Choreographer Milla Koistinen: A crowd is a sensitive thing

Eeva Kauppinen, translation Fleur Jeremiah, 1.2.2022

"The corona crisis is bound to change the audience, the artists, and the way of working. You could imagine that locality will be viewed differently after this." Read an interview with Milla Koistinen, originally published in the Finnish Dance in Focus magazine.

Milla Koistinen is a Berlin-based, versatile Finnish choreographer. Since 2008 she has been creating her own work and her creations have been played among others in radialsystem, Tanzhaus NRW, HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Mad House Helsinki, Barker-theatre Turku, ARGEKultur Salzburg, Fabriktheater Zürich, Dampfzentrale Bern, Ballhaus Ost and in Uferstudios Berlin.

Terrain © Bernhard Müller

Terrain © Bernhard Müller

Koistinen’s work Terrain (Milla Koistinen, Paul Valikoski & Ladislav Zajac) will be experienced at Open Spaces Festival in Berlin February 18–20, 2022.

Terrain is an immersive installation, which takes the spectator on a slow walk through a hybrid environment, which combines visual and auditory elements from nature and urban spaces. With the support of guides and a subtle route which balances stillness and action, taking time to stop, then moving on, getting lost and finding the way again, spectators move through the installation as if it were a landscape.

SPARKS gives an opportunity to create new productions for big stages

SPARKS is an artistic development project of Dance House Helsinki (Tanssin talo), which will be carried out in 2019–2023. It gives Finnish dance artists a significant opportunity to develop their own work and create new productions for the big stages.

Milla Koistinen is one of the three choreographers that have been selected to create new works for the big Erkko Hall, seating 700 people. Two other Erkko Hall SPARKS choreographers are Johanna Nuutinen and Elina Pirinen. Read more about SPARKS here › 

I did a lot of research into an individual’s reactions in a crowd situation

Interested in Milla Koistinen’s working methods and thoughts? Here’s an interview with her, originally published in Finnish Dance in Focus 2020–2021 magazine:

Choreographer Milla Koistinen is at the other end of the phone in her home at Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin.

The corona pandemic has halted all the pending touring performances of the dance artist, who has worked in Germany for the past ten years, though the virus hasn’t affected the preparation and planning for her next work. On a Clear Day, a solo production, was due to be performed at Bauhaus and her latest large group work, One Next to Me, at the Tanz im August festival.

One Next to Me would have been welcome right now. It resonates with the present time of the corona virus in a striking way through the encounters that take place on stage, through its philosophical content, as well as through the ideas of Elias Canetti, the Nobel Prize winning author, who provided the inspiration for the work.

Koistinen became interested in Canetti’s book Crowds and Power (Masse und Macht), in which Canetti writes about the fear of touching the unknown and maintains that only as a member of a crowd can a human being become free of his phobia of touching. Canetti’s observations strike a painful chord in the current world of social distancing.

Canetti writes: “For just as suddenly as it originates, the crowd disintegrates. In its spontaneous form it is a sensitive thing.”

You could say the same thing about Koistinen’s work One Next to Me, which unites on stage sixteen or seventeen dance professionals and amateurs of different ages. The premier of One Next to Me took place at Uferstudios in Berlin in January 2019.

“I already started studying Canetti and the nature of the crowd while teaching at SEAD at Salzburg. In March 2018, when over there, I created a work called Lachrimae, which was like a preliminary version of One Next to Me. I did a lot of research into an individual’s reactions in a crowd situation, into how one’s own behaviour in the crowd may suddenly become totally different and something unlike one’s behaviour as an individual. And I looked into the strength of the power exerted by the crowd,” Milla Koistinen explains.

One next to me © Ladislav Zajac

One next to me © Ladislav Zajac

For One Next to Me, Milla Koistinen chose two forces, tenderness and violence, together with Synne Behrndt, a dramaturgist. “Tenderness and violence are present throughout. In the production, the boundary between them is highly volatile in the movement material and in people’s actions. The forces can also appear together, and they don’t cancel each other out. The situation can change quickly.”

Partner dancing and communication between the performers within the work are highly organic and intensive. At times, it’s as if the dancers were tearing themselves away from an encounter. The choreography contains a large number of stills, frozen images. Koistinen says that she found movement material in news photos and documentary films.

