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Jorma Uotinen & The National Ballet of Finland

by Patricia Boccadoro

ARIS, 5 January 1999- Although the National Ballet of Finland recently celebrated its seventy- fifth anniversary, its roots go back to 1879 when a group of dancers was established to appear in operas.

There was a very strong Russian influence from the beginning; the first director, George Gé was born in Saint Petersburg and his successor was Alexander Saxelin, the celebrated teacher and choreographer from the Imperial Ballet School there. Soloists, frequently imported from the Mariinsky Theatre were actually given Finnish pseudonyms to maintain the illusion of a national troupe, and inevitably, the repertoire was dominated by Russian-style fairytale ballets.

The company was reorganised after 1945 in an attempt to give it a more international outlook but the technical level was poor with the male dancers all past their prime, and the troupe did not really begin to find its own feet until the visit of Birgit Cullberg in the early 1950s with her ballet Miss Julie.

The company began to tour abroad, limping along with a fairly rapid turnover of ballet directors, but by the time Jorma Uotinen joined its ranks in 1970, training had improved, interest was being given to contemporary works, and dancers were encouraged to try their choreographic skills.

Uotinen, an original and particularly expressive young artist created his first work, Aspects, in 1972 and four years later, was invited to join Carolyn Carlson in Paris. " Carlson changed my whole life ", revealed the Finnish choreographer on a recent visit to the Theatre de Saint-Quentin en Yvelines .

" She asked me to join her at the Groupe de Recherche Theatrale de l'Opéra de Paris, a small group of contemporary dancers attached to the French company, and her work fascinated me. We interpreted her choreography in France and on tour to about forty different countries. It was an amazing experience. Everything I know I learnt from her; I owe her everything ".

Five years later, he became an international figure himself with his solo, Jojo. After returning to Finland ,he created several works for the Municipal Theatre in Helsinki, winning first prize in the International Dance Competition in Paris in 1988 with his remarkable work, B12, for Tero Saarinen. This was followed by creations for companies including La Scala, the Ballet of Zurich, the National Ballet of Berlin, and the Ballet of Nancy and Lorraine.

Jorma Uotinen

Jorma Uotinen has been the director of Finland's National company since 1992, an appointment which coincided with their move to the magnificent new opera house of Helsinki.

" When I took over the troupe, there were only sixty dancers ", Uotinen told me, " but now we are eighty-five which is much better for Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, The Bayadere (choreography Makarova), Don Quixotte (choreography Bart), and Giselle (Choreography Guillem). Finland is now attracting all the great names in dance, not only in the classics, but in contemporary too. "

" We work with Angelin Preljocaj, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian, Nacho Duato and ballets by Mats Ek, Carolyn Carlson and Robert North have been in the repertoire for some time. My preoccupation is with living choreographers ; exchanges with Saint-Petersburg ended twenty years ago. The Kirov and Bolshoi have an image, but the reality is quite the reverse and dance in Russia is not what it was thirty years ago. "

The troupe, in France to present Petrushka, and Pathétique, two of Uotinen's works, tour a lot, more in Europe than in Finland, and surprisingly, Uotinen, who describes himself as " very European " has never been to the U.S.

Petrushka


Uotinen has created more than forty ballets but writes much less now ; he is currently working on a new piece for January called Troisieme Nuit, which will complete the company's programme of works by Preljocaj and Forsythe. It is based on music by a Greek composer, Stefan Micus, A journey to the Holy Mountain, written in 1993.

" I'm often inspired by music or a particular dancer, such as Tero Saarinen , but sometimes something I've seen can keep turning round in my head. I worked very closely with a Finnish musician in the 1980's and we created ballets simultaneously, but with composers like Stravinsky (Petrushka) and Tchaikovsky (Pathétique) the music dictates the steps.

" My last creation is based on the verses of Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet I discovered twenty years ago. His poetry pushed me forward and the subsequent film I made about him won Italian television's Grand Prix. "

I asked Uotinen about Diva, the extraordinary work he danced at Saint-Quentin-en -Yvelines last Spring, to music from Verdi's Aroldo, sung by Maria Callas. The choreographer's face lit up as he described the funny piece he wrote for himself about a stage-hand who transformed himself into a diva with a long tutu and then suddenly remembers he has ten chairs to carry off, which he does with one arm, and then rushes back to take his bow.

" I had a lot of fun with that, but it was so much me, I couldn't give it to anyone else. But I gave another solo to Emmanuel Thibault of the Paris Opera two years ago, and I think he won Varna with it ! "

" He's a wonderful dancer to work with ; he has great musicality and personifies the lightness, purity and elegance of the French school. It's the best in the world. I want the French teachers to come here, and fortunately, thanks to Carlson, my contacts are with France, not Russia. The heavy, old-fashioned ways of the Vaganova system have been taken over today, and Paris has become the capital of dance."

" We have recently had Noella Pontois(étoile, now teacher at the Opéra of Paris) with us, and previously, Vivien Descoutures (repetitrice of the Opéra of Paris), Claude de Vulpian, and Josette Amiel. Patrice Bart came to work with us when we staged his Don Quixotte, as did Sylvie Guillem for her extraordinary Giselle. We have many guest teachers from the French Opéra I'm happy to say. Other teachers including David Howard come regularly three or four times a season. "

The school however , founded at the same time as the company, is staffed mainly by Finns. It is open to all, the children pay a nominal sum, and recent changes ensure the hundred or so pupils obtain an official school-leaving certificate leading to careers in music and design as well as dance. There too, the level has risen considerably, and Jere Nurminen, a student from 1988-1996 who has just joined the company was awarded the prize for the best " jeune espoir " at the International Competition of Paris with his brilliant solo by Mats Ek.

Uotinen finally pointed out that he was constantly looking out for new talent, encouraging young choreographers like Saarinen, and holding workshops to give chances to his dancers. He also has the courage to invite unknown choreographers like Kenneth Kvarnstrom to create whole programmes, giving them the dancers, technicians and designers to produce a whole work.

" The particular personality of the National Ballet of Finland lies in our combination of the classics, contemporary works, and experimental young Finnish choreographers ", explained Jorma Uotinen.

Photos: National Ballet of Finland


Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance from Paris. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times. Ms Boccadoro was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. She is dance editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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