photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

Friday, December 10, 2010

A prettily gowned princess politely covering her screaming mouth with a lily white hand

I'm composing a piece called TOXIC with six performers. Movement and bodies are in the center of my investigation. I started asking questions about bodies in myths and fairy tales. What kind of bodies inhabit them? Are those similar to our bodies?

These stories harken back to very old times: feudal times, agrarian times, pagan times. They are this old and still alive in us. I believe they are important. The narrative structures are imprinted in us.

Can we believe in the Victorian image of a prettily gowned princess politely covering her screaming mouth with a lily white hand? Beauty, ugliness, dirt, old age, laziness and industriousness are always mentioned. People do terrifying things to each other in fairy tales and myths. Gods do awful things to humans, and to each other.

When we started workshopping with this in mind, we began with monsters. Being a creature that is one and clearly defined became the first notion to question. When we created movement from that position it became obvious upright and down low were taking on new meanings. In the Genesis of the Bible up and down, light and dark are put in order - and put in order of preference. From between the pages monsters and demons fall, drop, glide and tumble out and take cover in other books.

In that perfectly organized world grows a fruit that will always be tasted by a young woman, no matter what the warnings. She will know, she will fall down in sleep, she will cover herself, she will let down her guard and kiss.

We live surrounded by narratives. My favorites are those seemingly detached from everyday life: myths, legends, fairy tales. They touch both the unnamable and the acknowledged experiences in me. I wonder how much these stories formed the very experiences through which I relate to them.

I go old school; I cherish the traditional fairytales with poor girls and fair princesses, wizened grandmothers, magical objects and golden fruit. The ones that share elements with ancient mythologies. They are gateways to shimmering, cruel worlds. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fall grain: A sneak peak to TOXIC

During this fall we have regularly come together for workshopping with six dancers. My goal is to present  a new, full length piece during next year.
I wanted to grant both the performers and me a chance to long term development. We have had weekly studio time and I scheduled three showings for the end of the season.
In every event we have presented a different scene-in progress, seeds for the piece that will form during 2011.

The last showing this year will take place this Sunday the 12th at Counterpulse, under the 2nd Sundays program. The event is at 2PM, and you can find Counterpulse on Mission @9th Street.
The dance presentations are followed by a facilitated discussion between audience and the artists. The purpose is to allow for the audience to get to air their questions and appreciations, as well as to allow the artists to get feed back.


There is a link to a clip in the comments. Blogspot apparently doesn't allow links to Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


I'm thinking of scale right now, and explaining through this concept dance practices that often are talked about in different terms.
A contemporary choreography may break into wild running and climbing all over the performance site.Or a dance performance may include dancers staying seemingly motionless. In Jesse Hewit's Strong behavior (2010) female dancers' minute movements and changes of expression on their presumably blank faces build a breathtaking drama.
It is clear that these two involve focus on different scales. The  first on the largest movement possible for humans un-enhanced. The second concentrating on the minutiae. Both reset our perception. The first will hopefully change our awareness of space and place, maybe even make our hearts pump faster.  The second operates on personal levels, opening psychological and inter-relational vistas.
In both cases there is a change from the traditional scale of proscenium dance - a change that occurred decades ago when the futurists turned their performance events into general riots, Trisha Brown put dancers on rooftops and the sides of buildings, and performance artists presented bodies in specific places. Later addition: after re-checking Marvin Carlson I need to mention the early 20th century Russian avantgardists here, too.
We were invited to relate to the events and actions on another scale than the defined-limbed-bodies within the square/cubical space of the stage, presented by more traditional western dance forms.

I'm thinking what the possibilities of choosing and using scale are for dance/performing artists. I'm thinking what using scale has meant to the work I have produced in the past, and what I can do with the artists I'm currently rehearsing with creating "Toxic".
Last spring "Life sustenance" was generated and performed in an intimate gallery space. There was minimum technical equipment, and the performers mixed into the crowd of viewers in some instances. There were hints in the show to indicate that the viewers had a double duty as guests. Towards the end they were served soup and bread and drinks. Aside from that the show deliberately mixed represented and real action throughout. The audience was let in something that was between them and us, not a public presentation of dancing skills.
The choice was not made out of theoretical concerns, nor out of taste preferences. The choice was borne from scale. When the distance between people in a space is short it feels artificial to me to hold on to the divide between stage and audience. The play with that distance, and the dichotomy artificial / natural, is often where I focus a lot when composing work. It has a lot to do with the role and place of audience. This game can naturally generate different outcomes.

