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Moving Fabric: Costumes and Movement
in Tero Saarinen's Dances

by Rosella Simonari

Published November 2009 

One of the most intense moments in Tero Saarinen’s “Hunt” is when the whitish tutu-like skirt appears from above his head as a mysterious cloud and slowly descends on his body, becoming a substantial part of his choreography. It is like a ritual, and it particularly fits his solo re-working of the “Rite of Spring”. In Tero Saarinen’s dances, costumes always play an important part, and they are very carefully thought out by his collaborator Erika Turunen. In this article I would like to explore this aspect focusing on two of his dances, the aforementioned solo “Hunt” (2002) and the choral piece “Borrowed Light” (2004). They are two excellent examples of his style and in both cases costumes are a fundamental aspect of the dynamics of the pieces.

“Hunt” was commissioned by Carolyn Carlson, the Venice Dance Biennale artistic director, for the 2002 edition. For this solo, Saarinen thought of different questions, like dancers’ aging process and the loss of a dear friend. He was also concerned about the way people are constantly bombarded with information, without really being able to absorb and critically elaborate on it. These reflections led to the idea of hunting and being hunted, both of which are strictly connected with the idea of sacrifice inherent in the “Rite of Spring”. On stage, a circle of floodlights surrounds the dancer, suggesting the concept of an arena where a fight is going to take place. Saarinen dances within this circle wearing two different costumes, the first consisting of an asymmetrical skirt made of thin silk ivory georgette with a black stripe on one side, the second of a tutu-like skirt made of white and light grey rectangular panels of different size and shape. These costumes contribute to creating the rhythm and atmosphere of the piece.

The opening is paradigmatic, in this sense. One single light from above illuminates Saarinen who shows his back to the audience. He slowly moves his hands, and the skirt filters the light in a evocative manner. In another phrase, he moves his arms backwards recalling the movements of a swan. In an interview, Saarinen has specified that this element is connected with the image of an aging dancer. What does it mean for a dancer to get old? This is a crucial and painful question that entails a deep awareness of what one’s own body can do, what its limits are, and how its limits change with the aging process.

“Hunt” acquires a different flavour when the tutu-like skirt comes in. As mentioned before, it appears from above as a cloud and descends on Saarinen’s body. It is bulkier than the other skirt but it has an architectural quality, as Saarinen has specified, that the other one does not have. Erika Turunen has used many different materials for this skirt, like “different kinds of silk organzas, nylon, plastic bones, metallic steel wire, nylon net and many other small details”. In spite of that, or maybe because of that, it has a flowy and almost light quality when Saarinen dances in it. Furthermore, it also functions as a multimedia screen when, on more than one occasion, Saarinen stops as if petrified, and multimedia artist Marita Liulia projects repeated images on his body and skirt. This aspect of the piece reflects the above-mentioned unbalanced relationship between people and information and the risk of losing one’s own identity and roots if overtaken by it. Interestingly, the projected images are of Saarinen himself, a characteristic that suggests the fight, as well as the sacrifice, has to do with how much of ourselves we intend to give away.

“Borrowed Light” is a different piece which the Tero Saarinen Company performed in collaboration with the Boston Camerata. It was inspired by the Shakers, an austere religious community established in England in the eighteenth century, later emigrating to the United States. Unlike other communities, it admitted female ministry; it predicated chastity for its members; and most importantly, it danced during its rituals. As Edward Deming Andrews has highlighted, one of their recurrent exercises was the act of shaking in order for them to “shake off ‘doubts’ and mortify the lusts of the flesh”. This is where the nickname ‘Shakers’ came from (their official name was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing). They were also artisans who built frugal furniture and a system to maximise light in their houses. That is why Saarinen titled his piece, ‘borrowed light’. He was fascinated by their “‘form for function’ philosophy” and by the austerity of their communities.

In developing the piece, he also thought of the idea of dualism, which has to do with being drawn towards heaven and being rooted on earth at the same time. This led to the creation of lots of beating steps that recur in the piece. It also materialised in the costumes made of black see-through and bulky material which, in Saarinen’s words, “created beautiful friction”. Men and women usually dance in separate groups, and they wear different but similar costumes. Men wear long wide black coats kept firm by belts and black trousers with a light grey square in the front and whitish ribbons hanging from the back. Women wear black dresses with long wide skirts and white underskirts that create a nice contrast; they also wear belts. Men and women all wear black shoes. In spite of these elements, Saarinen states that “ ‘Borrowed Light’ is not about Shakerism or its values as such, but about community and devotion on a more general level”.

The piece is divided into two parts, one dedicated to the presentation of the community and the other to the way they interact with each other. Walking by beating steps on the floor is, as has been said, one of the recurring rhythmic patterns in the piece. It is done in different manners and according to different paces. It is slow in the opening section when one of the female dancers performs a solo, and faster when danced by the group of men and women who alternate on stage. The dresses worn by the women create contrapuntal dynamics during the walking phrases, especially during the first part of the piece when their skirts are brought up in the front so as to show the white underskirt and produce an interesting moving shape. Later on in the piece, there is a solo in which the costume takes a more active part in the dance dynamics. It is performed by one of the male dancers who wears his coat without a belt. This increases the volume of moving fabric surrounding his body. He then opens his coat, moving it from one side to the other and putting it on his back as if he were carrying a heavy burden. It seems a solo of personal crisis, an aspect that is highlighted by another dancer who jumps and then runs backwards drawing a circle around him. The dancer then moves to the back of the stage made of long black stairs until he joins the other two dancers centre stage.

Both “Hunt” and “Borrowed Light” are characterised by a deep spiritual sense: “Hunt” by staging a ritual of self-sacrifice and “Borrowed Light” by exploring the bond of a community. Movement is subtly highlighted by the costumes as they contribute to conveying a relationship with space and a sense of dynamics that do not rely on external virtuosity, but rather delve into the inner paths of the human soul.

[I would like to thank Tero Saarinen and Erika Turunen for answering my questions and Terhi Mikkonen for her kindness.]

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