In Conversation with Elina Pirinen

Elina Pirinen is currently presenting Personal Symphonic Movement at New York Live Arts as part of Joyce Unleashed, a new program of contemporary choreographers. Described as an “on-stage autopsy of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7”  Pirinen examines the “concept of living within the current zeitgeist, leading to an exploration of eroticism, shame, danger and excess.” Joyce Unleashed, running throughout June, will also present works by choreographers Anna Sperber and Vanessa Anspaugh.

Pirinen Elina copy

RM: So I’ve reading a little bit about Personal Symphonic Movement and I’ve seen some interviews with you before, and you mention this idea of movement between conscious and unconscious states. I’m interested in how you negotiate that between yourself and your other performers.

EP: Well, my practice is based on anatomical structures of the body. We do a lot of rehearsals where we tune and we sensitize the anatomic system and from that we start going towards the unconsciousness. In this particular piece, during this practice, we put our hair in front of our face, and that is an invitation to the unconscious world, because you start to block the external out. And then you can start to go deeper and deeper to the situation that you have with yourself, when your hair is in front of your face. Still you are working from the anatomy but you have this very strong frame of the hair, here covering your vision. And you have to do it and do it and do it in order to get deeper and deeper into it. So maybe that is moving between conscious and unconscious, where the consciousness is based on the anatomical structures and then the unconscious world… how do you call it? When you make a fire and then it…


Yeah. Then it starts to spark.

That’s interesting because I know some artists who will do something similar like being blindfolded or taking vision away to access a different physical…

No but this is different. Because we still have our vision. With the hair I still see you all the time; I see your outline, I see your figure, but it’s an invitation to this… I would say autistic world. But this work is not a representation of being autistic, because that is, for me at least, very unethical, to be representing autism.

Well there’s something also animal about it, with the hair. It not being manufactured from external materials, but just being shrouded by…

Yes exactly. I did a premiere called Angel. It was two weeks ago, I just finished it. And in that I was also working from these anatomical structures, that I have been doing now for 5 or 6 years, 3 or 4 times a week – tuning into your anatomical structure – and in this piece called Angel, my hair is pulled up and back, and I was working only with the face, with super strong facial (scrunches up face) expressions.

I always try to be very sensitive to what happens to the rest of the body through making the facial expressions. But that has nothing to do with creating a character based on theatrical readings or psychological narratives or something like that, no. It’s a human corporeality. The “psychic” or psychological and “corpus”; between these two things.

If you put your hair in front of your face, you start being really sensitive to what happens in your body and where. And how can you move and dance through this perception? There are small events going on all the time in the structures we work with, and you just have to follow it. Follow the events, follow follow follow follow follow, and this is my body practice, what I do.

There’s a lot in your writing about expression. That seems to be a really key part of your interest in presenting a physicality. Which is interesting because I think that is something not so talked about in terms of contemporary performance language right now.

No it’s not. What I’ve been experiencing for many years now is that a trend, or a focus, is more towards being casual. Domestic body, casual body, body as a landscape. And for me the politics of making art is bringing “human” to the stage. I mean there’s a big difference between my work and butoh for instance. I’m not doing butoh expression. It’s more like the psychic world – the mental world – and the corporeal world are shaking hands all the time. And that is expressiveness that I do, that I am interested in. Sorry, now I’m lost.

That happens.

No no no. Yeah it’s based on being bored of coolness. Boredom of distant people. I like passion, and complexity, and it has to be seen in the corporeal work, this complexity. So I try to really find that in the form of dance making in my work, because for me the politics is not to show cool people on stage.

You work with improvisation?

Yeah. We call it instant choreography.

And so when you’re working in the studio, what kind of language informs that? Or is there language? In terms of getting to these places where you can be in tune with the impulses that gets to this “raw expression”.

I never direct emotions. I don’t say “In this moment, try to feel this or try to think that.” It’s based on anatomy. And then when I see a dancer working through the anatomy, then I start helping them. I may say, “Now you have a situation there, just go deeper.” Like Pina Bausch. She said go deeper, go deeper. And I don’t have an idea in my mind what that means. I just say it. And then it’s the responsibility of the performer to amuse herself or be occupied and curious with what this “deeper” means. And it can also be humorous. Super crazy wild humorous. I don’t mean that it’s only (makes crying pose with hands over face) you know, one layer.

Elina Perin-2 copy

When you talk about anatomy… because I suppose to think of emotionality is often removed from thinking about anatomy in a more practical way, using that scientific word. What are the specifics of the kinds of structures of anatomy you are working with?

Yes I have three layers: Bone, or skeleton. Flesh and blood, or musculature. And skin. These layers, or registers… You just have to be super alert as a dancer. What happens, if I move my hand like this, what happens in my face? Ok, this happens in my face, (describing as she demonstrates) and then what happens in my skull, what happens in my mouth? So it’s these connections all the time and you just have to surf, as a surfer between these connections. And that creates the movement language many times.

