Elina Pirinen – crazy sensitive corporeal painter of psychological states

Raisa Rauhamaa, 5.11.2018

Elina Pirinen's roots are in a small town on Finland's eastern border. Now her maverick art is bringing choreography to audiences around the world – lately her show was seen in Seoul, South Korea. Elina Pirinen was interviewed for the Finnish Dance in Focus magazine last summer, when she was working on her new creation Brume de Mer, now being performed in Helsinki. Elina Pirinen will present her creation at Ice Hot Reykjavik More More More session in December.

Choreographer Elina Pirinen‘s new work Brume De Mer had its debut at MDT in Stockholm in August, and now in November it will be shown in Helsinki. It’s a new break for the artist.

“I can’t keep doing the same things I’ve done in my previous works. But I’ve also been thinking about how to move to something new without giving up my own signature, my own mannerisms. I’ve found something valuable over the years, and I shouldn’t discard that. Art doesn’t have to be innovative just for innovation’s sake. That’s an idea that seeps in from the business world, and when it’s attached to the profound process of making art, it can feel alienating.”

Art doesn’t have to be innovative just for innovation’s sake.

The new piece is for five female dancers and in it Pirinen explores obsession, intuition, killing, and muteness. “It’s going to be my best work. Wonderful,” says Pirinen, who has recently garnered international attention.

A masterful dancer and contemporary choreographer, Elina Pirinen is also a versatile and skillful musician. She grew up near the Russian border in a small town called Nurmes, in Eastern Finland.

“I was raised in a psychoanalytic household. My mother is a therapist and my father’s an artist. It gave me emotional, affective sustenance and a deep way of understanding people, animals, and nature.”

Pirinen was a musician—a violin major who studied classical music, folk singing, and jazz singing at the North Karelia Music School and graduated from the Kuopio Conservatory in 2000—until she went on to train as a dancer.  “I’m from a really small place. I’ve followed an artistic path ever since I was a child, and made my own way. I’m proud of my background.”

Elina Pirinen: Personal symphonic moment © Timo Wright

Pirinen tends to choose great classical compositions like the works of Sergei Rachmaninoff or Dmitri Shostakovich as the musical frames for her pieces and meld them with her own feminist, psychoabstract language of movement and performance.

“Psychological subjects are what gives life its precious nuances, which I’ve tried to use in my art. I don’t want to get stuck in the past—changes are precisely what create new constructs, and they flow in some form onto the stage as well.”

Pirinen made her international breakthrough with her piece Personal symphonic moment in 2013. In 2015 the piece won the Prix Jardin d’Europe choreography prize, which she shared with choreographer Ligia Lewis.

The bold choice of music for the piece, Shostakovich’s fierce, unbridled Leningrad Symphony, drew particular praise.

Pirinen says it was Personal symphonic moment that helped her find herself as an artist. “It was a significant breakthrough for me. It was surrendering to the state of the broken body, and dancing through it.”

One review of the work said, “The dancers interpret the Leningrad Symphony by rebelling against its architectural form, but the performance nevertheless has the same quality of anarchy as the symphony itself. Its profundity is in its small moments captured by the performers—delicate, lewd, ecstatic.” (Helsingin Sanomat, 2013)

Pirinen’s work depicts the person as a psychological, poetic, and corporeal agent

“I’ve tried mightily to bring out the psychoanalytic physicality of contemporary dance. My pieces strive to create bodily states, feelings, emotions, and the stage dynamics they produce.”

“A person’s body is tuned to be full of psychoactive processes, and my job is to somehow try to coax out that physicality, to see the person in their entirety.”

The aim is not a representation of the therapeutic process. It’s about a choreography and a worldview firmly based in the form and language of Pirinen’s artistic medium.

Angel. © Katri Naukkarinen

Her recent work, Angel (2016), was a solo dance in collaboration with the Lumen Valo (Snow Light) vocal ensemble. Pirinen performed as a character that moved among the singers, touching them and searching for her place in the group. The sublime acapella singing stirred the emotions and Pirinen’s vulnerable and unpredictable character was like a physical stand-in for the subconscious processes of the audience.

“A lot of people tended to see me sometimes as an angel, and sometimes as crazy person. It bothered me a little because it meant the viewer was externalizing the piece. As if what the audience was witnessing didn’t really have anything to do with them, it was about somebody else.”

Pirinen’s works are about revealing the subconscious. But she doesn’t like to use such Freudian terminology.

I have a feminist orientation, so I prefer to talk about fantasy, about the fantasies that arise from the thoughts and emotions the performing arts can paint.

In her piece Meadow, meadow, meadow, Pirinen and her colleagues created three scenes birthed in entirely different worlds: delicate singing, audience participation in a live-art party among scattered rubbish, and for the last segment a classic still image that aspired toward the eternal. I wrote of the piece, “This work, in all its madness, shows that in order to live we must communicate our truths. We need sincere sharing and acts of caring before it’s all over.” (Teatteri&Tanssi magazine, 2015)

If Pirinen is courageous on stage, she is off stage as well. She wants to offer her own alternative to fashionable, post-humanist trends in contemporary dance and the performing arts.

“The trends in making art remind me of insecure parental bonds. Being a part of them can tear an individual apart. They can deceive you, and you shouldn’t attach yourself to them, even if they’re what the spirit of the times, the production houses and funders, are expecting. A maker of dance can, if she wants, decide on her own to search for a new canon, one that’s better for her work.”

“Capitalism is trying to blot out human reality, but the post-humanist trend in dance is also blotting out the role of the human. It’s understandable because the human relationship to other living things is so disheartening. But we need constructive, radical imagination and risk-taking. And for that we need a person who will keep examining things more deeply. When I look at what’s happening in the world, many people could benefit from the modern psychoanalytic process if it were just more readily available.”

When teaching students of the arts, Pirinen encourages them to not just search what’s on the internet, but to also search themselves for context.

“Or if you want to learn about something ‘outside yourself’, as they say, try looking at older sources, like classical works of art. They have a timelessness that can offer a respite from the enormity of the present,” she urges.

“Being sensitive and egalitarian doesn’t mean you have to abandon yourself to feelings of guilt. I want to have the courage to look at the world through my own conception of reality and put myself in an empathetic position towards others’ situations without creating a dichotomy between myself and others. My art is drawn from local reality, from the information and understanding that I’ve subjectively experienced.”

Elina Pirinen: Brume de Mer © Katri Naukkarinen

It’s been two years since Pirinen’s last performance piece. A three-year artist’s grant has given her the security to take some time away from the process of constantly producing new, demanding works. She’s been writing, composing, reading, without a specific goal. Letting things affect her.

“I can’t go back to the types of gestures that are in Shostakovich or Rachmaninoff’s music now. I want to move toward a spirit of abstraction.”

For Brume De Mer (in English Sea Mist), she has chosen modernist experimenter Victor Suslin‘s Organ Sonata no. 2 as her starting point.

“It’s a wild organ sonata that visits a piece created by Ville Kabrell in the legato and earth-shaking mode of organ music. For us, the sea mist is a volumitudinous spiritual space that’s blissful and empowering to live with.”

Text by Raisa Rauhamaa. Translation by Lola Rogers.

This interview was originally published in the Finnish Dance in Focus magazine, vol. 20, August 2018.