you happen to be a film buff, the net effect is similar to that of the 1929 surrealistic film "Un Chien Andalou," by Salvadore Dali and Luis Bunuel. It's heady stuff and Saarinen summons his considerable strength and feline grace to the task of compressing the miracle of birth, transformation and death into this 40 minute spectacle. The dance culminates with strobe lights repeatedly freezing Saarinen in space (in perfect unity with the score) and ends with the inevitable final collapse. What could be a mess of theatrics is instead an original and stirring visual realization of Stravinsky's emotional intent. Bravo!

So, given Saarinen's gifts as a performer and apparent talent as a choreographer, why has New York seen so little of him? No surprises here—money, for one, but there's also Saarinen's reticence to push too hard for recognition without the ability to provide for his dancers. In a 2005 Ballet-Tanz International interview, he speaks of the modern obsession with celebrity, stating, "The consummation of human beings is now stardom. People don't feel good anymore because they are alienated from the basic, health-giving things of life." Interesting words from someone who's clearly the touchstone of his own company. Perhaps Saarinen's increasing visibility has him searching for balance between entrepreneur, star performer, and promising choreographer. We may not see him again for awhile, but I suspect there'll be more to come.

First: "Westward Ho," photo: Sakari Viika
Second: "Wavelength," photo: Luigi Angelucci
Third: "Hunt," photo: Marita Liulia



Volume 4, No. 13
April 3, 2006

copyright ©2006 Lisa Rinehart



©2006 DanceView