Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company with Helsinki Baroque Orchestra

Digital season, March–April 2021

When thinking about Tero Saarinen’s Third Practice, it helps to know (which I didn’t before reading up prior to watching) where the title comes from. Third Practice is performed to madrigals by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, played and sung by members of Helsinki’s Baroque Orchestra. Monteverdi’s musical style was referred to by his contemporaries as ‘second practice’ to distinguish his unprecedented compositional practice from that of his predecessors, who engaged in what was known as ‘first practice’. Monteverdi’s work sat at the point of transition between the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.

Saarinen set himself the task of examining, researching, and putting on stage a changing approach to creativity, a ‘third practice’ in dance and music and the collaborative arts, in order to add a new look and to give, to my mind anyway, an interesting new perspective on performance. He says, ‘ I’ve tried to preserve opportunities for “virtuoso freedom”. The third practice that we are talking about could mean a space for performers where their own skill and virtuoso flair facilitate risk-taking: discovering something new and unforeseen in your expressive idiom.’

Third Practice is a multi-camera, filmed version, with projection design by Thomas Freundlich, of a stage production that premiered in Cremona in 2019. With music direction and arrangement by Aapo Häkkinen, it is performed by six dancers and six musicians with two soloists, a tenor (appearing live) and a virtual soprano. The collaborative elements are crucial from the very beginning. The lighting, by Eero Auvinen, cannot be ignored. It has been compared to the use of light and dark in the paintings of Baroque artists, especially Caravaggio. The use of side lights and down lights, and contrasting strongly lit, shadowy and misty spaces delivers a diverse, constantly engaging, often tantalising environment in which the work unfolds.

Pekka Louhio, Annika Hyvärinen, Natasha Lommi, Eero Vesterinen, Jenna Broas in Third Practice, Tero Saarinen Company, 2021. Photo: © Kai Kuusisto

The costumes, designed by Erika Turunen, cross boundaries between the past and the present. The costume for the tenor soloist (Topi Lehtipuu) is masterful, although sometimes hard to see in media images. Its full sleeves and decorative finishing at the end of the sleeve recall Baroque-style shirts, but the materials are minimal and very contemporary in look. Similarly, the musicians wear Baroque-looking head gear, very appealing, but the rest of their costume again is mostly minimal.

Then there is the way in which the performing space is used. The virtual soprano, Núria Rial, appears in many parts of the space. We see her upstage and downstage; sometimes as a tiny figure in the background; hidden behind a floating piece of silk; reflected on the back of a dancer; and in other unexpected ways, including projected onto a silk hanging in the curtain calls. It is arresting staging and highlights the use of contemporary techniques to fill the space. The silks, while perhaps not an unusual item in contemporary dance and opera stagings, are nevertheless used in an exceptionally varied way. Sometimes they fall around the musicians lined up across the upstage area, or they engulf the dancers. At other times they are part of the choreography, occupying a space not usually filled with movement.

In terms of Tero Saarinen’s choreography, I was often transfixed by the expressive qualities of the movement. In the opening madrigal, the movement seemed jerky and somewhat puppet-like. I was reminded of figures from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Sometimes the movement seemed filled with a kind of extreme attention to detail both in the body movements and in facial expression. I was reminded of Baroque excess—the highly decorative aspects of Baroque church architecture and interiors, or Caravaggio’s fruit spilling out of the picture frame of his portraits. At other times, especially in a beautiful duet towards the end of the work, there was no excess, just calm, smoothly structured movement. Sadly, I am not familiar with the words of the madrigals and so was not able to determine whether the choreography was reflecting the meaning of the words, but it was a joy having the opportunity to create my own ideas anyway.

The standout performer in all of this was the tenor, Topi Lehtipuu. He sang live throughout whether he was standing, lying, crawling, kneeling or performing as one of the dancers. There was a moment when he was lying on the floor with dancers piled on top of him. He was still singing, this time in a duet with himself with the second voice a prerecorded one. Again it was an example of using technology to expand possibilities, but that Lehtipuu could sing so beautifully in such a compromised situation, compromised as far as his body was concerned, was astonishing.

