Every year during the brief Finnish summer, Kuopio hosts the most important dance event in Northern Europe, the Kuopio Dance Festival. Featuring the best of local and international companies, the festival attracts a vast and variegated audience from all over Scandinavia.
There’s no better showcase for contemporary Scandinavian dance than the week-long festival held in Kuopio on the shores of Lake Kallavesi in Northern Savonia. Every year during the brief Finnish summer, the town hosts the most important dance event in Northern Europe, featuring the best of local and international companies and attracting a vast, variegated and prevalently youthful audience from all over the region. Since its inception in 1970, versatility and variety have been the festival’s keynote, with dance of every genre on show – from folk, to tango, flamenco and classical as well as contemporary.
Alongside the official programme, the vibrant fringe festival offers the public a chance to catch a show for free or take part in one of the many workshops and seminars – even the chance to perform! A multitude of performance spaces throughout the town host dance companies of all sizes. The 400-seater City Theatre and the multi-functional Music Centre host the major shows and also accommodate fringe activities, but generally the smaller dance groups perform in more intimate spaces including some of the town’s tiny old theatres.
However one of the main attractions of the Kuopio Festival is the buzz it generates: over the past forty-one years the festival has cultivated an extremely competent and enthusiastic audience of dance aficionados. In the glimmering twilight of the long summer nights, they flock to the pre-show meetings with the artistes, to the improvised performances in theatre foyers and pubs or on the streets, to the amateur dance shows at the port, to the special children’s dance events and the welcoming parties hosted by the mayor … then kick on until the small hours in the city centre pubs. Even though the sun does not always shine on Kuopio, the city turns this festival into a grand summer event.
Surrounded almost completely by crystalline lakes and fairytale forests, Kuopio is one of Nordic tourism’s most enchanting destinations. Clean and ordered, the city still conserves poetic traces of it’s past, like the Russian-style wooden houses dotted around the old town. In the main square, market stalls sell traditional hand-made wooden crafts or tasty local specialities like fried white fish and pancakes with red berries served with delicious sweet wine the colour of crimson. From the bustling port you can take a ferry cruise out to one of the thousands of little islands in the archipelago or get a breathtaking view of the scene from the top of the 75-metre high revolving Puijo Observation Tower set above the city on Puijo Hill. Or you could really go native and make a relaxing visit to Jätkänkämpällä, the world’s largest public smoke sauna, followed by a dip in chilly waters of the nearby lake.
In the evening, you are spoilt for choice with the packed festival programme offering two or three dance shows a night. Coordinated by director Anna Pitkänen, the festival has had a true celebrity as it’s Artistic Director since 2002: Jorma Uotinen. Known in Kuopio as Mr Dance (Mrs Dance is a splendid eighty-year-old lady who still plays an active part in festival events), he is a major name in the Finnish and Scandinavian dance world.
An unmistakeable figure, Uotinen is omnipresent – dressed in his usual idiosyncratic style, his magnetic ice-blue eyes not missing a thing, he can be found moderating press conferences with festival artists, holding contemporary dance seminars and even performing on the stages of Kuopio cabarets.
In his youth, handsome and mysterious as a Nordic god, he seduced the audiences of Europe in his dance partnership with Carolyn Carlson, making his mark on the history of modern dance in France (at the Paris Opéra) and in Italy (at the Fenice in Venice). He hasn’t changed much since then. But his ground-breaking partnership with the American dancer and choreographer Carlson (who also has Finnish ancestry) dramatically changed the style of Scandinavian dance – and in particular the style of the Kuopio Festival, which has hosted Carlson on numerous occasions.
Scandinavian dance was split between the surreal expressionism which characterized the most important Nordic dance company, the Cullberg Ballet, and the New-Age poetic style of the Carlson-Uotinen duo and their followers. But things are different now. The Cullberg Ballet – still the symbol of Scandinavian dance thanks to the pioneering choreography of Birgit Cullberg and her successor, son Mats Ek – has undergone a change in direction over the last few seasons, as their performance at this year’s festival showed. For many Scandinavian dance fans – it must be said – the change has not been viewed positively.
Following Mats Ek’s departure, the company of vigorous, expressive dancers has been replaced by an ensemble just like dozens of others in Europe and the USA, made up of small, rapid elements that at first glance seem inappropriate for Ek’s choreography, which remains the strong point of the Cullberg Ballet’s repertoire. For the past five years the company has been directed by Johan Inger, whose dance piece at this year’s festival Negro con flores lookrd like a pale, confused imitation of Ek’s marvellous She was black. Nor did Alexander Ekman’s dance film 40 m under look convincing – even though there is no doubting his mastery of choreographic composition.
The main feature of the current Scandinavian dance scene is just this: excellent companies, made up of between 12-20 highly versatile dancers from every possible point of the globe, all of whom display exceptional technical and dynamic skills. Ideal for the New Wave that seems to be traversing Scandinavian dance: cosmopolitan in style and preferably Anglophile: brief abstract dance pieces, all perfectly constructed, vigorous rhythmic choreography, masterfully structured, the dark stage cut across by dazzling beams of light, and all set to pounding techno music. Aesthetically and structurally they are clearly inspired by the latest trends in British choreography which has been making so many converts lately.
Such is the case of Dansk Danseteater, a Danish dance company founded in the early 80s, which is currently directed by an Englishman, Tim Rushton. His eight exotically- named dancers presented three unmistakeably British dance works at the festival. Sweden’s top independent company, Skånes Dansteater seems to be following this trend too, as evidenced by their piece Fragile Entity – created by young Finnish choreographer Sausanna Leinonen.
However such international “crossovers” can also prove extraordinarily fruitful: a case in point is Norway’s Oslo-based company Carte Blanche which was a major hit at the festival. Founded around 20 years ago, the company directed by Belgian choreographer Bruno Heynderickx, features a dozen or so superlative dancers from the most varied backgrounds. The programme they performed at Kuopio included two dance works by Israeli choreographers from the Batsheva Dance Company: Hofesh Shechter, currently the darling of the London dance scene, and Sharon Eyal, resident choreographer with Batsheva. Carte Blanche is the first Scandinavian company to include Shechter’s Uprising in its repertoire: a powerful piece for male dancers only, “Uprising” is violent, adrenalin-pumping and war-like – brilliantly executed by the eight performers.
Eyal’s Killer Pig commissioned specially by Carte Blanche, offers 40 minutes of perfectly structured, entrancing choreography from one of the few truly original talents on the current international dance scene, now globalized and homogenized to the point of dreary uniformity. Clad in strange bikini-style costumes, six fierce-looking female dancers, with pale bodies and short platinum blonde haircuts, perform a quintessentially feminine dance piece. Pervaded by obscure and unsettling sensuality, Killer Pig builds constantly to an emotional climax.
This choreography is an authentic revelation, opening up dynamic new horizons for the development of Scandinavian dance.
Valentina Bonelli is a journalist and dance critic who writes for a variety of titles such as Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue and the magazines Tuttodanza and Dans. She is the author of presentations and essays for Italy’s major theatres and dance festivals. She translated into Italian and edited “le Memorie di Marius Petipa”, Gremese editore, soon to be published.