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Petri Kekoni – The Architect of Dance

Many choreographers describe the art of dance primarily as movement in space. However, most of them do not mean it as literally as Petri Kekoni (b. 1967).

-For me, the underlying principle of this art form is the positioning and alignment of a dancer in space, muses Petri Kekoni in his calm, contemplative manner.

-The relationship between the dancer and the space is important, as is the vibe that the space conveys through the dancers. For me dancers are not just people in motion, they are also elements in the construction of the spatial outline and structure of the work.

Kekoni graduated from the choreography program in the dance department of the Theater Academy in 1997. Prior to his interest in dance, he studied visual arts and architecture, which explains his viewpoints about space and people’s movement in it.

-You could say that my works are like sculptures moving through time and space.

It is easy to underline that notion when you see his works. They are based in movements and movement configurations that are easily identifiable as dance, in other words, choreographies in the traditional sense. His works are also highly three-dimensional, so consequently, photography seldom does justice to them.

The distinctive character of Kekoni’s choreographies is born precisely out of the dual role that the dancers play in his works. On one hand, the dancers are like malleable construction blocks in his movement configurations, but on the other they are very human and display a strong physical presence.

-My works are almost always comprised of two contrasting planes: the mathematical, abstract sphere, and conversely, the organic, even primitive sphere. These planes, or facets, are recognizable in each and every aspect of the work, whether it is the juxtaposition of the dancers versus the space, the relationship between mathematically exact movement configurations and primitive gestures, or the tension amidst the movements and the accompanying music.

A good example of this synthesis of the mathematic and organic is Kekoni’s 2008 piece Why Can’t We Be in This Moment (Miksi emme voi olla tässä hetkessä). The framework for the choreography is a recurring movement sequence, which is varied, for example, by rotating it within the performance space 90 degrees at a time. However, this mathematically cyclical pattern is interrupted by irregular episodes. In one of them the dancers form a pile that wriggles and squirms furiously. In another, a beautiful, pregnant dancer slowly walks and dances along a diagonal line that cuts precisely across the performance space.

Space constitutes more than just walls

-For me, creating movements and organizing them into various configurations happens in two different stages. However, even at the point when I am creating the movements, I am already thinking about how they connect with the space, since movements always have a certain direction. Maybe one could say that the essence of my movement is that the space has been drafted in as part of it, Kekoni ponders.

The importance of the space in Kekoni’s art becomes obvious when he discusses various performance venues. He describes himself as a choreographer for large spaces. Often, it is a specific spatial concept that inspires him to begin developing a new work.

-Perhaps an ideal situation would be to occupy a huge airplane hangar, full of portable partitions that would permit me to construct the perfect performance space for each and every work.

He goes on to state that a space, of course, comprises much more than just the walls.

-For example, in order for a composition to work, it might need to be framed by spatial dimensions of a certain height and width. Obviously, I adapt and make do with whatever performance space is available.

The significance of space in Kekoni’s choreography became quite tangible when his 2005 work, The Glow of Dimness (Hämärän Hohde), was performed during the Kuopio Dance Festival in 2008. The main stage of the Kuopio City Theater provided a considerably higher and wider performance space than the venue in Helsinki where the piece premiered. As a result, the work seemed to breathe in a completely new way. The themes highlighting the majestic forces of nature, the eruptions of movement accentuating those forces, and the massive backdrop all were brilliantly reinforced by the space.

The world catches up with visions

Kekoni is an intriguing rarity on the contemporary Finnish dance scene. His art functions mainly within the context of traditional fine arts, rather than following current trends or reflecting popular culture. Furthermore, he is one of the few choreographers whose works are optimal when performed on expansive stages. However, the language of his movement and the overall aesthetic of his works are completely different than what is typically performed in big venues.

-As a choreographer, it is more about bringing forth an expression of my inner self. However, I am keenly aware of what sentiments are brewing under the surface on a global scale. How all that eventually manifests itself in my works is an entirely different story. I strive not to create works that are completely disassociated with each other, rather, it is important to maintain a common thread running through them, Kekoni says.

His style of reflecting the world was revealed in an interesting fashion in 2010. Kekoni reworked two of his earlier pieces from about ten years ago into new productions. Oddly enough, his pieces Falling Earth (Kaatuva Maa, 2001) and Green Armchair (Vihreä Nojatuoli, 2002) received a much better reception than when they were originally performed. In fact, this time around they were met with uniform praise. In October 2010, Green Armchair was also awarded in the international No Ballet choreography competition in Germany.

-One of the reasons I wanted to reproduce these works was precisely because of the conflicting reviews they originally received, especially Green Armchair. I kept wondering where the confusion stemmed from. I also thought that perhaps now people would find them more relevant. Audience reactions have proven me right. Maybe one could say that sometimes the world catches up with your vision, he ponders.