The scale of focus and detail in a given performance might well be one of the most important traits that direct it's impact: where it is resounding in and after it's showing. What kind of questions it will help surface.
And most importantly, scale has everything to do both with site, and the place audience holds in it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

There is another deep running change going on in the dance world

To Gia Kourlas, writer of “Time to put choreography back on its feet”

In the New York Times on Sunday, Sept 5 2010

Thank you to Gia Kourlas for writing an article about what is going on in the contemporary, or experimental, dance. Media takes up this area of creativity very rarely, editors choosing more conservative, classical, or commercial dance to focus on. 
A choreographer and dancer, I live and work in the middle of the change in western contemporary dance. It is a pleasure to read weighed words about that slowly churning, but intense, tumult from outside the circle of colleagues. For the art form it is important to have a record of the dialogue in and about it.

There is another deep running change going on in the dance world that Gia Kourlas didn’t mention in their article.
Both in Europe and in North America contemporary western dance is evolving, and dancers’ professional skills are a part of it, whichever way the causality may run. G. Kourlas gives the impression that one reason why new dance pieces “contain so little dance”, is that dancers can’t afford expensive technique classes, or choose yoga or pilates instead, and are thus less skilled than they should be. 
Since I see fabulous movers, even virtuosic dancers around me, I was prompted to comment on this idea.

While what Gia Kourlas writes might sometimes be true, there are other reasons for skipping the traditional dance class. Dance technique, as it is taught today, is often dated. In many cases these techniques don’t prepare for the demands of experimenting with movement. Surely the aesthetics of most modern techniques and ballet doesn’t agree with many young and mid-career choreographers. Good, or any, contemporary technique classes might be difficult to find.
Even more pressingly, traditional technique classes are based on dated perceptions about anatomy and kinesiology. Dancers learn from their injuries and gravitate towards training that promises healing and maintenance, along with strength, stamina and flexibility - be it mental or physical.

Like Gia Kourlas writes, we do indeed live exciting times, there is promise in the air, and dance artists are breathing deeply. There are teachers, kinesiologists and dancers that are developing systems of teaching and training that support healthy movement. These dedicated people can be found in different dance disciplines. 

I am hopeful that dance training is in the middle of a change of paradigm, slowly but surely. I feel fortunate to live these times, especially because I harbor a love and appreciation for deep rooted traditions, too, ballet most of all. 
This development in technique is a very natural thing as sports and dance medicine are both evolving. A related example is the breakthrough in how we perceive running, and how more and more people are starting to run more naturally.

An ongoing evolution, rather than lesser dancers, is the status quo of contemporary dance. And I spy a lot of joy in movement when I work with my colleagues, or when I see their creative output.

Truly yours,
Minna Harri
Choreographer and dancer
San Francisco, USA and Helsinki, Finland

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lets have a look at us

We are five people of different ethnicities and from three different continents. All but one speak English as first language. In contemporary America we are all categorized as whites. We represent three different Christian denominations and atheism.

We all have enjoyed higher education and have degrees. Two of us wear make-up daily. Two are vegetarian. One person is a parent. Two of us are married, one is getting married this year, and two are singles. One person is gay. One of us owns their home. Three of us have pets. One would like to have a cat. Three of us own a car. Four of us own a bicycle. No one has a unicycle.

Life Sustenance - am I talking about things that are same for us all, everywhere in the world? Are the things that sustain life the same for all of us? All people need water, but our understanding of water and how to get it, and what its place in the whole is, differ.

Even the list of basic necessities might look different at some other time, or in another place. I have no illusions of being able to make universal claims. For me the the piece we are making is an amalgamation of strange and recognizable. The experiences the performers have shared are both special and trivial; things that sustain us five.

Life Sustenance Friday 4 June at 8PM in Subterranean Arthouse, Berkeley CA

Friday, April 30, 2010

Sleep and other banalities

The project I'm currently working on is about the banal things that make human life possible. The shortlist is based on personal experience and bias, but I venture that certain things are universal, like breathing, sleep, water and nourishment.
Sleep is researched more and more widely, and the results are shocking. Even acute sleep deprivation has an enormous averse effect on the human brain. I woke up to the negligence with which we treat the most important things, when I recreated an old performance on sleep in January. I started forming quite another perspective on the project, than what I initially had in Finland in 2001.
That night I had agreed on appearing in a small performance art event in Helsinki. I felt exhausted after the previous night's premiere. So I borrowed the idea of sleeping with the audience from a fellow student (she had hidden under a thick blanket and had audience members read books to her. As an explanation of this act of borrowing I'll offer that we all used to borrow ideas from each other all the time while studying. Isn't borrowing what is known as the biggest compliment?) I gathered the audience around me and spoke to them about sleeping, the rituals I employ when going to bed, and putting my son to bed, and about the childhood memories I have of being put to bed myself. During the process I fell asleep, and woke up a moment later in total silence with smiling people looking at me.
In January in the Subterranean Arthouse I had a rather different focus. I still fell asleep surrounded by the chamomile-tea-sipping audience - or rather was unable to fall asleep. But this time I became more and more conscious of the importance and simple necessity of sleeping, and the paradox of our way of life pushing sleep into the margin.
After the audience feedback I received, and the ensuing discussion, I decided I want to make a performance that addresses sleep, but also other every-day trivia that sustain life.
In addition I was seduced by the incomparable amount of shared, private and cultural implications these phenomena have. This is subject matter that lends itself easily to the way I like to work: creating shared experiences through physically sharing activities, time and location.

