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Ervi Sirén: From Auric Field to Cosmic Energy

Since the mid 1980’s Ervi Sirén has forged ahead on her one-woman revolutionary path as a choreographer and pedagogue. The face of contemporary dance in Finland would look completely different without her life’s work, which spans over three decades.

Sirén’s revolution has to do with the attunement of mind-body awareness and energy regulation, as well as learning to be comfortable in one’s skin. Sirén is a trailblazer whose standpoint is to downshift dance, and to do away with intense technical exertion and unnatural movements.

-In the unforgiving world of dance, I have purposefully chosen to give failure a chance, rather than aiming at perfection and accomp- lishments. My message is that each and every dancer is good enough in his or her own right. It is more important to discover that state of being which allows you to surrender to the movement, than to concentrate on weeding out mistakes and the ensuing feelings of inadequacy. Only then can the mind and body be unshackled, and the dancer dares to find his or her own dance, says Ervi Sirén.

It sounds pretty easy, but in reality the journey to arrive at the source has been long and arduous.

A Comprehensive Education

Ervi Sirén (b. 1948) belongs to the dance generation that has witnessed all the evolutionary stages of western modern and contemporary dance. Her own method would lie on hollow ground, did she not possess a profound knowledge of all the traditions of dance art.

-I have been fortunate to study under fantastic teachers whether it be female gymnastics or folk dance. I have had the opportunity to experience a multitude of genres, everything that dance has to offer, she says, and acknowledges that all the experiences along this long road have contributed to a much deeper understanding of the potential of movement.

From the early 1960’s Sirén’s body-consciousness has absorbed influences from many rich sources, including: summer ballet courses at the Swedish Ballet Academy, Graham-techniques studies at the New York Cunningham Studio, workshops with Viola Farber in Cologne, and Ausdruckstanz-based German female gymnastics courses – all while continuing endless jazz, ballet and contemporary dance training in Finland and performing in Jorma Uotinen’s and Ulla Koivisto’s dance companies.

During her phase of intense studies, she led a typical dancer’s life which left time for nothing else. Still, she always suffered from the constant nagging feeling that she was never good enough. After working for twenty years, Sirén suffered a complete burnout.

-I did nothing but lay on the couch, she reminisces.

Sirén’s depression led her to the bioenergy-method. This discipline studies the body’s bioenergy field propensities, mind-body energy flow disruptions, and energy blockages in the meridian circuitry, which are the mind’s shield against traumatic events and unresolved negative experiences embedded as repressed memories in the limbic brain. The study of bioenergy was developed by Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian-American psychiatrist, and is based on Freudian psychotherapy methods. This technique uses tough physical exercises to expose the mind and unlock the body in order to discover deeper inner knowledge.

The Doctrine of Inaction

Sirén soon recognized that the principles of bioenergy-method were inherently applicable to the study of dance, because harmonious mind-body collaboration is essential in both disciplines. In the beginning her students were aghast that entire class periods would consist of quietly lying down and twirling their wrists in tiny circular motions. While it may sound lazy, this kind of outward inaction is challenging for a dancer who is used to focus on form and outer appearances.

Sirén notes that it is up to each individual to find and undo those self-constraining shackles, and that is why the mind-body approach is so strenuous. You’ll end up face to face with a lot of stuff, bottled-up and buried deep within your being.

Ervi Sirén taught at the Theater Academy during 1980–90’s and also held a professorship, from 1998 to 2007, in the dance department of the Theater Academy. The Academy has also documented and recorded her unique pedagogic methods for future generations.

Aside from the first class, Sirén really does not have a regular class structure. The content and the exercises vary subject to what feels most fitting on a particular day and with a certain group of students.

-I have noticed that if I rigorously plan my classes, they end up being boring. It is also of utmost importance for the teacher to be genuinely present in the moment, and to make decisions based off that, says Sirén who
always trusts intuition.

