in Articles

“A fantastic plaited bun loaf”

by Hannele Jyrkkä

Three internationally acclaimed Finnish choreographers - Marjo Kuusela, Kenneth Kvarnström and Tero Saarinen - describe how movement and music engage in dialogue in their dance works.

Choreographer-dancer Tero Saarinen will dance his Hunt for the last time in late 2013 – in Kenya. A powerful work, and a respectful companion to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, it is a solo he has performed more than 170 times in different corners of the globe. Stravinsky provides the music for two other works by him, Petrushka and Mariage, and live music by George Crumb, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg and others also features in his 38 creations.

In selecting his music, the Artistic Director of the Tero Saarinen Company – which has appeared in almost 40 countries – has firm faith in intuition.

“Music evokes such powerful images, emotional states, scenes and even ideas for movement that one just has to read oneself. I trust in intuition when, for example, it seems pointless to choose music that is not compatible with my choreographic thinking. I need an incision that taps the musical vein and promotes the music in a new way, stimulates discussion or affords a new perspective,” says 49-year-old Saarinen, his eyes tight shut, at the end of an intensive workshop day.

Even if his intuition does point to a specific piece of music, he still has to ponder whether to build all sorts of otherinformation into and on top of the music.

Hunt, like many other choreographies by this internationally renowned artist, has gained plenty of positive feedback for the treatment of its music. Many have said that they did not like The Rite of Spring as music, but that it opened up for them in a new way when they saw how Saarinen had handled the score.

“I goad myself by listening to lots of music, of all kinds. If a piece of music makes me halt when I’m washing up or reading, I’m not always immediately even aware what has caught my attention – the timbre, the instruments, the use of time or the overall sound.”

Saarinen still has a separate collection of music that has inspired him. Some time ago, he sorted through this pile in search of a classical composition by the famous conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen suitable for a new choreography for male dancers scheduled for completion in autumn 2014. “And there in the pile was the Violin Concerto Out of Nowhere and also Foreign Bodies, for a big orchestra.”

“Salonen does melodic new music that nevertheless pays allegiance to the old masters. I like the way it resonates in two directions. It’s virtuosic, but not too much so to be choreographed.”

The subject of the work is a very personal one for Saarinen. “I’ve been debating what it means to be a man these days; has the time come for us to widen our understanding of manhood? The things I find myself doing with the art of dance…”


Kenneth Kvarnström, in his most recent work, come back (to me), constantly spices up the moods of the dance by using music stretching from wistful Baroque to thumping metal performed by onstage musicians. The partnership between Kvarnström, an internationally acclaimed choreographer-dancer, and Swedish musician Jonas Nordberg that began with (play) in 2011 introduced a new dimension into his work. The sounds of a lute replaced music composed on a computer, and the musicians took to the stage.

“The music does, of course, have a far greater impact than people sometimes think, believe or want. The audience ‘sees through its ears’, so the music creates a certain kind of universe, whatever the work. This is maybe why many of my earlier pieces seem to be very much bound to the period when I did them,” says 50-year-old Kvarnström, creator of nearly 40 works, while on tour in the United States.

In his view, choreographies must always be musical – the movements and choreography sing their own song, as it were. Earlier in his career, Kvarnström often produced movement material without any music in order to discover the right dynamics and choreographic tone. Nowadays the music is composed while he is rehearsing with the dancers in the studio.

“Jonas and I have certain rules. He always plays the pieces chosen for the work in his own way, so he now records them for us before we rehearse. This way, we get the best result, because music produced live immediately gets a certain swing. It was fun doing come back (to me), because the dancers and musicians follow each other closely. Sometimes dance leads and propels, and vice versa.”

In 2014 Kvarnström begins as director of the new dance department at the Kulturhuset/Stadsteatern in Stockholm. Rehearsal premises are right now being built for his six-dancer team and musicians. The year will also see new works with Nordberg, Ola Hjelmberg and others, and a concert-hall tour is scheduled for 2015.

“We don’t know yet all the things that may lie in store for us!”


Main sentences

For the autumn 2013 season at the Finnish National Ballet, the renowned arts Academician, choreographer and dancer Marjo Kuusela did a third version of her popular The Seven Brothers. Based on the Finnish classic novel by Aleksis Kivi, it was first adapted as a major narrative ballet in 1980. Now, 33 years later, the brothers’ eyes still gleam and the same music wings the story along: the wind instruments howl in the forest and the melodic theme music tells the tale of the brothers’ close-knit community.

