Tero Saarinen Company‘s completely sold-out performance for Nordic Cool 2013 at The Kennedy Center was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. With artistic direction, choreography, and a thrilling performance by Tero Saarinen himself, this entire performance was incredible. It raises the question, “Are we in such a digital age that we do not connect with each other as people, face-to-face anymore?” The vulnerability of each dancer and the poignant themes related to humanity spurred thoughts of my own life and the choices I’ve made for my future, and I felt alive by the end. In Saarinen’s statement on dance he articulates, “Dance is my attempt to understand human nature and its multiple manifestations – friendship, love, and strength of spirit.” Tonight, he has succeeded in every way imaginable.
As the curtain rises for Westward Ho! the action has already begun, as Henrikki Heikkilä, Mikko Lampinen, and Pekka Louhio are moving in silence with straight, angular steps. They don white garb with a simple black apron around the waist (costumes by Tero Saarinen). They repeat until one of them breaks off as the quiet sound of a homeless man’s voice sings “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (music arrangement by Gavin Bryars). The low blue lighting design by Mikki Kunttu against a blue backdrop like the blue sea and sky (which eventually has white streaks that to me begin to look like the profile of a face) gradually becomes brighter as the song grows louder and the journey begins.
Throughout this piece, the three friends struggle to break out of the monotony of their current situation. As the lighting shifts to a warm reddish lavender hue, the song “The Message” by Moondog takes us into a deeper part of the journey as we see the friendship, betrayal, success, and failure of these men. The repetition of each sequence in the choreography gave me the feeling of trying to get somewhere but not knowing fully how to do it or how many attempts it might take to get there. At times I felt like I was intruding on an intimate moment, as when Henrikki Heikkilä buried his face in his hands, which was so simple and yet so personal. Another sequence that resonated was when the three men were plodding and nodding as they traveled, which reminded me of the daily grind. Throughout their journey, they staggered in confusion, became stuck in the muck, rose above (soaring and leaping freely), brought each other down by fighting and resisting, helped each other up, and in the end continued as we all do, as we all can.
Again I am immediately engaged by the second movement, Wavelengths. It opens with the sound of percussion, a singular wooden block (music by Riku Niemi), as Maria Nurmela reaches and searches, repeating her motions. Her shadow stretches across the horizontal golden backdrop (lighting by Mikki Kunttu), offset by her flowy pants with wrap-skirt and backless crop longsleeve shirt (costumes by Erika Turunen). Henrikki Heikkilä calmly walks the stage with focus, wearing flowy pants and a sheer longsleeve shirt. Throughout this piece, the lovers engage in a seduction and strive to remain whole when in a relationship. The internal conflict is expressed when the percussion strikes and they dance separately and then they become inevitably intertwined when the music swells. It’s pure storytelling delight – the intimacy of their pas de deux, the feeling of her being lost in his web, their exquisite execution of intricate choreography – just breathtaking. Heikkilä has a quiet reverence about him while he maintains a seemingly effortless, comfortable step and centered demeanor. He is a strong partner who convincingly invites Nurmela to join him, for better or worse, and she can’t resist. Nurmela dances with her entire being, elongating every line. At times is so sultry and seductive, as the choreography calls for Heikkilä to enjoy her curves, and she melts over his body in challenging lifts and twists and turns in choreography as they scamper through the music and fast percussion. Fog effects and spotlights enchant the final scene as he lifts her to climb the stairs of life and they become spellbound in each other’s existence.
After intermission, the crowd gathers with anticipation for the final movement HUNT to be danced by Tero Saarinen to “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky with outstanding live multimedia performed by Marita Liulia (programming by Jakke Kastelli). A mysterious opening with a single warm gobo (lighting by Mikki Kunttu) and the faint shadow of a figure sets the scene for a tumultuous flight. An incredibly self-disciplined beginning, demonstrating impeccable strength in precision soon elevates into a whirlwind voyage as Saarinen takes flight. Swanlike arms and a carefully crafted white tulle skirt with numerous strong fabric folds (costume by Erika Turunen) expose him completely as a dancer desiring to fulfill his life’s purpose against all obstacles. Images of the resistance of chains, the push and pull of gravity, and the need to flourish abound as Saarinen is hunted by Liulia as she controls the visual imagery. An amazing spectacle, the images are projected onto the tutu as well as Saarinen’s head, chest, and body at other times. Intense strobe lighting creates an exciting environment as Saarinen travels.
One of my favorite moments was when the lights illuminated from the floor and streamed from above, creating a cell-like space in which Saarinen was captive. The audience was silent, watching in amazement at the feats his body was able to perform as the triumphant classical music resounded, with brass, strings, and percussion booming and driving the pace.
Tero Saarinen Company was a privilege to experience. This performance will not be forgotten.
Tero Saarinen Company performed March 12, 2013 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater- 2700 F Street, Northwest, in Washington, DC. For information about upcoming Nordic Cool 2013 performances and to purchase tickets for upcoming shows, visit The Kennedy Center website or call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
Running time: Two hours, including two intermissions.