Kaari Martin: Flamenco is just one of my many tools

Tove Djupsjöbacka, 3.10.2019

Kaari Martin is inspired by many things: contemporary dance, flamenco, physical theatre, visual art, and especially surrealism. "We do performance art that heavily incorporates a variety of different genres." The Article has been published in Finnish Dance in Focus magazine 2019-2020.

The Raven, 2010 © Kim Laine

When Kaari Martin’s name is mentioned, most people think of flamenco. And Flamenco is a powerful tool that Martin has used as a point of departure in her dance at times, a wellspring she continues to turn to. But her art is influenced just as much by her background in classical music and by growing up in a family keenly interested in literature and visual art.

“The things our group is doing now are certainly difficult to categorize into any particular genre. We do performance art that heavily incorporates a variety of different elements.”

Kaari Martin says that she is very interested in the varying paths a person can take. Martin herself only attended school through the ninth grade. Then she found flamenco, and she’s been doing it ever since, though at one point in her career she suffered from tinnitus that made her seek new paths within flamenco. Nowadays she refers to herself mainly as a dance choreographer and leaves the purely flamenco-based roles of her group to Spanish dancers.

No burden to bear

Martin has thought a lot about what the development of flamenco would have been like without the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing right-wing dictatorship.

“Think of Spain’s pioneering spirit in the arts in the 1930’s: Lorca, Dali… and how it was completely crushed! Today, Spain is still a little behind the times in many areas, and the burden of tradition is very strong. We, on the other hand, have no such weight to carry; we’re completely free to do whatever we like.”

Flamenco has a powerful attraction for people from around the world.

“Aren’t we all just searching for ways to express emotions and communicate? For me, flamenco has been terribly freeing. People have always told me I’m impulsive, and through flamenco I’ve found an outlet for that energy. The excitement and communicative power of flamenco are what I want to preserve in my performances.”

Kaari originally intended to be a classical pianist, and she still feels that she’s at least 50% a musician. Music and movement are, in way, one and the same to her.

Anna Karenina, 2018 © Minna Hätinen

Reimagining the classics

Kaari has managed her own performance group together with her husband, musician Roni Martin, since 2003. Among her works of note are the solo trilogy Kaksi unta yhdessä (Two Dreams in One, 2007), Korppi ja kello (The Raven, 2010), Punainen nainen (La Femme Rouge, 2013), and On a string, a piece for Sibelius’s violin concerto created with étoile dancer Minna Tervamäki.

Many of her works are based on classics of literature, such as Anna Karenina (2018), KILL Carmen (2015) and Pippi Longstocking (2009). The poems of Pentti Saarikoski, Finland’s most significant poet of the 1960’s and 70’s, have also been intimately connected with the group over the years. The ensemble has twice won the Certamen de Coreografía de Danza Española y Flamenco competition in Madrid.

“My childhood home had thousands of books and my brother and I read constantly. My troupe’s performances are our own interpretations of the stories we use, and we try to think about them from different points of view. In the Pippi performance, we dealt with the loneliness of a child, and some parents in the audience found this distressing.

“Anna Karenina deals with escapism. Our interpretation of Tolstoy’s message was that love won’t save us. Vronsky and Anna both try to use love to escape their own problems. In the process of creating the work we also dealt with a world that’s falling apart and sinking away from us, with climate catastrophe, with aging and the fear of death.”

One inspiration for KILL Carmen was Quentin Tarantino‘s films, but the rise of fascism and inequality in Europe also served as background for the piece. The piece wasn’t designed specifically for young audiences, but when it was performed for 14-year-olds in school groups as part of the Art Testers initiative, those performances elicited a lot of discussion.

“Our works are completely open to audience interpretation. That caused a lot of consternation among young audiences because with the #metoo campaign constantly in the headlines, some of them saw it as oppressive for the woman, although it’s about the exact opposite. I myself don’t think of Carmen as a woman at all, but as a metaphor, as anarchy, as rebellion.”

“With our group, we do performance art that heavily incorporates a variety of different genres. The excitement and communicative power of flamenco are what I want to preserve in my work.”

An international ensemble

The Martins have gradually gathered an impressive troupe of Finnish and international artists around them. In addition to Roni and Kaari, dramaturg Atro Kahiluoto also shares in directing the group’s pieces. Dedication, great faith in the group, and a respect for the other members shine through in everything Kaari says.

“If you have enough good artists, you don’t need a strong leader. The important thing for me is to choose the right people for the task at hand, even if you have to trek the Himalayas to find them. It all starts with the people.”

Bringing artists from around Europe is fun, but expensive.

“For environmental reasons, we support flight taxes and higher costs for airline travel, although it increases our costs. But what’s most needed are longer performance seasons and longer-term basic funding and support to enhance the sustainability of our work.”

The group has several projects underway at the moment. Legendary dancer-choreographer Jorma Uotinen performed with them for the first time in Anna Karenina, and the collaboration with him continues, this time on the theme of Urho Kekkonen, the Finnish president from 1956 to 1982. Another piece in the works is based on Swedish director Ingmar Bergman‘s film Cries and Whispers. So far the piece includes dancers Jyrki Karttunen and Heidi Lehtoranta and harpsichordist Elina Mustonen.

KILL Carmen © Minna Hatinen

An interest in plainness

Again and again when we talk about art we end up talking about everyday realities. Running their own dance group is a challenge that takes every ounce of the Martins’ strength. They do everything themselves and they want top artists participating in their works, which isn’t cheap.

Although Kaari Martin has been prominent in promoting dance in such roles as program planner for the future Dance House venue, she seems to have a somewhat ambivalent relationship to the field of dance.

“I have in a way kept one foot outside of dance. Professional dance is a very small world, and it’s important to get someone else’s perspective. I think that dance can’t be strong all by itself. There are many times when we ought to find ways to integrate with other artists.”

Kaari’s art is inspired by many things: contemporary dance, flamenco, physical theatre, visual art, and especially surrealism… Her favorite choreographer is Ohad Naharin.

“The plainness of his work speaks to me. I’m not at all romantic. Irony is key for me, too. And I want to always keep going forward! By the time opening night arrives I’m already thinking about the next thing…”

Although many of her pieces have very concrete subject matter, Martin feels it’s also important to create works that don’t have any specific themes or referents.

“Who knows, maybe in the future the political backgrounds and meanings of our pieces will be more out front, but so far, in my own art, that’s an emphasis that hasn’t spoken to me. I do sometimes wonder if the work of an artist is a strong enough way change the world, but it is one way, at least.”

Kaari Martin (born 1972) 

2019 Dance Creator of the Year, Etnogala (Finland)

2014 Finnish Cultural Foundation Prize

2012 Best choreographer, for The Raven, Certamen de Coreografía de Danza Española y Flamenco, Madrid

2006 Third Prize, Certamen de Coreografía de Danza Española y Flamenco, Madrid