Tero Saarinen, the remarkable Finnish choreographer-dancer, isn’t the first to choreograph Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as a solo. But he may be the first to internalize the composer’s driving rhythms rather than stepping them out, as did Molissa Fenley in her 1988 State of Darkness and Nijinsky’s hordes in his 1913 sacrificial ritual. In Hunt, Saarinen’s torso and arms map aspirations and assaults. He’s not the hunter but the hunted—by the specter of age and death or by the onslaught of contemporary civilization or both. He doesn’t attempt to ride Stravinsky’s tempest; he endures its pummeling.
His vision owes much to lighting designer Mikki Kunttu; Marita Liulia, who created slides and other multimedia effects; Jacke Kastelli, programmer; and costume designer Erika Turunen. When we first glimpse Saarinen, he is backlit, his outline glowing as he advances unsteadily, dragging around first one foot, then the other. He’s bare chested and wears a white skirt. His only onstage audience is a semicircle of lamps set on the floor.
Watching Saarinen in Hunt, you might not guess he was once a soloist in the Finnish National Ballet (although that company’s repertory is eclectic and contemporary). You might, however, deduce that he studied butoh in Japan with Kazuo Ohno. He performs the first part of Hunt as if listening for a call, his body arching, his arms outspread. There are echoes of Fokine’s Dying Swan in his attempts to rise from the floor, but his “wings” are often distorted and pulled painfully far behind him.
During a quiet musical passage, Saarinen sits and reaches up, and a white cloud slowly descends from above and settles around him. It’s a huge skirt of irregular translucent panels. Projected collages appear on his face and gradually broaden to cover his body and the skirt. If he raises his arms, civilizations fan out from them. In what looks like a digitized video shot from overhead, his image as he spins in the skirt multiplies and runs in accumulating spirals up and down his body. At the end, Saarinen’s twisting, leaping, spinning, falling figure is bombarded by projections, blinding flashes of light, the flicker of a strobe, and the thunderous chords to which Stravinsky’s maiden danced herself to death.
The small group Saarinen brought to this engagement began the evening with his 1996 Westward Ho!, a splendid essay in charged minimalism. Set to Gavin Bryars’s famous expanded tape loop Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and Moondog’s “The Message,” it inhabits a world that Kunttu’s superb lighting and backdrop effects move from blue pre-dawn through cloudy daylight and, eventually, to flaming sunset. Henrikki Heikkilä, Carl Knif, and Heikki Vienola, dressed alike in loose, casual white pants and shirts with little black aprons, at first perform their repeating, gradually accumulating patterns in unison, traveling toward and away from us with smooth side-to-side strides and raising one arm to hail the horizon. Their rhythm is that of breathing, or a swing that suspends for a second at the height of its trajectory, even when broken by jerky walks or a bouncy tilting run.
The fluent, tidal patterns never stop, only modify. As unanimity disintegrates, even individual breakaway moments riff on the original spare vocabulary. When Heikkilä inches along lying down (to be repeatedly slung back to his starting point by the other two), he does it with a little walk he has also performed on his feet. Finally, each man faces that flaming sky alone.
The humanity Saarinen and the performers show within this constant toiling is also vivid in Wavelengths, a duet performed by Heikkilä and Sini Länsivuori. The same fluid pulse and supple phrasing mark the encounters between two who appear to have matured in their partnership. In the beginning, Länsivuori crouches over a corner spotlight, undulating her arms as if conjuring a spell, and her huge shadow hovers over Heikkilä as he strolls the perimeter of the stage. Dancing to music by Riku Niemi, they create images of elasticity within confrontation, whether they’re separated by the length of two arms and a handclasp, wrapping into a lift, or dancing the same steps facing each other around a pool of light. By the end, when they embrace, you feel as if they’ve arrived back at togetherness through a long, thoughtful journey.
Saarinen brings his newest piece, Borrowed Light, for eight dancers and eight singers, to Jacob’s Pillow in July.