-Then again, I believe that all contemporary choreographers should periodically revisit their earlier work. It provides a better overall picture of who you are as an artist, and it also speaks to the continuity of contemporary dance, he continues.

Three-dimensional hieroglyphs

Falling Earth and Green Armchair confirm Kekoni’s statements about a unifying core underlying his pieces as they contain many of the typical features that audiences are accustomed to seeing in his works.

One can already witness the union of the mathematic and primitive in Falling Earth. The movement configurations are repeated exactly, but the movement itself is organic, weighty, and occasionally even frantic. Kekoni calls it “churning out the movement.” Thematically, this piece tackles age-old ecological questions. One feels as if they are on the brink of an ecological disaster, which is a significantly more pressing issue today than it was in 2001.

At the time, Green Armchair was Kekoni’s way of protesting the frenetic movement of Falling Earth. Its motto was “against unnecessary motion.” The structure of the work is mathematically precise, but the dancers are still very human, very alive.

From today’s perspective it’s difficult to understand why Green Armchair received such mixed reviews ten years ago, because its message seems so clear and understandable. One explanation is that Finnish attitudes toward dance, and all its forms, have changed significantly during the past ten years.

Back in the day, successful dance performances entailed seamless streams of dance patterns and series of movements. This is not at all what Green Armchair is about, even though its movement clearly consists of dance. Instead, it is based on repetition and movements that, at times, make its dancers resemble three-dimensional hieroglyphs.

-Maybe I have grown as an artist, so that I am now better at communicating the message I am trying to convey. Then again, the dancers also have come a long way during the past ten years. In no way are these the same works as ten years ago, despite the fact that I have barely touched the contents. Similarly, works of visual art change with the times, because they are being interpreted with a fresh perspective, Kekoni notes.

Music as space moving through time

Falling Earth and Green Armchair share another central feature in Kekoni’s art: they are accompanied by live, contemporary Finnish music.

-Music is a very important dramaturgic element in my work. It makes the piece easier to understand by giving it rhythm and structure, and by dividing it into various chunks and segments. In a way, we are talking about architecture again; I perceive music as space moving through time, Kekoni says.

-Musical properties get accentuated when performed alive. It’s very interesting to observe what emerges when physical gestures and musical features come together. Optimally it leads into something new, into a third dimension.

The strength of Kekoni’s most successful pieces is derived precisely from this amalgamation of graphic contemporary music, primitive movements, and sculptural configurations. Falling Earth, Green Armchair and Glow of Dimness all are excellent examples of this.

-Music is not part of the picture when I am working on choreography. Instead, I let the composer work pretty independently. I do encourage them to think about what it is that interests them in the theme of a particular piece. I love the surprise that is born when movement and music finally converge, Kekoni notes.

Meaningful movement?

When this interview took place in spring 2011, Kekoni had just begun planning his next piece. Theses As to the Act (Teon Teesejä), its present name, will premiere in October 2011.

-The starting point for the new piece is the desire to theorize about my own creative process. My objective is to formulate the central aspects of my own thinking and methods into some sort of theses, Kekoni reveals.

-The focal point will be to conceptualize a movement’s transition into an act. By “act” I mean that it has meaning, history and interpretation. In a way, we are trying to expand the definition of movement: what is it in a movement that makes it meaningful to me? he continues.

Kekoni provides a couple of examples, like drawing gestures in the air and falling off a chair. The latter is an act, because it has some meaning, some interpretation.

-The theme of movement and act also relates to what I currently find important, which is that the overall form of the movement should originate from within, from a specific feeling or sentiment. Earlier, I concentrated more on the aesthetic appeal, but now I emphasize that the dancers should embrace the movement with their whole being - body and soul - and not just perform a specified choreography.

-Space also plays a role in whether a movement evolves into an act (i.e., a meaningful movement). Dancers need to understand the movement within the context of a space, because audiences’ perception varies according to the movement’s direction and its relationship with other dancers and the space, Kekoni clarifies.

As usual, Kekoni has already formed a pretty clear mental picture of the spatial concept, even though he hasn’t yet started with the choreography. He takes his time to ponder about the possible outline for his theses, what the overall structure for the work is going to be, and how the performance setting might look.

-I believe that in conjunction with these theses, I am also trying to compile a body of movements that is specific to me, the “Kekoni-method”. I feel that each of my pieces, starting with 1998’s Ballet Mécanique, has produced a meaningful theme, shape or pose that lives on. Together, they constitute the common thread that runs through all my work, and it is out of those features that I will form my theses, Kekoni muses.

-It feels like I might have again reached a threshold moment, or just need to clear the table. I believe that artists should not rely too much on discoveries that have worked for them in the past. Every now and then, they need to take a step into the unknown, even if it proves to be unsuccessful. The most important thing is to keep the enthusiasm and love for one’s work alive.

(The article was first published in Finnish Dance in Focus magazine 2011 - 2012)

Artist Kekoni, Petri