I enjoy if it doesn’t stay only at one level, if I see a dancer and she is staying only in this head level, then I start guiding her. First of all, being ethical about the psychological world of each person who works with me. I don’t want to manipulate the mental world. That’s bullshit for me. Theatre directors do that so much already (laughs). Let them do it.

But you have to be alert as a choreographer. For example if were to work with you, and I would say to you to do this, and then I would start smelling: “How is Rennie doing this? He’s occupied with his stuff, so how can I help him be even more occupied with the proposal that you are offering?” It’s so hard to describe! But yeah, you come and see the show and then you’ll know.

Also I work a lot with regression, this regression that we all have from when we were small. And as adult we attempt to lose it, to deny it. I love the regression.

That’s a place you’re really looking to reach towards in performance?

Yes, many times.

I’m curious about the obviously very strong piece of music that you’ve chosen. And I suppose a traditional… or a classicism. A proscenium-arch style performance and how you, as a contemporary artist, are dealing with that history, or hinting towards it or moving away from it, or your relationship to the…

To the political history of the piece you mean?

Not so much the political history of that piece of music, but, in a bigger sense, your contemporary ideas about choreography and performance, talking about regression and finding new ways towards a physical language, but complementing that in a traditional space with this piece of music…

Ah yes, well, that is the thing. You just said it (laughs). That is maybe nice, doing that. Putting regressive corporeality in a mirror relation to these pompersia or uplifting…

Like a grandiose…

Yes, grandiose. And then you have the “high” and then the super “low.”

Like, in the gutter.

Yes exactly, thanks for the word. So when these two worlds meet, the “high” and the “low,” they create a third one, and that third one is the focus in my work. And I can’t control it, but of course I can play and destroy. Let’s say I destroy the anatomical stuff with this grandiose thing, and then this regression destroys the pompersia, the musical landscape. It’s not holy. They both are holy and not holy in a way. I am faithful and unfaithful to both of them.

And when I watched parts of the work online, it’s very clear how the music does start to seem hilarious.

Yes, it is super hilarious. Šostakovitš is a super witty and humorous composer and doesn’t take himself so seriously, but takes himself super seriously. This is important: both levels are present in life in general and on stage also.

Do you have a… I’m fascinated by this third space. I feel like that is when so many artists talk about where their interest lies, this third space is a place that we all know but… I mean, do you have a term for it? Would you give that a name?

I would name it phantasma.


That comes from psychoanalysis, the word. Phantasma, yeah. Gets me to keep going, making art. I’m not interested in domestic life as such. Stage is the possibility to create phantasmas. And I don’t mean Alice in Wonderland type of fantasies, no no. No no no. Yeah maybe phantasma is good.

It’s a good word.

Fantasy is different. Phantasma is based on a psychoanalytic way of thinking.

There’s also something – I think you were actually referring to a different piece of yours – but I got attached to this quote of yours about “How the audience can affect the aesthetics of the performance.” And this direct relationality with your audience. You see them having a role with shaping the work? Do you think that’s true?

That is the basic motivation to make art. But I don’t do immersive pieces anymore. I used to do them, but now I will try different tricks or… I love the thing that people are watching from the audience, and I try to make immersive work but they don’t have to come to the stage. How can I create such material that the people are super involved without participating on stage? And this motivates me. I can’t say how I do it, but it motivates me to keep on creating works.

Sometimes I feel like I’m a substitute body for people. Or my mind is a substitute mind for people. That it’s not only my personal phantasma or my personal world, it’s really shared. I don’t need to (drags a vase across the table towards her), “Come here on to the stage, let’s share this.” It’s more like (places the vase back away from her and sits back), “I’ve been thinking about you while I’ve been doing this. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about you and your friends and your family.”

Well it’s funny, I feel like there’s this perspective at the moment about passive audiences, that an audience that’s sitting in a seat is necessarily passive. And just because I’m sitting, I mean, there’s a lot of activity not so much about a physical interaction, but to dismiss the active mind when observing…

Yeah, I understand that there are artists who have these different phases of trying to make their work more important or more like, “I don’t want to be so narcissistic or egoistic. This is narcissistic bullshit what I’m doing.” So they will do something with people. I understand it, I’ve been there also. This is why I can talk in this way. But still, for me it was like I turned my back to myself, when I took people onto the stage. For me it felt so easy, in a way. Easier than trying to create material in these tight frames of watching from the audience. For me it was too easy. I did many works like this because I wanted to make art to be more engaging. But not anymore. I am going back to the basics of “I do this stuff here and you do your stuff there.”

Of course I’m going to play with the line in between but you can also play using only your focus, inviting people in with your gaze. For me the equality happens there. That is my hypothesis: that you are equal, you don’t need to invite people to your stage to be equal, if that is the politics, of “Let’s all be equal.” I don’t believe… at this very moment, I don’t believe in that. Let’s wait five years when I go back to making immersive stuff (laughs).

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