Anticipating the Race to the Finnish showcase of Finnish dance in London this summer, Donald Hutera asks: "So what is Finnish dance? Is there a national 'house style'? With his child-like borrowings of Spanish style, is Jyrki Karttunen any more or less Finnish than Tero Saarinen, whose influences include Japanese butoh? What makes the work of Tommi Kitti or Kenneth KvarnstrŲm special on a global scale and unique from each other? And how does talented tyro Susanna Leinonen fit in with rest of the pack?"

Exploring roots of modern Finnish dance

By Donald Hutera†††

How could you not fall in love with a contemporary dance festival where the reigning celebrity — the one whose opinion is most sought-after during any post-show discussion — is the local pig farmer?

The focus of the Full Moon festival is new Finnish dance. The week-long event is held each July in Pyhäjärvi (population approximately 7,000), a small town in mid-Finlandís forest-covered lake district. Nearby lies what is said to be the deepest mine in Europe (1,500 metres).

Strung out between two roundabouts, the town itself has three supermarkets — four, if you count a big all-in-one department store on the outskirts — and a couple of banks. While the natives seem happy to attend the annual invasion of artiness which Full Moon provides, theyíre also quite capable of entertaining themselves. On weekends especially the older folk knock it back at the bar in the sole hotel, dancing to Finnish tangos sung live by soloists and musical duets. Their younger counterparts raise hell in a disco-in-a-tent. (Staying at the hotel? Then forget a good nightís sleep.)

Pyhäjärviís youth donít really cruise in their cars, the way their counterparts in other parts of the world might do; the town is too small to really go anywhere. In Pyhäjärviís youth culture, seeing and being seen amounts to parking in one of many lots fronting the gently curving, inclined main street.

Itís all worthy of a film by Aki Kaurismäki, Finnish cinemaís poet of familiar peculiarities.

Clearly for anyone longing for an intimate and informal dance event — yet one that is professional and, at least in a few cases, artistically world-class — Full Moon is near to ideal. Deceptively cosy for a major festival, it has happened every summer since 1992. The first edition was an unlikely but organic outgrowth of dance classes. Course participants started performing for each other. The local community was, and still is, supportive. The result is unlikely, unpretentious enchantment.

Full Moon now proudly proclaims itself as 'the largest contemporary dance festival in Finland'. It has, in truth, become one of the countryís primary showcases for some of the most promising independent talent in the small, struggling yet vibrant arena of contemporary Finnish dance. †††

Pyhäjärvi is far enough north that in summer it never really gets dark. The July weather was fresh and balmy. On the final night of the festivalís 2000 edition, my colleagues and I were driven to the lakeside cabin of the town dentist/amateur pilot/chairman of the sub-regional council. (In a place so underpopulated, wearing several hats seems to be the norm.) There, after a delicious snack and the close buzz of conversation, the men and women took it in turn to use the sauna. A smoky, sweaty baking of the flesh, followed by a dip in chill, spirit-raising waters, and everything bathed in a soft light just bright enough to read by.

This experience taught me as much about where Finnish dance comes from — the piercingly cool yet flushed temperament from which it arises, and the bearing of a silence bubbling with still, quiet happiness — as watching any given dance did.

Does that mean that all Finnish choreography springs out of the same shared state of earthy, back-to-nature spiritual isolation? Iím sure none of the dance-makers whose work is being presented during Race to the Finnish (a month-long season of dance presented in London at The Place Theatre and Queen Elizabeth Hall) want to be lumped together like that. I do have a theory, hardly fool-proof, that national characteristics can reveal themselves in theatrical dance. During a season like this itís tempting to try and discern commonalities between artists — provided that differences and distinctions are likewise recognised.

So what is Finnish dance? Is there a national 'house style'? With his child-like borrowings of Spanish style, is Jyrki Karttunen any more or less Finnish than Tero Saarinen, whose influences include Japanese butoh? What makes the work of Tommi Kitti or Kenneth Kvarnström special on a global scale and unique from each other? And how does talented tyro Susanna Leinonen fit in with rest of the pack?

I could cite Leinonenís clawed, insinuating catwalk mathematics, Kvarnströmís precision unison patterns, or the sharp sensuality of Kittiís dancers. Or the way Saarinenís mesmerising variations on kinetic themes hint at magic depths, and how playful and nuanced is Karttunenís wit. Their work is united by each pieceís clean lines of movement and sophisticated individuality.

I wonder what the pig farmer would say to that.


Donald Hutera is a free-lance writer on the arts with an emphasis on live performance, especially dance and theatre. His work is regularly published by The Times of London. Time Out magazine, Dance Europe, Dance Now, Dance Magazine (USA) and other periodicals.


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