Ideas of North: Choreographer Tero Saarinen explores ‘Manhood’ in his work Morphed

Men in motion. A scene from Morphed by Tero Saarinen.

The NAC’s Ideas of North festival is about much more than music. It also features dance works including a piece by the Tero Saarinen Company called Morphed. Choreographer Tero Saarinen answered questions about his work, his company and dance in Finland in this interview with ARTSFILE.

Q. Tell me about yourself? What kind of choreography do you to present?

A. To me, the greatest meaning of dance is within the primal wellsprings of movement and the body. The ritualistic essence of dance, a person’s need and ability to express themselves through movement and the body are universal and timeless phenomena. I have sought to familiarize myself with age-old dance cultures since the beginning to enrich my knowledge gained from the heritage of ballet, modern techniques and contemporary dance.

I also believe in multidisciplinary collaboration: a union of dance, live music and visual design. Creating works that feed various senses and outlast time, as well as building and maintaining a repertoire, are at the foundations of my company’s activities and continuity. Humanity, internationality, a daringness to go beyond a comfort zone and as a continuous striving to develop are some of the main principles in my artistic work, training as well as in all of the activities of our community.

Dance is my language, my way of understanding and communicating about human nature and its multiple manifestations – friendship, love, strength and spirit. With my dance I want to reach the unspoken, the inexplicable, the unnamed. I believe in dance that touches, in dance that speaks for itself.

I think dance has an exceptional amount of potential in this time, that is so strongly marked by alienation from the body.

Q. Is Morphed a typical piece of yours or was it something new?

A. Movement is a perpetual source of inspiration for me. In my works I aim to create a living, multilayered, powerfully expressive movement that rises from primal wellsprings. In this way, all my creations are alike.

In this work I particularly wanted to look for new forms and fresh movement for these seven exciting men, who come from backgrounds varying from breakdance to ballet. Undaunted by the extremes of sensitivity and heroism we have aspired to the boundlessness of the expressive power of the human body, liberating movement and humanity.

Q. When was your company formed and why?

A. I founded my own company in 1996 as a canvas for my choreographic vision. In 20 years, we have grown from a trio to 10 permanent staff and a network of up to 80 freelance artists and other collaborators that we employ on a regular basis. Tero Saarinen Company has performed at leading venues in 40 countries on six continents.

Q. Is Finland a Dance Nation? As much, say, as it is a Music Nation?

Music – from Sibelius to contemporary artists such as Esa-Pekka Salonen or Susanna Mälkki, with whom I have recently collaborated – has a strong history and presence in Finland. We have a vast network of orchestras, music education is heavily funded and Finnish music, from the classic to the contemporary, is highly respected globally.

Finland also has a strong and very unique dance culture. As a people, we are often stereotyped as being predominantly silent – and there is truth in this; non-verbal communication, movement, is a natural way of communicating for many of us. We have a unique ballroom dance culture focused around Finnish tango music and a vibrant network of dance schools.

We also have very unique performing artists representing various genres: innovative people reinventing contemporary folk dance, ballroom, contemporary dance. 

That being said, on a structural level, dance is still a relatively young art form in Finland and struggles with funding issues and breaking out of the margin.

However, things have already progressed significantly in the 20 years I have been running my company. Audiences for dance continue to grow, and there are many interesting artists that have risen also to international fame. I am also excited about Dance House Helsinki, a new 700-seat venue, to be opened in in 2020.

Q. When was Morphed conceived, what is is about and why was it conceived?

A. Morphed premiered in 2014 at the Helsinki Festival. The first performance was quite special, as we performed together with a full orchestra that was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen himself.

In the choreography, all the dancers go through a physical catharsis. … I feel all the different qualities and quantities of physicality bear different “mentalities” and emotions in them. With my dance and dancers I am always looking to transmit a psyche-physical experience to the spectator. Music plays elemental part of this transmission.

Q. Tell me about your ‘Magnificent Seven’ male dancers.

A. Having spent more than 30 years on stage myself, I felt a need to bring together men of different ages and various dance backgrounds. One goal was to transmit information between all of us, and the other to enhance and to enrich the idea of a dancing man.

With some of these men I had already worked with, but some of them I had only seen on stage before. When choosing dancers for my pieces I always trust my intuition. I was looking for technically skillful men with diversity and individualism. I like my dancers to be strong individuals who also challenge me. 

Q. Is Esa-Pekka Salonen a regular collaborator of yours?

A. In 1994 I had a chance to improvise to Esa-Pekka’s early work named Mimo II. Since then I have listened and collected his compositions. When I was looking for music for this work, I came across his  Concert etude for solo horn (2000), Foreign Bodies (2001) and Violin Concerto (2009). What inspired me in them, apart from their kinetic quality, was the way in which the music switches from brutally aggressive to the extremely sensitive. I like the extremes and contradictions in his music. Also, when composing Foreign Bodies Esa-Pekka envisioned a kind of “scene du ballet” – quite a treat for a choreographer.

So it was Salonen’s music that provided me with the spark for dealing with the manifold emotions and virtuosity of a dancing man. 

Q. The idea of a representation of maleness is an interesting and potentially challenging theme. Why did you want to do this?  

A. The last work that I created solely for men was 19 years ago. It was a trio called Westward Ho! and it is still in our repertoire. This time I felt a need to … address themes such as change, renewal and sensuality.  

I think ‘manhood’ has been under scrutiny for a while now — and rightfully so. As a contemporary male dancer I feel one does not need to be anymore extremely provocative, loud and shocking to enhance one’s manhood.

I feel overall that by daring to be sensitive, responsive and alert we men can ultimately ”bloom” in totally new ways. 

Q. Most men don’t really think about maleness in my experience? Do you think they should? 

A. I think in the end it all comes down to being a human being. Understanding, respecting and hailing the differences we have and trying to be a better and more tolerant human being.

I am profoundly for equality and have always been intrigued by (also) strong women. I also believe that we all carry feminine and masculine qualities within us. I myself have for example studied many Asian traditions, for example Japanese Onnagata roles and these experiences have affected me and my work. I feel it is liberating – and important – to freely embrace all sides within us; for men to explore their feminine, sensual side and women to embrace traits that are considered predominantly masculine. This thought is actually among the core things I wanted to study with Morphed.

Q. How has the piece been received?

A. We are very lucky to have been warmly welcomed by audiences and critics alike, already in 12 countries from Asia to Europe (see collection of press quotes here). We are very much looking forward to seeing how the work resonates with North American audiences.

Tero Saarinen Company
Ideas of North Festival
Where: Babs Asper Theatre, National Arts Centre
When: Oct. 4 and 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.