The Finnish National Ballet at 100
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The Finnish National Ballet at 100
The Finnish National Opera and Ballet in Helsinki, June 13, 2022. The company turned 100 in May. Vesa Laitinen/The New York Times.

by Elizabeth Kendall

HELSINKI.- What is Finnish about the Finnish National Ballet?

That question hung in the air when the company threw itself a 100th-anniversary gala celebration in May, in the imposing modern theater it shares with the Finnish National Opera. Apart from a rushed slideshow, dancers wielding blue-and-white Finnish flags, and an elegant file of all 166 students of the company’s school, also celebrating its 100th anniversary, not much referred to the host country.

The dancers onstage were from all over, with some Finns interspersed. The company looked athletic, precise and fairly comfortable in excerpts from old chestnuts (“Swan Lake”), newer chestnuts (“Spartacus”) and contemporary pieces by a predictable roster of international choreographers, including a few Finns. But a company style — a special flavor of dancing — was hard to detect. This could have been a ballet performance almost anywhere: Geneva, Munich, Houston.

I’ve been coming to Finland for a long time — first as a journalist, covering the Finnish Ballet’s 75th anniversary. I’ve watched the company through the years, and made close friends among former and current dancers. So I had to ask myself: What does style mean for this or any ballet company?

Some of the world’s biggest companies have a look that is easily identifiable. Bolshoi dancers dance in a big, bravura manner. New York City Ballet dancers seem to skim the stage, as if rushing into the music. A style has to do with a common training, a repertory that galvanizes the training, and that hard-to-describe thing, an esprit de corps — some kind of easy agreement among the dancers about what and how they’re communicating from the stage. A style is coherence, even intelligence: It’s the collective human signature of the dancing.

For all the Finnish National Ballet’s present-day excellence, these elements were mostly missing from its gala evening. If you looked hard, though, you could see signs of a singular history persisting under the surface, a ghostly spirit once part of this company’s identity. That night, Finnish ballerina Salla Eerola, 44, gave her last, quietly searing performance with the princely Michal Krcmar, in a pas de deux from John Cranko’s “Onegin.”

Eerola is a product of the school and the company, and her unforced artistry points to a formidable system of training and support, although not perhaps as firmly in place as before. The moment was made more poignant by the absence, for the first time in company history, of a young Finnish ballerina coming up to replace her.

Some Finnish former dancers were also present at the gala — but not many. Many old company members had been invited to the dress rehearsal but not to the gala proper. (Some weren’t invited at all.) At intermission, Jarmo Rastas, a former principal (and now a company teacher), was being interviewed for television in a corner of the lobby. “We were one big family — dancers, and singers, musicians, costume makers, all the stage people,” he said of the company in his day.

Judging from the gala evening, you could say that the present-day Finnish company suffers from a kind of amnesia about its origins — origins closely linked with the birth of Finland, this small country sandwiched between two former colonial masters, Sweden and Russia.

When the Russian empire erupted in revolution in 1917, Finland simply declared itself a country. And it welcomed Finnish-connected Russian refugees, like the Finnish Ballet’s first ballet masters, George Ge and Alexander Saxelin, both from St. Petersburg, who furnished ballets for the new Finnish National Opera, and who replaced each other on and off up through the 1950s. (They were also mortal enemies: Ge was a banker and amateur dancer, but with choreographic gifts; Saxelin a professional, trained in the Russian imperial system like his schoolmate George Balanchine.) It was Ge, the amateur, who staged Finland’s first ballet in 1922, a “Swan Lake,” and danced the role of the prince himself.

From these improvised beginnings arose a troupe of about 40 dancers, mostly all Finnish. Their home base, shared with the Opera, was the Alexander Theater, a mini piece of Petersburg, built by Russians in 1879. Their training and style was loosely Russian, too — Russian ballet stars set the classics, and they were guests onstage. But the Finns developed their own bravado, more Bolshoi than Kirov, said Seija Silfverberg, a former Finnish ballerina (“the Bolshoi dancers were freer onstage than the Kirov — we took that”). And there was a buoyant esprit de corps, stemming from the troupe’s constant touring, not just all over Finland, but around the globe. Also perhaps from the dancers’ pride in their rural country’s seemingly anomalous ballet culture.

A 1990 TV documentary, “Eras of the Finnish Ballet,” shows the dancers washing clothes in one of Finland’s lakes one minute, performing as an elegant corps de ballet in “Swan Lake” the next. We see strong Finnish soloists like the fiery Elsa Sylvestersson (also a choreographer), and the technically formidable Doris Laine, who in 1984 would become the company’s director. After them, a succession of Finnish ballerinas came up through the ranks, and male soloists, too, who shone in Finnish-themed ballets like Marjo Kuusela’s 1980 “Seven Brothers,” about a primitive family in the forest.

It’s as if the Finns had found a way of mixing something extra-expressive, almost earthy, with the classical steps.

