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Kenneth Kvarnström, Artistic Director of Dansens Hus

Working with young female choreographers

Interview by Jan-Peter Kaiku

Kenneth Kvarnström is one of the mainstays of contemporary dance in the Nordic countries. Here he talks about his balancing act between Sweden and Finland and his new position as the artistic director of Dansens Hus.

For more than 15 years, Kenneth Kvarnström has been one of the leading and internationally best-known choreographers in the Nordic countries. His powerful and dynamic, yet sensual and intimate works, with their strong imagery and themes, continue to attract new audiences everywhere. Now, at what would appear to be the height of his career, he has decided to work from a different angle and has become the artistic director of an important venue – Dansens Hus (The House of Dance) in Stockholm.

This seemingly surprising shift is perhaps not so surprising at all, given that Kvarnström has shown both an interest in and an understanding of the works of other choreographers throughout his career.

Kvarnström established his own company K. Kvarnström & Co in 1987, having barely finished his dance studies in Stockholm. His company has presented his works ever since, and it has always been the focus of his artistic endeavours.

Between 1996 and 1998 he directed the Helsinki City Theatre Dance Company. During his time there, he greatly changed the artistic profile of the company, and he was given the credit for the massive upswing in the number of young people who started going to watch dance in Helsinki.

In the late 1990s Kvarnström’s own company K.Kvarnström & Co started to become increasingly international, with extensive world tours at prominent venues. His image abroad reflects both Finland and Sweden; which country he represents or belongs to has been the subject of some debate.

Although he and his company are and mostly have been based in Stockholm, Kvarnström himself is a Finn, and from the very beginning he has often used Finnish dancers. He has made a tremendous impact on dance in both Finland and Sweden, and the majority of his works have been performed in both countries throughout his career.

The importance of Kenneth Kvarnström’s works is also confirmed by the fact that he is one of the few dance artists who are known outside the dance world. In May 2003 he was awarded the distinguished Birgit Cullberg Prize for his impact on the status of dance in the cultural life of Sweden. In Finland he received a State Prize already in 1996.

Working between Sweden and Finland

The scant resourses and harsh conditions that are characteristic of the independent Finnish dance scene are the reasons behind Kvarnström’s decision to work in Sweden. His company has been one of the best- supported independent dance groups in Sweden, due to an experimental funding model through which he secured a three-year grant. Even so, Kvarnström claims that the arts, and culture in general, are more highly valued in Finland than in Sweden. He feels more involved in Finnish than Swedish cultural life, and in Finland he also experiences a greater equality with artists from other fields than he does in Sweden. This may be due to his success in Finland, in particular at the Helsinki City Theatre, he adds. Despite the lack of funds, Finnish dance artists are frequently more committed to their art, he says.

Kenneth Kvarnström has done a lot to promote other Finnish choreographers’ works in Sweden over the years. He initiated a series of Dancing Finland Shows in Stockholm with great success, the most recent of which was held at Dansens Hus at the beginning of 2003.

Kvarnström sees some interesting possibilities to further the art of dance in Sweden these days, but he is less optimistic about the Finnish situation.

"There is a new interest in Sweden in developing contemporary dance through various projects and initiatives. Things are finally moving ahead there, but in Finland the situation does not seem to have improved yet."

From choreographer to venue director

In February 2003 Kenneth Kvarnström was somewhat surprisingly appointed artistic director of Dansens Hus in Stockholm. His assignment starts in 2004 and will last at least four years, with the possibility to go on beyond that. Dansens Hus is the most important and internationally best-known venue in Sweden. Under the leadership of its first director it introduced esteemed national and international choreographers such as Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch to the Swedish audience from the early 1990s onwards.

Even though Kenneth Kvarnström’s assignment doesn’t start until next year, he is already involved in the planning of the 2004 programme with the present director Jan Zetterberg, and the autumn season features more of the new director’s ideas. However, there is already some overlap.

"I am planning a spring 2004 festival for young female choreographers working in Sweden. The number of new choreographers is rather low, so we have to do something to change it. It is also said that men are always favoured. I am not sure if this is true or not, but we are anyway going to invest in young female choreographers during the first season. After this we will have no more quotas for the sexes, grins Kvarnström."

He is currently coordinating this project. Rehearsal space will be available for the groups as well as two weeks on the smaller Blå Lådan (Blue Box) stage. This will probably go on all spring. Kvarnström’s guess is that altogether some five to eight choreographers will participate.

"During the autumn season a big joint project between all the venues in Stockholm will take place. We will do a dance marathon and present Swedish groups to buyers from abroad. Our aim is to export more dance from Sweden."

An artistically active director

The shift in Kenneth Kvarnström’s position does not mean that he is finished as a choreographer. It is clearly stated in his contract that he is also entitled to create works of his own. An artistically active director is not new in Sweden, although Kvarnström admits that the situation might be different at a venue producing works by visitors. He is, however, determined to let his own company rest a while and focus on his new job, for the first two years at least. What will happen then remains to be seen. His workload seems huge already.

"I am working on the establishment of a joint production office for young choreographers, something like DPS (Dance Production Services) that we had going a few years ago, and a promotional organisation like the Finnish Dance Information Centre. A big project will be launched already this autumn to create a new network for touring dance in Sweden. It will be ongoing and develop over the next three years. This will mean lots of work with audience contacts, pedagogical activities, and performances too of course. The aim is to create a framework for this new approach. We are going to introduce some new choreographers to the big stage in spring already, and cooperate with other institutions such as art galleries. So there is a great deal to be going on with, Kvarnström says with enthusiasm, not showing even the slightest hint of fatigue."

Closing the accounts?

Kenneth Kvarnström’s most recent work “Blind me” was premiered in Pyhäjärvi (Full Moon Dance Festival), and was also performed in Helsinki (Helsinki Festival) during summer 2003. It is a trio for Cilla Olsen, Mattias Ekholm and Ludde Hagberg, and shows fragments from earlier works in a new context.

"The basic idea was to lift some things from my latest works, some choreography, some music, some scenery, and create a new work on the basis of that. Something like a closing of the accounts. There is a dance fragment from “Splitvison”, some set design from “325,4 kg”, an idea that we developed a little from “Feel my breath”, and maybe some knives from … that was all I wanted, so I stuck my finger in his eye … That was the idea, but then we ended up doing a lot of new choreography with ideas inspired by the 17th century. The lion’s share of the work is however new. The piece seems very romantic, sometimes passionate, and far removed from anything violent."

This article was first published in "Finnish Dance in Focus" 2003 issue, published by the Finnish Dance Information Centre. For more information about Finnish dance visit the Finnish Dance Information Centre.

Edited by Jeff.

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