The international history of Finnish contemporary dance

Aino Kukkonen (edit Sanna Kangasluoma), 11.4.2022

Dance has always been international. But what has the flow of influences between Finland and other countries meant in the field of dance? Where have Finnish dance artists drawn inspiration from, who have been the prominent figures, and what are the important milestones in the journey of Finnish contemporary dance from the first decades of the 20th century until the present?

A bathtub and a hystrical woman

Studien über Hysterie. Chor. Sanna Kekäläinen, Zodiak Presents, 1991. © Sami Väätänen / Theatre Museum Archives

To shed light on the development of contemporary dance in Finland, we have published an extensive article written by dance scholar Aino Kukkonen, about the flow of influences between Finland and other countries in the field of dance.

The article tells how ballet and modern dance were developing in tandem in the first decades of the 20th century. Finland didn’t have a tradition of a court ballet, and the first production of what is now the National Ballet, was not seen until January 1922.

As there was practically no modern dance training available, the Union of Finnish Dance Artists began bringing foreign dance instructors to Finland in the 1950’s. In the 1960’s and 70’s, Finnish dancers trained in Stockholm, Paris, Cologne, London and New York.

But in the 1960’s, audiences were already treated to appearances by top modern dance groups. Finland was visited by the Martha Graham Company, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Donald McKayle’s Black New World.

In the article you can read about the early steps of contemporary choreographers such as Liisa Pentti and Sanna Kekäläinen, to whom Amsterdam’s School for New Dance Development became an important place in the 1980’s.

The Japanese butoh aesthetic was a particular influence on choreographers Tero Saarinen and Arja Raatikainen in the 1980’s and 90’s. Read also why and how the work of Carolyn Carlson has been of crucial importance to Finnish dance, particularly to the dancer and choreographer Jorma Uotinen and Tero Saarinen. To the latter, Carlson choreographed Blue Lady (Revisited) in 2008, a re-creation of her legendary 1983 solo.

The 1990’s was marked by a fast-paced, acrobatic contemporary dance aesthetic. There was a lot of movement and physical contact in the abstract works of Kenneth Kvarnström leading the Helsinki Dance Company in the 1990’s.

On the other hand, Zodiak’s Side Step festival has had an important role presenting postmodern dance and bringing international guest artists to Finland since the late 1990’s.

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, demand and interest in Finnish contemporary dance were growing. Susanna Leinonen‘s career, for instance, took off in the early 2000’s with her appearance at the Concours Bagnolet in France. Leinonen soon founded her own dance company and her unique, refined signature drew interest abroad.

International activity can also be carried out digitally. Even before the pandemic, Valtteri Raekallio made digital connections when his dance films garnered a wide audience through television and film festivals.

The content and practice of contemporary dance is changing and becoming ever more fragmentary. In recent years, for instance, there have been a lot of immersive and site-specific performances. International interactions bring dancemakers new ideas, and the boundaries between live art, new performance and contemporary dance are losing their significance – and this can be seen in Finland as well.

Read the in-depth article about the international history of Finnish contemporary dance on our website ›

The article was originally published also in the Finnish Dance in Focus magazine January 2022, and it is based on the manuscript for the Theater Museum’s Deep Movement exhibit, in 2022 in Helsinki.