Third Practice is an extraordinary work examining the endless possibilities of cross art form collaboration and the potential of dance to stand at the forefront of new explorations in the arts. It also made me reconsider the nature and potency of dance on film. Once again Tero Saarinen and his dancers and associates have given me an experience like no other. I love dance that expands the boundaries of my thinking. Third Practice does that and more.

Michelle Potter, 25 March 2021

Featured image: Topi Lehtipuu in a scene from Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company, 2021. Photo: © Kai Kuusisto

Borrowed Light. Jacob’s Pillow Virtual Festival 2020

Borrowed Light is a collaborative endeavour between the dancers of Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company and the singers of Boston Camerata. Inspired by the Shaker movement as it was made manifest in the United States largely during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it premiered in France in 2004, came to Jacob’s Pillow in 2006, and then again in 2012. A film of that 2012 production was recently screened as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival for 2020. With choreography by Saarinen, accompanied by traditional Shaker songs sung by Boston Camerata, and with some stunning contributions from others in the creative team, Borrowed Light is a truly exceptional collaboration.

Borrowed Light begins in silence and semi-darkness. A single female dancer moves in a shaft of light. Slowly the stage space lightens a little and, dimly in the background, we can make out seven other dancers and eight singers. The solo dancer’s expansive arm movements seem to be calling the others into the performance. She begins to clap, her movement gets faster, and she adds some stamping movements. Slowly she is joined by the other dancers and singers and the performance moves forward.

Opening sequence of Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Looking back after the performance has finished, it seems clear that this opening section sets the scene for the rest of the performance. Light and dark change places frequently, slow and fast movements alternate, clapping and stamping feature at various times, and choreographically the work focuses on very loose swinging arms; fluid upper bodies; and wide, strong steps. Dancers and singers come and go as the centre of attention but are equal partners in the work.

Two sections stood out for me: a solo danced to a rendition of that well-known Shaker song Simple gifts, and a much wilder section danced by three couples to The great wheel is turning round. The solo to Simple gifts, began and finished in silence and throughout the solo the dancer scarcely moved within the stage space. But the expressive power of her movement, especially the detailed placing of the hands and fingers in the air and on the body, was exceptional. As for The great wheel, it began quite calmly with a spread-out circle of dancers. A smaller circle of singers positioned inside the large circle turned slowly as the singing progressed. But gradually the movement gathered momentum and the circle of dancers became tighter and closed in on itself. A sense of euphoria developed in the choreography and ultimately trance-like behaviour became apparent as some dancers fell to the ground. It was heart-stopping dancing and singing!

But of course there were many other sections that generated different emotions—the ecstasy of the dancers performing to Virgins clothed in a fresh white garment, or the seriousness of movement and song in I will comfort them that mourn, for example. In fact every moment of Borrowed Light was astonishing in its own way.

Ecstatic dancing in Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Costumes by Erika Turunen were mostly black but had exquisite detail and a touch of blue-grey colour, differently embedded into the costumes according to gender and role. They were masterly too in the way they played with texture and different fabrics and, in the case of the dancers, in the way they moved so beautifully.

Costumes for the female dancers in Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

The set by Mikki Kunttu (who also designed the lighting) used the barn structure of the Ted Shawn Theatre in which the show was performed as a backdrop. Onstage there was a series of black risers. They functioned both as a platform for performance on various occasions and also as a resting place for performers when not singing or dancing. What was also quite distinctive about Borrowed Light was the way in which the artists interacted. There was no real separation between singers and dancers, an aspect of the work that set out to highlight the Shaker attitude to community.

Singers and dancers in Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Borrowed Light was a truly masterful show. Each individual part was moving, or exciting, or dramatic, or religiously fanatical even. But the whole was coherent and so beautifully and unusually structured. I watched it twice but wish I could have watched it many more times, except that it was only available for a short period!

Michelle Potter, 24 August 2020

Featured image: Maria Nurmela and Tero Saarinen in a moment from Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

NOTE: The title Borrowed Light comes from ‘the architectural practice, common for the Shakers, of building windows into interior rooms, thus maximising dayllght and productivity.’