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Tero Saarinen Company  - Poetry Dancing

by Cecly Placenti

March 29, 2006 -- Joyce Theatre, New York City

Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen is one of the rising stars of European dance, and after witnessing his visually arresting and moving evening at the Joyce Theatre in March, I can certainly see why. Combining his completely original and incredibly powerful movement language with a striking use of multimedia and lighting to create a mysterious atmosphere for each dance -- at once both lavish and minimalist, grand and modest -- Saarinen creates a total environment into which the audience is drawn. Although his work draws on his extensive knowledge of classical ballet as well as Western contemporary dance and Japanese butoh, Saarinen has managed to fuse these styles effortlessly to create a unique vocabulary and style of his own. His work displays a refined sensitivity of thought, rich clarity of texture, and polished animalistic movement.

“Westward Ho!” opened the evening, and as the curtain slowly rose, the audience was at once engaged with simple yet striking images. The three men spread out across the stage were already in motion as the curtain came up, gliding side to side and back to front in a modern triplet step, in perfect time and in silence. The movement repeated as the men advanced and retreated, and the clarity of their timing as well as the lilting rhythms of their steps was mesmerizing and hypnotic, creating the sensation of a long journey. Set to the haunting “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by Gavin Bryars, based on a religious hymn sung by a street beggar in London, and combined in an endless loop with the music of Moondog, “Westward Ho!” explored friendship and the wavering of trust.

The deceptively simple choreography, with its loping, lanky, and loose style, lent itself well to the meditative atmosphere, as did the stage lights, which went from a peaceful sky blue across the scrim at the back, to the subtly shifting peaches, lavenders, and greens of the Northern Lights. As the men patterned the stage in perpetual motion, one broke free, and chaos set in as the piece became a contest of two against one without so much as breaking a stride -- it continued to roll like waves on an ocean. Just a the men are in motion as the curtain opens, they are also in motion as it comes down, in an unending quest for an unattainable ideal. Saarinen’s choreography, including an unusual sideways bobbing and a faltering drunken walk, is both expansive and detailed, his movement emanating from the body’s core and influencing how the limbs respond. His dancers have the strength to use their bodies in such a way as to distribute quality right down to their fingertips and the way their hands moved through the air. The dance has a strong and unexplainable pull, reminding me of a poem that keeps one spellbound and searching, enthralled and wanting more.

There is an incredible amount of texture in Saarinen’s work, an exquisite clarity and sensitivity -- each moment is distilled yet continuous and organic. His second piece of the evening, “Wavelengths,” a duet for a man and a woman, explores a tortured relationship of connection and disconnection and the search for new direction in an old relationship. Set to music by Riku Niemi and performed by the gorgeous and supple Henrikki Heikkila and Sini Lansivuori, “Wavelengths” features repetitive movement phrases that play as memory. Movements we see in solo sections appear again in duets.  The dancers’ bodies were obviously familiar territory, seen in the way they used their fingers to grab and hold each other in the duet and partnering sections, splayed and sensitive, as if they were attempting to feel with each part of their hands. Yet at other times they would stalk each other almost confrontationally as if looking for answers or validation.

Last of the evening was Saarinen’s solo “Hunt” performed to Stravinsky’s iconic “The Rite of Spring.” The solo was created as a result of Saarinen’s contemplation of aging, his frustration at the constant torrent of information in this age, and the sudden illness and death of a close friend. Saarinen set himself a daunting task to measure up to the force, earthiness, and raw power of Stravinsky’s score, and he met it superbly. Knowing that in order for this solo to succeed it would need a strong external force, Saarinen paired up with multimedia artist Marita Liulia, and together they decided to use only Saarinen’s body and white tutu-like skirt as both the source and canvas for her image projections. Saarinen’s majestically controlled body, his supple lines and muscle isolations, the dramatic contrast between lyrical and grounded movement, the visible tension in his pale lean form, was a perfect counterpoint for the score and a tribute to Saarinen’s gifts.

Not once during the 35-minute solo did the music overshadow him. He is a magnificent animal in the score’s first tableau, awakening before our eyes on a stage lit with saffron lights set up behind him in a dark black box theatre. His coming of age is the descent from the heavens of his huge skirt with endless folds of white material. In the second tableau, which throbs with Stravinsky’s eccentric rhythms, the hunter becomes the hunted as now Saarinen becomes the projection screen and Liulia’s frantically paced photographic collage of hooded faces, isolated eyes, and dancing figures, pass at a dizzying pace. The final section is gripping and telling as this beautiful creature is destroyed -- a comment at what the torrent of technology and information can do to humankind. Lighting Designer Mikki Kuntu’s overhead strobe lights, timed perfectly to the cadence of Stravinsky’s cruel poundings and to Saarinen’s death jumps, is chilling and moving theatre and a tragic metaphor for our time.

Tero Saarinen’s work, unlike so much contemporary dance I’ve seen, leaves you wanting more -- his pieces were refreshingly just the right length. His choreography is subtle and expansive, and the unfolding of his pieces like a poem that draws you in with textured language, perfectly paced phrases, and simple, truthful emotion. His dancers were completely engaged in what they were doing with every fiber of their bodies. Their faces were a window to the passions of the movement and even the way they used their fingers and toes was thoughtful. It was an evening of raw power in a much understated, non-affectatious way. The use of lighting and multimedia was like architecture -- each piece created a new and exciting atmosphere. Saarinen’s choreography most definitely speaks for itself and touches deeply. Go see his company if you can -- he will move you

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