The exercises often begin with one simple theme or with a certain part of the body. For example, you begin with circling your head, while thinking about the shape of your pelvis, not forgetting the relationship between the top of your head and your feet, or your hands. In turn, you might start with circling your arms. During the first half of the class students perform the exercises staying put.

As the class progresses, the exercises become more dynamic and students begin moving around, ending up negotiating a large area. The theme of another exercise is the thigh. First there is the thigh, then the hip joint, followed with the spur-of-the-moment realization that it actually connects with the spine. At this junction, I often remind them of the spine. Next, I might notice that the attention has shifted from the back to the shoulder, and if, in addition, you guide your awareness to the hand, you’ll come within reach of dance with your movements.

-As a teacher I need to let action take its course without interfering too hastily and without prodding students to a certain direction. My work is mostly guiding through observation. If I harbor negative energy, it easily manifests in the dancer, creating blockage. We must recognize that within the students there lies huge amount of latent talent that they are not yet aware of. All my training has taught me that I can trust and appreciate dancers just the way they are, concludes Sirén.

Breathing Brings Light

In 2007 Ervi Sirén resigned from her position at the Theatre Academy. The reason for this were the constantly increasing demanding managerial and bureaucratic duties to oversee several facets of the large institution.

-That was stifling; I just had to leave, she says. At the same time I felt like I had reached the end of the road with my own method. I was at an impasse and decided to return to the starting place: breathing. Breathing in invigorates every inch of the body and gets energy flowing. It is precious and reminds me of how effortless everything can be once you rid yourself of complicated methods and exercises. Breathing promotes grace in our consciousness and restores us into sensitive and perceptive human beings.

- We always yearn for something new and wonderful, but breathing is the world´s least expensive remedy for renewal. Breathing fills the body with pure light, she says.

-Around that time, I discovered Emilie Conrad’s continuum-method which revolves around water. More that seventy percent of the body is made up of water. The first nine months of our lives are spent immersed in water, and the origin of the species rests in the primordial sea. In the element of water, the micro- and the macro cosmos unite in a wondrous fashion. The world’s primeval wisdom was born out of water. Our bones and joints actually float in water. Also, water is an excellent, clear-as-crystal conduit for the tiniest pieces of information, sound or vibration.

Sirén tells me that she never talks about muscle work, but instead about movement and energy gliding through the current. Water imagery is elusive and delicate, permeating the movement with plasticity and ease. Condrad has successfully used this method in therapy with patients recovering from paralysis, but Sirén believes it works equally well with dancers.

The Relaxed and Aware Body

-Then again, I am not talking about dance therapy, even though art and ther- apy go hand in hand, says Sirén. Suddenly, she mentions that what most interests her is the virtuosity of movement. Indeed, the dancers she has chosen to perform in her pieces during recent years all represent the cream of the crop of contemporary dance in Finland.

The demanding solo work Street (Katu), which was tailor-made for Katri Soini in 2010, showcases the dancer’s
incredible speed, acuity and power, whereas Magician (Taikuri, 2007) by Alpo Aaltokoski leads the audience into a tranquil, mesmerizing make-believe world of spiraling motion.

-I pursue exactness in movements. Even when in a relaxed state, the body can still be incredibly fast and extremely precise. The finest moments are born when a dancer is able to reach deep within and emerges with a sincere, authentic movement, surrendering to it. It is a moment of fulfillment that genuinely moves me.

How can you tell that Finnish contemporary dance would look different without Ervi Sirén? One example is that audiences now enjoy performances by dancers who are forty years old, and whose expression and articulation deepens year after year. Their skills and dexterity remain intact, and they are not incapacitated by injuries.

These dancers, proud of their craft and in-tune with their body- consciousness, also know how to impart universal, healing energy to their audiences through movement. This should make the Finnish dance world very proud.

Citations: Theater Academy pedagogic archives project, Heli Meklin, 19.9.2009

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

Artist Sirén, Ervi