There are issues I need to address in this process, and my next blog will be my thoughts about the particularity versus universality of our basic needs.

"Life Sustenance" will premiere at the Subterranean Arthouse Friday June 4 at 8PM. Tickets through brownpapertickets.

Friday, March 26, 2010


An unfinished list of projects I want to make happen:

A performance that begins in the middle the way a child eats the center out of a sandwich first.
A very small show in a huge space.
Continuous pulsing, syncopated, rhythmic, evolving movement that whirls through and around the audience.
A journey through the ten dimensions some scientists say probably exist in our universe.
A performance that will make people feel at peace.
A performance that will  prompt people think about something they had never thought about before.
A performance that will  help people notice that their brain is the whole of them, not just inside their heads.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The magic of breaking sticks and writing manifestos

I drove out to Mills College to see Yvonne Rainer today. She had been teaching Trio A in the morning, and in the afternoon she would talk. I had noticed an e-mail announcing this event just this morning and thought I shouldn't let a chance to meet a legend go by. I was totally unprepared to what my own reaction would be upon actually witnessing Rainer's lecture.

Ms. Rainer was introduced, and she walked on to the stage while I found myself crying huge tears (and getting embarrassed and trying to hide the fact from her). For the first time in my life I realized just how big an influence Yvonne Rainer's and her Judson Church colleagues' work had had on my life - decades later after the Judson Memorial Church group was active.And I mean my life, much more than my work, at least directly.

One of the things she mentioned was how she comes from John Cage. That was the actual way she expressed it: "I come from Cage." Although I never met him I have a personal relationship with him, too. John Cage visited the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in Finland when he was already an old man, and I saw tv-footage of that gig when I was very young. Seeing him talking to people and making music out of breaking sticks and the silence in between changed 1: my understanding of music, 2: my understanding of what composing is, and 3: my outlook on life. During that tv-program I became a part of the paradigm shift of which John Cage was one of the main proponents.

This was possible although there were several generations between Cage and me. I had spent my childhood in ballet school, and was raised by two ballet dancers. My idea of creativity and creating was hierarchic. My idea of what dance and music are, was pitiably narrow. Well, that changed, and it felt as a great liberation.

I read about Yvonne Rainer and Judson Church a few years later. That was an encouragement to continue the search for my own choreographic vision. It wasn't easy and it wasn't fast, but since then I have done dance.

Contrary to what I have decided earlier about writing a blog this became a very personal posting, and one that has no direct link to making of performing art in practice. I just owe thank yous to all the courageous artists who have done work that broke away from the tradition. Thank you for the freedom.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I stepped back from my concentration for a moment today in Frey Faust's class and looked at my fellow students. What I saw was a lot of people all investing hard in moving and understanding. There was a sincerity on every face. I'm still smiling as I write this.

I like watching people do their work, or something they love doing. There is something very intimate in full concentration. Seeing that feels like a privilege granted. When I choreograph, or see somebody dance, I prefer dancers to have that attention to movement. I don't want to see anyone go through the moves, I want to witness them rediscovering them.

Laura Bernasconi, a lovely ballet teacher, has spoken of dancing with the ego versus NOT dancing with the ego. She was proposing to her students to let the choreography guide them instead of willing themselves to perform well.

My interpretation of the issue is to concentrate in the movement, on all of it's levels. A dancer needs to manage their body in time and space, and that pretty much fills the mind at the moment of the dance, at least for me. Through that thorough attention it is possible to reach an irreplaceable happiness. Dancing becomes meditation rather than a show. I wish I had the magic words to reach that state every time.

Music is another lifesaver. (Or a precipice, considering how much there is unnecessary mood music in films, theater and dance shows.) To get to mention a third of my favorite dance things in addition to Frey and Laura, the fully rounded - ecstasy producing - flamenco wholeness needs to be listed here. In flamenco, compas is everything. Without compas - no flamenco. It is a 12 count rosary that demands total surrender and weaves together music, dance and lyrics. 

The best definition of a performer's presence I have ever heard of, is similar to that. The total presence a dancer grants to their movement translates as something that is often described as stillness, or stage presence. Today at Frey Faust's class I had a glimpse of several individuals surrendering to that simultaneously. Must be beautiful being able to facilitate that.

So there is an extra dimension, that good old together but as individuals experience. It is crucial in social dancing, but a performance situation is a social situation as well. The performers and the audience are doing something together. To get there we need the tools of letting go of the ego thing.

Here a link to a TED talk about creativity. At the very end something worth hearing about dance.