Tero Saarinen and Kimmo Pohjonen in Breath at Place des Arts

Posted: April 29th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Tero Saarinen and Kimmo Pohjonen in Breath at Place des Arts

Tero Saarinen and Kimmo Pohjonen, Breath, Cinquième Salle, Montreal, April 20

Breath

Kimmo Pohjonen and Tero Saarinen in Breath (photo: Mikki Kunttu)

As our senses accustom to the dark and rumbling atmosphere, Tero Saarinen and Kimmo Pohjonen appear barefoot in hazard suits on two raised paths leading away from each other in a ‘V’ shape, an arid, post-apocalyptic landscape in which air seems to be the one element in short supply. The two men have not yet met; they are wholly involved in their individual survival. There are flashes of light, sometimes directly in our eyes as if we too are on this blasted heath, with the sound of electrical short-circuits amplified to a level of a burnt-out desolation. This is the Beckettian setting of Saarinen and Pohjonen’s new work, Breath, which received its world première at the Grand Théâtre in Quebec City on April 12 before moving to Montreal’s Cinquième Salle at Place des Arts as part of the Danse Danse program.

Saarinen is a dancer and choreographer who has directed his eponymous company in Helsinki since 1996, while Pohjonen is an acclaimed Finnish composer and accordionist. Along with their individual artistry, each has brought long-term collaborators into the creative mix: Saarinen’s lighting and set designer, Mikki Kunttu, his costume designer Teemu Muurimäki, and Pohjonen’s sound designer, Tuomas Norvio. Breathstarts as a desolate journey nowhere, an existential supplication to an unknowable fate, but the richness of expression of the five collaborators turns the journey into one of sublime meaning as if by some alchemical process they transform their coordinated theatrical experience into a profoundly human revelation.

Pohjonen appears as a mythical figure, bruised and torn, wandering aimlessly with his electrified accordion strapped to his body like an armoured, serrated shell that he plays without seeming to move his hands. His sounds range from the breathless rasping of parched lungs to the full blast of a pipe organ and it is his intricate improvisation that gradually transfigures Saarinen’s persona from that of traumatised survivor to pilgrim in search of atonement. Over the course of Breaththeir symbiotic relationship, in which the visualization and aural expression of breath act as guides, brings their paths closer and closer together until their communication is complete.

Saarinen, without seeing him at first, hears Pohjonen’s notes with their percussive beat and responds to them like an automaton that has lost its programming: short staccato twists and turns of his body while his eyes stare ahead, sucking in what air he can inside the helmet of Muurimäki’s hazard suit. Pohjonen carries his instrument like a breathing machine, investing the landscape with the air on which both travellers depend. As they become aware of each other they use their voices in a guttural, unintelligible flow of grunted communication that paradoxically keeps them apart. It is the music that proves transformative; as it fills with richness and volume, both men discard their helmets and Saarinen’s movement becomes more fluid to the point of flight, as suggested by the metaphor of billowing material he sweeps around and over him. It is Pohjonen who manifests the power — sound is the metaphor for life — to which Saarinen is drawn inexorably but it is Saarinen who initiates the first steps to come into contact with him.

The musical notes may be instigated by Pohjonen and his accordion but it is Norvio who processes and amplifies them to fill the theatre as if they had the composition of air; heavy waltzes and redemptive chords merge with miked footfalls and electro beats to create a soundscape that becomes a cathartic journey from parched desert to cathedral nave.

In the same way, Kunttu’s visual environment initially engulfs us in its impenetrable density; this is the last place on earth to expect the faint glow of exit signs. If darkness is suffocating, Kunttu’s use of stroboscopic white light is a shock treatment to allow in some air, a visual defibrillation that breaks down Pohjonen’s and Saarinen’s movement into incipient spasms of activity. His subsequent washes of intense colour — blue and yellow — affirm the life-giving properties of light, of sky and sun, that seem to impregnate the white material of the costumes and to refresh the figures on their journey.

Saarinen quotes Samuel Beckett in the program: ‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’ On a narrative level, Breathcan be understood as an allegory of a journey from despair to salvation, but on a purely theatrical level its creation of sensual unity through the inspired integration of sound, movement and light is what takes hold of the imagination and endures.