Dance House Helsinki is finally here!
We are in the midst of historic times in Helsinki. The city has gained a new, unprecedented performance venue dedicated to dance, which will give dance’s profile as an art form a boost throughout both society and in the field of art and culture.
Mikael Aaltonen, programme manager at Dance House Helsinki (‘Tanssin talo’ in Finnish) describes the venue as a fantastic space for dance. The Erkko Hall, situated in the new-build part of the venue, can seat up to 700, making it unique in its versatility in the world of dance in Finland.
Bringing Dance House Helsinki to life has been a long-standing goal, with work to achieve it underway in the sector for decades. As far back as the 1980s, a campaign was staged in front of Finland’s Parliament House for a dedicated dance venue.
“With Dance House Helsinki, we have an important role to play in promoting dance in its entirety,” explains Director of Dance House Helsinki Niki Matheson. The opening of the venue puts the spotlight firmly on the whole sector, increasing its visibility.
“It’s not every day that something with such a strong presence and benefits for the performing arts comes along in our world,” Mikael Aaltonen muses.
The creation of Dance House Helsinki has been influenced not only by the relentless work of the dance community, but also the support a key patron and the determination of public bodies. There has been a need for a venue of this kind and size in Helsinki for many years, so Dance House Helsinki is plugging a sizable gap when it comes to this kind of operating environment – a venue for dance, other performing arts and larger festivals, for example.
The venue features the large Erkko Hall, named after the venue’s patron, as well as the smaller, 235-seat Pannu Hall, which has also been renovated to feature state-of-the-art technology. The bookings calendar for the larger hall is now largely full for autumn 2022.
“The scale and the context in general are a novelty for many dance groups. Previously, there were relatively few opportunities in Finland for pieces requiring large stages and attracting large audiences,” says Aaltonen. “It’s been interesting to see different artists’ visions for the venue!”
Encouraging diverse audiences and genres to feel at home at Dance House Helsinki
Whilst Dance House Helsinki will certainly not have a monopoly on dance in the Helsinki metropolitan area, concentrating the dance programming at one venue will be beneficial for both the sector and audiences.
“Dance House Helsinki will serve as something of a cultural centre: as a platform, a location, that welcomes all kinds of audiences, from those keen to experience highly experimental pieces to fans of contemporary circus or dancesport,” envisages Niki Matheson.
“Our location at Cable Factory is hugely important in ensuring people find it easy to access Dance House Helsinki,” Matheson continues. “It’s really important to let people know that we are here for all kinds of dance, serving contemporary dance equally alongside other forms of dance.”
There are plenty of dance house venues elsewhere in Europe, but there is a huge degree of variety between them. The closest such locations can be found in Oslo and Stockholm. “And in the Nordic context, Oslo appears more clearly to be a national stage for contemporary dance, whilst Stockholm is more eclectic, in some ways closer to what we are offering,” explains Aaltonen.
Serving as a guest stage and offering works that straddle genre boundaries are characteristics Helsinki’s venue has in common with Stockholm’s Dansens Hus. In Helsinki, the stage will regularly play host not just to dance, but also contemporary circus, as Cirko – Center for New Circus, and Hurjaruuth, which produces dance and circus, are house partners. The decision to offer both circus and dance was also based on the lack of sufficient performance venues for either in the city.
House partners produce performances for Dance House Helsinki and development work is carried out thanks to separate funding
“At Dance House Helsinki, during the start-up phase we’ve received funding that allows us to offer subsidised prices when renting out the facilities to dance sector operators,” Matheson explains. “Here, we don’t work on the basis of a curated programme foundation. This is how Dance House will find its feet in Finland. Only time will tell how the pieces fall into place and our operations and funding develop,” states Matheson.
Dance House Helsinki’s regular programme will be produced by four entities – dance companies, production centres and festivals – with whom long-term agreements already in place. In addition to the aforementioned circus operators, the remaining house partners are Tero Saarinen Company and Zodiak – Center for New Dance. Helsinki Festival will also be using Dance House Helsinki as one of its key performance spaces.
Aaltonen and Matheson are happy with the diversity the house partners offer, promising a range of Finnish and international premieres and visiting performances.
Other groups and events in the sector will also contribute to the programme.
“We are a platform for performance activities. We will not be hosting formal application rounds for our programme, instead we will seek out mutually suitable performance dates,” says Matheson on the venue’s operating principles.
“Dance House Helsinki is needed primarily as a venue for dance, but we are also keen for it to be an active developer of content and operating models. And we can do this thanks to separate funding,” says Matheson.
Currently, two projects are underway, which is more or less the upper limit given the venue’s relatively small staff body. The SPARKS project has seen the development of ideas for pieces, with the help of international mentors, which will result in three premieres on Dance House Helsinki’s Erkko stage and three smaller productions in its Pannu Hall.
The other project is a series of international performance visits, implemented with the help of a private grant from the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation, over the next couple of years.
A pioneer tearing down barriers
Aaltonen and Matheson want to ensure Dance House Helsinki does not become elitist.
”Our goal is to foster an open and active culture and showcase the diversity of dance through a varied programme,” emphasises Matheson.
Aaltonen and Matheson see Dance House Helsinki as a pioneer, tearing down barriers.
“I don’t think it’s helpful to segment up audiences – it creates a narrow view of the world and of culture,” says Aaltonen. “What’s more, we’ve seen plenty of different forms of expression converging in the performing arts sector, and I feel that this is an interesting development when it comes to audiences.”
“The pandemic has meant that programmes can end up being confirmed relatively late. In normal circumstances, everything would’ve been scheduled in a couple of years in advance,” states Matheson.
Next year, Dance House Helsinki is set to welcome premieres from, amongst others, Tero Saarinen, Johanna Nuutinen, Maija Hirvanen, and, as part of the SPARKS project, Outi Markkula and Milla Koistinen.
Aaltonen and Matheson have managed to keep their cool despite the lofty expectations placed on Dance House Helsinki, with some people even going as far as expecting the venue to solve all the challenges facing the sector. In their view, their task is primarily running a venue for dance performances, and attracting as broad an audience as possible to come and enjoy dance.
The Dance House Helsinki operating model is new and unusual for Finland. “We are on the precipice of the unknown!” says Mikael Aaltonen, ready to take on the next challenge.
Dance House Helsinki will be opening with a magical day of celebrations on 2 February 2022. YLE will be broadcasting the opening gala live on national TV.
This article was originally published in Finnish Dance in Focus 2022 magazine.