“It wasn’t our intention to create an imagery of realistic violence, or to illustrate things. The movement was meant to be abstract while reflecting the themes of the work accurately. We spent a long time searching for this effect. I have no actual, direct experience of violence. My relationship with violence has, by and large, been formed by the media.”

Koistinen didn’t want the dancers to enact situations. The outward content is more like reconstruction. For each scene, the dancers had access to ‘a movement pool’, a list of movements they could choose from.

“All the images in the work are extremely charged. Performing can’t go beyond that. Things can’t be illustrated or acted out.”

Non-professionals are able to be themselves on the stage

Milla Koistinen wants to introduce different bodies to the stage. She has involved children along professional dancers both in A Cloud of Milk (2016) and in One Next to Me. It’s significant to her who is allowed to dance, who is allowed space in the production.

“Non-professionals are able to be themselves on the stage. They don’t start assuming any roles. In that respect, I’ve found the presence of non-professionals interesting,” Koistinen explains.

A Cloud of Milk © Jan Isaak Voges

“In contemporary dance performances, the performers frequently concentrate on their sensations, and don’t necessary look directly at each other. We’ve moved towards behaving on stage as if it represented everyday life. In a way, it’s a trade-off between the non-professionals and the trained presence of the professionals. What the professionals look for in the non-professionals and the other way round. The children also had a big responsibility. They were highly focused. Work assumes a different significance when it entails this kind of aspect of communality.”

Koistinen concedes that A Cloud of Milk and One Next to Me have been particularly important works to her.

“The process itself has been exciting when we’ve been touring and have always included new people and trained them in four or five days. It’s been a new experience to everyone. It’s also important to me that, in that process, children or amateurs are treated in the same way as professionals. They’re equal to me, just as important.”

Koistinen works closely with another two artists: Paul Valikoski, a sound designer and musician, and Ladislav Zajac, a lighting designer. This cooperation – seamless, resonant, and reactive – comes across in the overall artistic product. The choreographer doesn’t make all the decisions on her own.

It’s interesting to cooperate with two people who don’t hail from the genre of dance

“It’s important to me that all the elements are equal. Everyone is able to start from whatever they find interesting. By and large, I give them a free hand. Ladislav Zajac is originally a fine artist. His spatial thinking is different. He also deploys lights differently from a lighting designer with another educational background,” Koistinen explains.

“It’s interesting to cooperate with two people who don’t hail from the genre of dance. Ladislav has a highly critical approach. He may think theoretically in a different way, he keeps questioning, forcing me, too, to think in a different way, which is good. Paul and I, in turn, share the same vision about ambiance. I think that this trio is a good combination. We balance each other out and take our ideas forward.”

Pas de deux #1 – Constructing Love © Ladislav Zajac

Koistinen gives her partners credit for questioning what a work yields to spectators who aren’t dancers themselves.

Pas de deux #1 – Constructing Love, the latest work from Team Koistinen-Valikoski-Zajac, was premiered at Radialsystem in Berlin in January 2020, just before the corona crisis. The work didn’t have actual performers, but an audience of two people, who participated interactively in creating the work in the available space.

“The new concept entails the idea that the audience is the performer. For the next work, we’ve already reached the planning stage where we’re writing down the concept together. It’s not my work but belongs to the three of us from the very start.”

If you could wish for something for art or in respect of art, what would you wish for in this situation? Should we revert to Canetti, according to whom “the whole knot of shifting and intensely sensitive reactions to an alien touch proves that we are dealing here with a human propensity as deep-seated as it is sensitive; something which never leaves a man.”

“I’m hoping that the crisis we’re faced with now won’t destroy art but do the opposite. The corona crisis is bound to change the audience, the artists, and the way of working. You could imagine that locality will be viewed differently after this. Artists are bound to think where works will be executed, in what way and with whom.”


Choreographer, b. 1980 in Finland, lives in Berlin with her family.


Breathe (Tanz im August Berlin 2021)

Terrain (Sommerszene Salzburg 2021)

Pas de Deux #1 – Constructing Love (Radialsystem Berlin 2020)

One Next to Me (Uferstudios Berlin 2019)

Lachrimae (SEAD Salzburg 2018)

On a Clear Day (Uferstudios Berlin 2017)

A Cloud of Milk (Tanzhaus NRW 2016)