The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Pirjetta Mulari
Pirjetta Mulari
Project Manager, International Affairs, Finnish Dance Information Center
Finnish Dance Information Centre
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Finnish Dance Information Centre
Presenter Interview
Breathing new life into contemporary dance   What is the source of the vitality in Finnish dance today? 
Despite its late start compared to other European countries, Finnish contemporary dance has become a source of unique dance with unfathomable appeal. In this interview with the Project Manager of Finnish Dance Information Centre, Ms. Pirjetta Mulari, she talks about the secrets behind Finland’s unique dance scene that is typified by impressive collaborations with lighting and media artists and a stylish yet strong-boned and energetic style of body movement.
(Interviewer: Akiko Tachiki)

This summer I had a chance to see the whole programme of the Kuopio Dance Festival in Finland, which focused on contemporary dance in the Nordic countries. I was quite impressed with the energetic rise of Finnish Dance. But, in fact, compared with other countries in this particular region such as Denmark, Finnish dance does not have a long tradition. The speed of the emergence of Finnish dance is remarkable. Is there any special reason you can think of for this change? To my humble knowledge, although ballet was danced in the opera, ballet and modern dance as an art developed in Finland at about the same time in your history, when you were exposed to the various energies of different styles of dance.
One thing, we have a very long tradition of female gymnastics in the beginning of 20th Century, and a lot of connections with the Ausdruckstanz in Germany. At that time, of course, we were under the control of Russian power and suffered from the war. Then, a sort of industrialization happened in the 1950s and 60s. All the arts suffered some at this time. On the other hand, we were a people who loved classical music. Dance was a small part of art in our country. Of course, then we had the National Ballet and the modern dance came.
Now, we have the proper education of dance at the Theatre Academy, which is important. The Department of Dance at the Academy in Helsinki provides high-level education in dance, in the fields of dance, choreography and dance education. We have had this for around over 20 years. Now, the thinking in dance and choreography have really been developed. You could see, in the beginning of 90s the dance scene became very, very interesting. Strong choreographers, like Kenneth Kvarnström, Virpi Pahkinen, Arja Raatikainen came along at this time. Then, our funding for dance slowly became better.
But, I must say, the funding for dance is still under development compared to the size of the field. Finnish people like theatre. Many cities in Finland have their own city theatres that get permanent funding from the city and the state. But, now dance has become popular. There have been lots of dance schools, festivals. I would think that the Dance Department at the Helsinki Theatre Academy was really the major factor for this development of dance—the way our choreographers are more and more educated, and the fact that they have had resources to grow with.
The other thing is, in connection with the Dance Department, lighting designers are also educated at the Academy. So, if they want, they can work together. If you think of the image of Finnish dance, it is very rich visually. The visual aspect is more developed in our dance. It is because our choreographers often collaborate with lighting and multi mediadesigners.

It is interesting to know that gymnastics exercise, which was popular as a means toward physical and mental health in Germany and Scandinavia at the time, gave a foundation for the development of dance in Finland. This can be considered one of characteristics for a northern region with a harsh climate like Finland, where people need to include physical training as a part of their life routine. I remember that Denmark also had the gymnastic tradition, in connection with modern dance. So, I guess a similar development was observed in Finland. You may be interested to know the historical fact that Japanese modern dance greatly influenced by German dance has also developed in the practice and curriculum of physical education.
You also mentioned that the establishment of the Dance Department at the Helsinki Theatre Academy played an important role in giving buoyancy to Finnish dance. What year was the Academy established?

The Academy was founded in 1979, and then the Dance Department was established in 1983.

So, that was the key year for the development of dance? I only observed the change of Finnish dance activities in late 90s, but, without the Academy it might not have happened like that? You value that the rapid development of Finnish dance was brought about under the influence of the Dance Department of the Academy.
In Finland, where official recognition and support of theatre and music has preceded, this department helped give dance a more fitting place in the Finnish arts, while also bringing greater continuity of direction to the dance population, which had been unconnected and functioning independently until then. It also made a significant contribution by providing the opportunity for dancers to improve in the area of technique by having access to formal training. It should also be noted that curriculum of the dance department was a quite practical, performance-oriented one.
The faculty has included academic people in the area of dance history and theory like Tiina Suhonen, while the classes for technique and choreography have been taught by representative choreographer like Marjo Kuusela, the professor of choreography since 1998, and other first flight performing dancers and choreographers such as Jorma Uotinen and Tommi Kitti.

If you explain the history of dance in Finland, you first had the influence of German modern dance and after that in the 60s you went through the influence from the American modern dance and the post-modern dance movements?
In the late 1950s, early 1960s, Riitta Vainio went to New York and when she came back she built her own modern dance company. From that company came a new generation of dancers and choreographers. Riitta is still working.
Can you believe that Reijo Kela was trained under Merce Cunningham? He is much like butoh. Talking about the development in 1960s and 70s, we have to mention the Raatikko Dance Theatre, which was established in 1972. When I saw them, I was small then, living in a small town. The Raatikko came to all the local cities.
By the way, Marjo Kuusela came from the female gymnastics tradition. She was dancing and doing gymnastics in a dance school in Turku. This female gymnastic tradition used to be strong and is still so, though less and less now. Now people go to aerobics for exercise. Still in the 80s, thousands of female gymnasts used to perform in mass performances in different events. That’s how our people connect themselves to dance. Also, there is social dance. There was the strong movement in folk dance.
There have been strong associations with folk dance. We are summer lovers, very much health oriented.
In the beginning of the 90s, Tero Saarinen left the National Ballet to go to Japan. There are a few people who went abroad like that and came back with new ideas and collaborated with Finnish artists here.

How about the connection with the people’s movement for national independence? The theatre movement was involved in the national identity movement for independence in 1917. Was dance also inspired by this?
I think that the female gymnastic movement could be connected with the political movement against the outside, the use of national music, female gymnastic clubs, etc. But, the theatre movement had a stronger impact in that sense. Also, the music movement. The ways our arts were involved is interesting. In the beginning of 20th century, our government had an understanding that our arts could be a means for Finland to have an identity. There was a national will to have our artists show Finland, such as Sibelius. Sibelius was so important. He composed Finlandia, as you know. Many people believe that is our national anthem, which is not, actually. Also, the visual arts were very nationalistic, showing the national landscape and creating pictures of the nationalistic legend of Kalevala, I think. In connection with dance, dancing needs music and visual arts. Folk dance, on the other hand, was influenced by Russia and Sweden.

How about the relationship between dance and religion, say Christianity, in your history? Because I remember that in Europe there were times when the dance expression was forbidden under the stoicism of religious teachings of Christianity.
I understand that there were movements to ban dance, allow no dance. Some events happened, just as with alcohol when it was banned at some time in our history. There was an underground movement to free themselves for this.

What new ideas were introduced to promote dance as an art?
When the Raatikko Dance Theatre opened in the beginning of the 70s they made some outrageous works. Raatikko started the dance theatre tradition in the 70s. Also, I have to mention Jorma Uotinen in the 80s and 90s. He made spectacle solo works. Jorma Uotinen started “open dance” that involved collaboration with the visual arts. Thus, if you think of the movement in 90s, the 10 years up to 2005, more and more choreographers came out in the contemporary dance scene.
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