Reetta-Kaisa Iles – The Pippi Longstocking of Dance

Eeva Kauppinen, 3.10.2019

Reetta-Kaisa Iles (b. 1976), a dance artist, is known as an all-rounder with roots in folkdance and is hard to pigeonhole. Iles is a multitalented practitioner of contemporary art and her creativity bursts in many different directions: from improvisation to underground, dance theatre, electronic music and folkdance. She doesn’t conform to the conventions of folkdance any better than Pippi Longstocking conforms to traditional books of fairies and princesses aimed at little girls.

The arts editor of the Kaleva news, Eeva Kauppinen interviewed Reetta-Kaisa Iles for the Finnish Dance in Focus magazine (2016-2017). Kauppinen’s article, now published on Dance Info Finland’s website, was updated by Anni Leino in September 2019.

Reetta-Kaisa Iles © Hanna Koikkalainen

Lately Reetta-Kaisa Iles has been busy with the folktronica act Suistamon Sähkö which has been nominated in Ethnogala 2020’s category of ”Dance Creator of the year”. The band combining the grooviest accordion rhythms, funkiest samples and fizziest electronics will perform in October 2019 in the opening party of Womex – World Music Expo. VR dance film Devil’s Lungs by Tsuumi Dance Theatre, Puhti and Suistamon Sähkö, choreographed by Reetta-Kaisa Iles and directed by Alla Kovgan, will be seen in the conference programme of Womex.

Iles is part of Tsuumi Dance Theatre, a Helsinki-based professional troupe which creates two or three new productions every year and participates in joint productions with different troupes and theatres. The artistic roots of the troupe are to be found in folk tradition, while it derives its themes and inspiration from modern society. The arcane resonates with the modern in its activities.

And no way is Reetta-Kaisa Iles herself the kind of artist who, on making one discovery, concludes: ‘that’s it, then’. Iles sees through genre boundaries as if they didn’t exist. In addition to sound professional competence, this way of working requires sensitivity, a good eye, a sense of humour and a capacity for self-irony.

Collegiality and a multiplicity of art forms constitute the cornerstones of Iles’ way of working. ‘I’ve got no particular interest in Finnish folk art, though people often think that. My interests are more comprehensive, more global in their range,’ she clarifies. ‘You’ve got to recognise traditions born out of different communities. Think of the dervishes, the Karelians, Latin dances, or any dance form, and you‘ll find some fundamental, unifying factors: rhythm, pulse, simplicity, repetitiveness. Corporeality is at its core.’

‘My starting points are: an interest in people, intimacy, humanity, imperfection and our powerful need to find another person and a group to belong to.’

’I rely heavily on improvisation as a tool. As a choreographer I rarely finalise the dance movements. The end result is invariably coloured strongly by the interpretation of the performers.’

Through improvisation, Iles aims to get hold of a performer’s idiosyncrasies, habitus and individual ways of existing in this world. ‘The combinations discovered in this way yield something new consistently.’

Iles’ choreography ‘Quiet Emotions’ is a good example. She picked four Finnish contemporary dancers for the social dance context with careers dating back decades: Marjo Kuusela, Ervi Sirén, Alpo Aaltokoski and Reijo Kela.

‘As a person gets a bit older, his or her essence is clarified, which is brilliant. Everything superfluous vanishes. These four dancers are all strong individuals who stand on their own two feet.’ Iles wants to show people on stage as fragile, naked, imperfect, naive, stupid, even abashed. As human beings. ‘In my works I aim to give the spectators the impression that anyone could him- or herself step onto the stage. Be one of the dancers.’

When one tries to describe what kind of art Iles creates, terminological definitions don’t seem to fit or be comprehensive enough. Her lively activeness is reminiscent of Ganesha, the Hindu goddess with four hands, who stands for intelligence and good luck – in Iles’ case, for a visionary and joyous experience for the spectators. ‘I’m a mum juggling with my different roles, trying desperately to create art,’ Iles says and laughs. ‘I define my work identity is an odd-job woman of performing arts. Dance seems to be too narrow a definition to describe my work.’

© Dance Theatre Tsuumi

Reetta-Kaisa Iles’ energy and electricity are reflected in the names of her artistic projects and works. She and Anne-Mari Kivimäki, an accordionist, form a duo called Puhti (the word means ‘vim’ or ‘vigour’). Puhti owns a club called Perkele! (damn it!).

The idea of Puhti is to create a new form of performance art by combining high-quality folk music and folkdance. The duo’s unique sound is created by the use of accordions, vocals and rhythmic stomping. And there’s no shortage of attitude: the two women perform on tables in a bar or at a big festival venue with equal boldness. Works in Puhti’s repertoire include ‘Women and Bags’, which explores role models and taboos; ‘Love and Devotion’, a multi-art concert based on Kalevala, the Finnish national epic; and ‘The Kantele Person’, a mini-cabaret which is based on Finnish folklore and looks at Finland’s cultural heritage from a female point of view.

‘Contemporary folk dance is a concept invented by someone at some stage. I have an unusual relationship with it. I find myself creating productions of many different kinds. Some of them may well be examples of contemporary folk dance. With Puhti, I often use the definition ‘music theatre’. With Tsuumi, with communality as the starting point, the productions tend more towards ‘dance theatre’.

Ultimately, Iles’ art is about the interaction between people and social cohesion. ‘I’ve always associated singing with movement. Or if not singing, some kind of vocalisation. They’re inseparable. We form a circle, execute the same movement, find a way of communicating without words with another human being. It’s a fundamental need of ours
and an element that creates a sense of security.’

Folk tradition carries brashness and impudence with it. In those circles everyone sings in his or her own voice. ‘The more imperfection I see on stage, the more touching I find it. It’s interesting to toy with a sense of shame. Maybe it’s because I’ve carried the burden of unsexy folk-dancing on my shoulders. The present world around us seems to amount to a display of eyelashes, buttocks and tits. People are trying to mould themselves and be successful.‘

‘An international career?’ Iles pauses to think. ‘I’ve started building one in small Karelian villages in Russia by performing to local grannies.’

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