The music was composed scene by scene for the rehearsals, based on Kuusela’s script and dramaturgy. She has always commissioned or sought music to suit the subject of her works. Her choreographies have been created together with the music.

The Seven Brothers team began by addressing the text in the analytical way popular in the 1970s, in which the scenes are first condensed into a couple of main sentences.

Eero Ojanen composed the main sentences, not the minutes of my dramaturgy. Otherwise it would have been a hotchpotch. We knew what the music had to include, but he did not illustrate the scenes. On first hearing, the composition sounds clear and great, but rhythmically it is surprisingly difficult to dance to,” reports this 66-year-old, who has choreographed over 100 works from the 1970s onwards.

Initial inspiration

At present working on new choreographies in Helsinki and Pori, Marjo Kuusela has, over the years, noticed that the combination of music and dance can be a multi-level experience for the audience, even if the music does not lend itself to many interpretations.

“To the dancer, easily accessible music sounds pleasing for the first few rehearsals. But if the rehearsal period is long and the work a big one, the dancer loses interest. If, on the other hand, the music operates on many levels, it acquires depth for the dancer and this is reflected in the intensity of his or her presence. If the choreographer uses difficult music, it’s best to spell it out quite clearly. This makes the audience experience of both the music and the dance deeper and easier, but even so, it’s not just boring plain cake for the dancer.”

Kenneth Kvarnström used to be rather alone in mulling over his works, but the advent of music of a new, different kind has led him to question more and more.

“The movement material, too, has changed due to the lute and theorbo music. It may be more romantic, but at the same time more melancholy. It’s possible that Jonas and I feel a pull towards plaintive music. We’ve got only ourselves to blame… We both want to bring out the darker shades in life.”

Tero Saarinen is, among other things, right now working on a new interpretation of Kaze for the dancers and players of traditional instruments at the National Dance Company of Korea, for spring 2014. All in all he feels it is important for the dance and the music to complement and enrich each other in telling his stories.

“It’s the choreographer’s responsibility to foster the marriage of dance and music. Maintaining a balance between dance and music is, unfortunately, sometimes very laborious and expensive. Once what you yourself want to say has been amalgamated with what the dancers, musicians and composer want to say, you have plaited together a fantastic bun loaf! And the best thing of all is that people are creating dance and music together. We mustn’t forget that primitive initial inspiration.”

Composer and choreographer hit the crux

The widely acclaimed guitarist and composer Jarmo Saari has created music and soundscapes for five dance works by Tero Saarinen. Their partnership began with Next of Kin (2008), in which a multi-instrumentalist on stage combines the sound of a glass harmonica and a viola da gamba in a collage of instrumental, natural and toy sounds. A creator of music for bands, films, theatre and himself, Saari, who has personally performed on 100 albums and in 30 countries, prefers to begin a dance work by attending its rehearsals.

“When we began Next of Kin, we didn’t speak in terms of music or dance. I’ve worked with all sorts of artists but seldom have I met such a brainstorming partner as Tero! He takes over where I leave off. Somehow we seem to hit the crux. Getting there does, of course, call for resources and time.”

Saari says he goes to the dance rehearsals “with an empty mind”, taking along a few instruments. First he gets to know the dancers who are going to interpret his music. In time, fragrances, tastes and characters begin to emerge.

“Sometimes I will start playing against the dancer’s pulses or rhythms. This can generate some interesting tensions.”

One of the greatest revelations at the start of the partnership was, according to Saari, that while the choreography tells one story and the music another, the result may be the perfect pair.

“I, as the composer, may tell what a character’s intentions are, while the choreographer shows that they are doing quite the opposite. This in itself is nothing new but it’s a way of informing the listener and viewer of contradictions that are not outwardly visible.”

Saari loves doing crossover. The lighting may indicate that the music is in fact too bright. A sort of collage technique means things can be superimposed and tested.

“The result is an impression of depth. Some sounds are close and others distant, so the viewer can choose which path to follow.”

More about Tero Saarinen and his company

Kenneth Kvarnström’s come back (to me) compilation

Marjo Kuusela’s Seven Brothers

Hannele Jyrkkä is a journalist, dance critic and non-fiction author at present writing a book about a dancer’s work.
Featured photo: Kenneth Kvarnström’s (play) by Sakari Viika.