This performance aims to question masculinity

What is masculinity? That’s the big question Tero Saarinen wants to investigate with his long-awaited new work. Clare Wiley chats to the philosophical dancemaker

Tero Saarinen is out of breath. He’s just come from early rehearsals for his brand new production, Morphed – but I suspect his breathless, hurried manner of speaking is more due to excitement about the work than physical exertion. It’s certainly a unique creation, for which the distinctive Finnish choreographer has cast eight men.

‘It’s about manhood and masculinity,’ he says. ‘I’m asking some questions: what is masculinity? Do we have to redefine ourselves? What are these layers that I think have not been exposed? I’m also trying to enhance this image of the “dancing man” and all the different qualities and intonations that lie in our bodies.’

Rehearsals for Morphed courtesy of TS
Rehearsals for Morphed, courtesy of Tero Saarinen

Saarinen fires out thoughts and philosophies at lightening speed – it’s hard to keep up. But at its core Morphed is an ambitious undertaking with a concept that remains oblique in contemporary culture: what is the role of modern man and how can that be expressed through dance? ‘I think man can be so much more than he has ever been – in terms of dance – but also in society,’ he continues. ‘We’ve done a lot of things wrong, we men. We’ve fucked up our possibilities in a way, I feel, by being too preoccupied about our own image of what a man should be.’

It’s an interesting choice of words – echoing that hostile command we hear all too often: ‘be a man’. We’re now in the fourth wave of feminism, where the rigid roles traditionally prescribed to women are being confronted and increasingly overthrown – but the male experience is often ignored or stereotyped. So it’s tempting to frame Morphed within that social movement, as a work that aims to stage a fuller and more diverse picture of male life.

But Saarinen says it’s more personal than that. ‘It’s more about from where I’m standing, what’s going on in my life. It’s got a lot to do with my age and where I am as a performer, as a male performer. I’m looking back at my life through this piece, it’s about what I’ve experienced, and what I’ve then corrected through those experiences.’

It’s as conceptual as anything we’ve come to expect from the poetic choreographer, who describes his repertoire as ‘an attempt to understand human nature’. And though there isn’t a neat storyline for the audience to follow, Morphed does not intend to be entirely abstract. ‘There is a loose narrative structure in the piece, but it’s not a story,’ Saarinen says. ‘It’s more about emotions, intimacy and strength of spirit. There will be encounters between two people, there will be individual wishes and longings. This piece also exposes communal values; there are eight men so they create a kind of community of their own. There’s inherent friction in that: what is my individual wish and what does this group of men want from me [as a member of that community]. So there are themes that will feel familiar to the audience.’

Tero Saarinen © Heidi Strengell
Tero Saarinen © Heidi Strengell

The choreography itself will be a carefully devised blend of contemporary, classical and also ancient styles of dance. ‘I’m trying to amalgamate all these themes and styles like a symphony orchestra, so it’ll be this tightly-knit choreographic entity but with individual voices and talent within that. Morphed has a virtuosity, a kind of exuberance. But there’s also something animalistic and primitive as it dives into the depths of dance and music rituals. I’m hoping it’s something the audience won’t have seen before.’

The dancers are correspondingly diverse, with a collective back-ground spanning street dance, classical ballet and contemporary. ‘I wanted to hail these different kinds of dance, because there isn’t only one way to think of dance,’ says Saarinen. ‘There’s so much expressiveness in our bodies and in these styles. When casting for Morphed, I looked for people who are open-minded and willing to enrich their own understanding of dance. The ages range from barely 20 to over 40. I also wanted to have a transmission of knowledge, where these men learn from me, and from each other.’

Read: Our interview with Hofesh Shechter, the agent provocateur of dance

A key source of inspiration for the work was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s compositions, Concert Etude for Solo Horn (2000), Foreign Bodies (2001), and Violin Concerto (2009), which will provide the soundtrack. ‘I’m a great admirer of his music, as a conductor and composer,’ says Saarinen. ‘I wanted to have this kind of symphonic structure and volume.’

Salonen will also conduct the orchestra of the Finnish National Opera (FNO) at the premiere, taking place on 16 August at the Helsinki Festival. Violinist Akiko Suwanai and French horn player Tommi Viertonen will also perform. Saarinen says he’s excited about such a unique premiere. ‘I’m familiar with Esa-Pekka’s work, and I’ve met him several times, but this is the first time we’ll have a collaboration of this scale. I can learn from his thinking in relation to symphonic structure, and understand more about the ideas behind each piece, in order to translate it into dance – as well as bring my own layer to the music.’

‘Very rarely do you have a composer creating challenging classical music, who’s also conducting – it’s a kind of double jackpot for me,’ Saarinen continues. ‘What I’ve learned is that Esa-Pekka is quite strict about tempos, and maintains the same tempo live as in recordings. That’s useful as we’re already able to rehearse with the recordings, and let the dancers get used to Esa-Pekka’s style.’

Read: How to build a dance company

In Spring 2015 Morphed will go on a European tour, including dates at Staatstheater Hannover and Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Etienne in France (which is also a co-production partner). Securing tour dates before the work has even been completed is a testament to the high-profile partnership, but also to Saarinen’s steadily growing reputation and that of his Helsinki-based company. The choreographer modestly puts it down to the skill of Johanna Rajamäki, head of international sales at Tero Saarinen Company and former dance manager at IMG Artists in London.

‘Her skill and ability to attract people, combined with long-term strategic work by managing director Iiris Autio and the entire team means pre-premiere bookings are possible,’ he says. ‘But we do also have an organic network that we’ve developed throughout our [company’s] history,’ Saarinen adds. ‘In the end, it’s always a person-to-person deal. There have to be people who believe in your work, who want to commission your work and be your collaborators.’ Morphed’s visual designer is Saarinen’s long-term collaborator Mikki Kunttu, with costumes from fashion designer Teemu Muurimäki.

Tero Saarinen © Sakari Viika
Tero Saarinen © Sakari Viika

Tero Saarinen founded his company in 1996. It works to an aptly contemplative mission: to promote a humane worldview and basic human values through dance. The choreographer has created a total of 40 works, for his own troupe as well as for the likes of Nederlands Dans Theater 1 and Batsheva Dance Company. The 10 productions he created for Tero Saarinen Company include his signature solo work HUNT (2002), a visceral reinterpretation of The Rite of Spring, and Borrowed Light (2004), his critically acclaimed minimalistic creation inspired by the Shaker movement of the 19th century.

How does Saarinen feel his repertoire is developing? ‘I like to learn more things and enhance my choreographic skills. Each production teaches me something new. The fact that I am able to work with different cultures also means I can bring new ideas into my choreography. I hope there’s a constant evolution and enhancement. It’s an ongoing process. It’s like doing Tai Chi; I repeat and repeat things, and try to erase the unnecessary things in order to make the message resonate. Because there has to be a resonance with the audience.’ Collaboration is also key to the progression of Saarinen’s repertoire. ‘I’m listening more to the dancers who are in front of me, instead of deciding things in advance. I think one has to trust your collaborators, and then dive into the chosen theme, ethics and morality of a piece.’

Next year Saarinen will tackle a large-scale collaboration with FNO. Kullervo is based on the Sibelius masterpiece and features more than 100 performers on stage, including 50 dancers from the Finnish National Ballet and TSC, as well as members of the FNO choir and the Helsinki Philharmonic choir. Kullervo runs from 13 February to 14 March 2015.