Dance work, "Morphed," goes to the "far ends" in search of manhood's voice

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Choreographer Tero Saarinen often talks about the "far ends," a rhetorical way to account for distance and contradiction. It is a concept he applies to the extremes of light in his native Finland, where the summers are sun-lit most of the day and the winters are dark for months. Or the "far ends" of the nervous system, where a dancer's skin meets the air or the ground. Or about the music of his countryman Esa-Pekka Salonen, with its sweeps of manic energy and meditative peace.

It is a sense of the sweep of existence that comes with growing up in Finland, a vast, remote land with few, sparse pockets of people. It is a place where contradictions rule out easy answers, but summon a deep need to pull them together and express what is often past words.

"The mental landscape is very severe in Finland," Saarinen said. "We have these strong contradictions around us when we are brought up. And there is this sense of isolation. From this place comes an urge to find your own voice and be heard."

Saarinen's 2014 dance, "Morphed," examines the contradictions and tensions of masculinity in the 21st century. It features a cast of eight male dancers who explore the range of expectations that come with being a man. The Tero Saarinen Company will perform it on Friday at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College.

The dance is set to three pieces by fellow Finn, the composer Salonen. "I felt there is something in his music and its structure," Saarinen said in a phone interview from Ottawa, where he was preparing for a string of performances at the National Arts Center. "These polarities in his music make sense to me."

Saarinen's background suggests he has lived many of these "far ends." He grew up in the city of Pori on Finland's west coast, in what he called "a sports-mad family." There was hockey, skiing, skating, tennis, table tennis, and he'd invent new sports if he grew tired of one. He didn't begin to dance until he was a teenager, but "it was mind-blowing, from the first class I felt something special happen."

"I felt dance was in me already," he said. "It touched the same points as sports, but there were other layers and frequencies."

He studied ballet and soon advanced enough to move to Helsinki and continue training as a performer with the Finnish National Ballet. At first his approach was more "free and wild" than his peers, who had been studying for years under the rigorous, Russian-style ballet instruction.

"It was quite difficult for me to soak into the classical ballet world, with all its norms and hierarchies," he said, even while he remained committed to the physicality and competitiveness it took to achieve virtuosity.

But the restrictions of the form — especially the limited roles for male dancers — led him to explore other dance traditions. He particularly fell into Japanese butoh — the intensely expressive, revolutionary dance technique that emerged in the wake of the Second World War. "It was like an open door, an invitation," he said. "And I always go after my intuition."

He spent a year studying the technique in Japan, including with butoh master Kazuo Ohno, as well as traditional Japanese dance and martial arts like aikido, to fully explore the "contradiction and friction" between these approaches to movement.

Saarinen founded his own company in 1996, based largely on his own method that strives to balance those sense of tradition and expression. The company earned an international reputation, through productions like 1996's "Westward Ho!," which was his last piece to rely solely on male dancers. The company has made two stops in the Berkshires at the Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival, most recently in 2012 with his work "Borrowed Light."

"Morphed," which premiered in Helsinki in 2014, benefits from the contributions of strong collaborators. That includes the stylized, shape-shifting menswear on the dancers designed by Teemu Muurim ki, and set and lighting design by longtime collaborator Mikki Kunttu, which includes a boundary of dangling ropes that becomes part of the performance.

The use of light is a particularly important point, a reflection of the deep and contradictory ways light works in Finland. "We live most of our year in artificial light," Saarinen said. "So there's this glow around us in the darkness. It promotes a certain expressiveness that paves the way into art."

For the music, Saarinen selected three works by Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. "His work has these far ends," he said. "These contradictive elements. It can be brutal and aggressive and right after have the utmost sensitivity. I like this mental roller coaster."

Coincidentally, Saarinen later learned that one of the pieces — Salonen's Violin Concerto — had its roots in the kind of mid-life, early-50s introspection that he was also seeking to explore. It is infused with a sense of looking back on what one has achieved, while searching for a new thing that will leave open a possible future, whether a new motion in Saarinen's case, or a new sound in Salonen's.

The dance addresses not only questions about men in dance, or even men alone. "It's not just about the dancing life, but life in general," he said. "We can be more alert, more sensitive, less preoccupied."

For Saarinen and his company, this is more than an aesthetic position — it's the core of its purpose, including its roster of training courses that includes movement workshops aimed at non-dancers. It is a process designed, as their website says, "to activate every cell and nerve ending in the body, to become fully Aware, Alert, Attentive, and Alive — 360 degrees present and resonating."

"Everybody needs the same thing," Saarinen said. "They need to calm down, they need to feel themselves, they need to be aware of their feet and the soil and they need to touch the air around them and see each other."                                                                                                                             

It is also part of what he hopes for the audience at their performances. "At its best, we go through something together," he said. "Nowadays, I feel the theater is the only place where people are present and don't have their phones on. And that for me is the exciting part, that something happens there but you have to be open to it and curious."                                                                                          

Friday's performance will be followed by a Q&A guided by Gregory Mitchell, a professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Williams. The company will then move on for a string of shows at the Joyce Theater in New York.


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