Strangely, it was the long-awaited new opera house that began to separate the Finnish Ballet from its roots. This giant white Lego-like structure went up in the early 1990s, with two stages, ample studios and health facilities, including two saunas. The ballet’s director at the time, Jorma Uotinen, a Finn, turned the company toward the West, adding Western classics (some Crankos, Sylvie Guillem’s “Giselle”) and more avant-garde works, including his own. And the scale of the new house demanded more dancers. Open auditions were held, yielding non-Finnish dancers. “They were technically better,” said the company’s longtime principal ballet master, Ingrid Nemeckova, herself a Russian-trained Czech brought in by Uotinen. (Though “technically better” can be a matter of opinion.)

After Uotinen stepped down in 2000, the drift toward being an international company intensified. The next directors were foreign — two Danes and a Swede. When Kenneth Greve, the second Dane, came in, “a kind of recycling culture started, with more people not renewed, and more people hired,” said Antti Keinänen, a longtime company dancer. Madeleine Onne, the Swede, brought in more than 30 dancers during her four-year tenure (2018-22), most from elsewhere. Of the company’s current roster of 88 dancers (including the 13 in the Youth Company), only about one-third are Finnish.

At the same time, the repertory drifted toward blockbusters heavy on special effects, like Greve’s popular evening-length ballets. And school and company grew further apart, especially under Onne, with school graduates rejected by the home company but snapped up elsewhere.

No one expects the Finnish Ballet to go back to the old days. “We’re in this situation now where everything is global,” said the opera and ballet’s general director, Gita Kadambi, a Finn who is half-South Asian. “Having the best dancers in the world is best for the company.” As for the repertory, Kadambi, like many directors, must balance the budget. If the company programs something like its recent triple bill of contemporary Finnish choreographers, “we won’t get as much audience as for the classics or family ballets,” she said. “But it’s important to do these new works.”

Despite such challenges, Kadambi, in her four years at the helm, has taken steps to heal local divisions. The school’s educational coordinator has gone from a part-time to a full-time position, and Jani Talo, a newly retired Finnish dancer, has been appointed. Talo has thought a lot about how to better support his students, but also about what those students could bring to ballet. “This country can produce talent,” he said, “but not cookie-cutter talent.”

And to everyone’s delight, the school, which has operated across town for 20-odd years, has been reunited with the company. Space was found in the opera house; and in January the students and staff moved en masse on a special tram ride, shown on the evening news. “I feel already the energy of the ballet students in the house,” Kadambi said.

Not only that: The company started its next 100 years, on Aug. 1, with a new director, Javier Torres. Although not a Finn — Torres, 59, is Mexican-born — he danced with the company for 12 years and choreographed for it. He also speaks fluent Finnish (no mean feat), and loves the house for what he calls its values — the humane conditions in place for all of its workers, even seamstresses and, of course, dancers.

But what about those dancers? Bold decisions by the Finnish government in the late 1950s and ’60s to support the arts have borne fruit in other fields. Think of contemporary Finnish musicians, especially conductors, who hold prominent positions throughout the world (with several right now “trying out” to lead the New York Philharmonic).

Comparing ballet to music produces a lopsided equation: Musicians don’t have to have a special look, whereas ballet dancers are their instruments — and Finland has a much smaller pool of bodies to choose from than other countries.

So, if there aren’t enough Finns in the Finnish National Ballet, is a company identity even possible? No one is sure. To Torres, ballet companies worldwide are having an identity crisis. “We all have the same products,” he said. “In Lyon, in Paris, in Oslo, you’ll see Killian, Forsythe, Crystal Pite.” What will he do about it? “Encourage young dancers to create for me” and hold “choreographic workshops for the house.”

But in terms of special support for Finnish dancers, Torres is ambivalent, even if Kadambi says she’s willing to explore the matter. “I should hire him just because he’s Finnish?” he said about a dancer he admires but who doesn’t fit the repertory. (Torres said he wouldn’t even hire himself now, given the present company’s technical standards.)

Other dancers I interviewed said that trust from the top was sorely needed — for all of the dancers, not just the Finns. And that the culture that “recycles” dancers too quickly (discarding new hires for newer hires) must be rethought. “This company has such potential,” said Krcmar, the company’s lead danseur noble.

That assessment was borne out during the weeklong Helsinki International Ballet Competition, which followed the ballet gala in the opera house. Dancers from all over the world competed in the old Russian variations and contemporary sketches. The wartime absence of Russians narrowed the field but didn’t seem to lower the technical level.

And yet the dancers who stood out — among eerily polished Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Koreans — went beyond the technical, toward the human-spiritual. Two young non-Finns from the Finnish Ballet, the American Clark Eselgroth and the Japanese Yuka Masumoto, gave such an unforced, moving and noble rendition of that old Mount Everest of a pas de deux, Victor Gsovsky’s “Grand Pas Classique,” that the Finnish former company dancers around me were caught by surprise.

“Wonderful!” one said. “Even if they weren’t Finnish.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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