Tomi Paasonen: Questions & Dreams

Riikka Kekäläinen and Kalle-Antti Raunu perform
Riikka Kekäläinen and Kalle-Antti Raunu perform “Olotila”, Helsinki 2000. Photo Credit: Sakari Viika

“I like going back and forth between the professional and the layman realm, but I always find myself being closer to who I am when I work with nonprofessionals. I feel like I’m closer to something more authentic, something more real, something more broken if you say. Something that asks more interesting questions than forms that are perfect. Forms that are perfect remain in a sort of clinical state, and don’t touch as much as when the realness of that broken form shines through. I like the periphery so much. When something is the best in the world, its not as interesting for me as the homeless on the street doing his thing. Being in San Francisco, I’m just always so – inspired is the wrong word, because it pains me where my mirror neurons die when I look at these extreme expressions of human wrecks dealing with this existential realm of life. That for me sometimes has much more strength than the most perfectly articulated artistic brilliance. I’m kind of a weird guy that way, I think it’s just who I am. When I was in school, I was always the one defending the weak.” – Tomi Paasonen, San Francisco 2013

Born 1970, in suburban Helsinki, unplanned, to a forty-year old Mother / Housewife / random job taking Secretary and Sea Captain Father, Tomi is the youngest of three by a decade. Both parents were present during Tomi’s birth, unlike his siblings, who did not meet their father until shortly before their first birthdays. Tomi received the absolute best from his parents, they lavished him with love, trust, freedom and support. At the age of seven, Tomi was given a key to wear around his neck, the only instruction was to call if he was not going to come home for the night. Tomi and his father played imaginary games together. One took place in Australia, the country furthest away, a place where anything could happen because everything is upside down. Another, designed to while away hours on car trips by creating casts of characters, Tomi would move fluidly between female and male persona. He invented a hero named “Supergranny”, and a French woman based on Edith Piaf.

Tomi Paasonen, Halloween in Dolores Park, San Francisco CA. Photo Credit: Ivo Serra
Tomi Paasonen, Dolores Park, San Francisco 2013. Photo Credit: Ivo Serra.

“My parents were just loving me and admiring me. I was a cross-dressing child, I was totally allowed to live out my gayness as a kid in a completely unquestioned way. I loved playing with my mom’s clothing and makeup and wigs, that was one of my Sunday morning hobbies when my parents were sleeping off their hangovers. In school it was the same, I guess because of the situation at home, I was a very proud kid. If there was that sort of typical question, Are you a boy or a girl?, I would always give them a different answer and they didn’t know how to take it.”

Tomi’s sister, a professional Playwright, precedes him by thirteen years. She took on the role of the Art-Mom, introducing music, film, literature and drawing to the impressionable, precocious young mind. The relationship between Tomi and his brother, another story entirely. Through caring for his mentally disabled older brother, Tomi acquired a strong sense of empathy, having to constantly take the perspective of another into consideration.

Exposure to ballet came at the age of five through television and magazine. Flipping through glossy pages of his family’s monthly subscription, Tomi gazed in astonishment at images of Swan Lake, emphatically pointing “That. You’re going to take me there”. Obligingly, his mother did as her enthusiastic son requested. Around the same time, a televised series, the making of Mozart’s Figaro aired, which documented a complete production process over the course of several weeks. From readings to rehearsals, to the opera’s premiere, Tomi watched intently and by the end knew almost every number by heart. Drawing, dancing, and singing constantly, Tomi’s parents placed him in a choir, he studied music and dance simultaneously until schedules conflicted beyond compromise. “Ballet was my calling. Ballet I think, brought everything together. It brought music, it brought the expression of the music, it brought of course the drama of a young gay sensitivity, also the aesthetics. It’s where the energy of the body, the mind, the spirit, the musicality, whatever you’re expressing is transformed into that moment. It’s my way of praying.” 

At seventeen, Tomi represented Finland at the European Broadcasting Unions Competition for Young Dancers, a Eurovision dance contest, broadcast live on TV all over Europe. This experience lead him to the John Neumeier Ballet School in Hamburg, where for the first year, Tomi kept mainly to himself. “I didn’t speak for a whole year when I moved to Hamburg, I was just too overwhelmed. I was very Finnish, and Finnish men tend not to be very talkative.” Entering the ballet school as well, a young Greek dancer by the name of Yannis Adoniou. Yannis came to Hamburg from a completely different background, with only two years of serious dance experience under his belt. Tomi reminisces, “I remember coming back from the summer holiday after the second year, I ended up coming into the school office on the same day, in the same moment as Yannis. I looked at his face and he looked different, his face had changed. Then he moved across the street from me, and we started going to class  together. Instead of just going to class we would make sure that the other one was at the bus stop, and then we just ended up spending a lot of time together. Yannis broke me up emotionally, during a time when I was very much on a pedestal. This was our constellation, in the beginning. It was such a pure way to fall in love. Nordic ice meets Mediterranean fire.”

Tomi and Yannis in Ballet Class, Hamburg. Photo Credit: Holger Badekow
Tomi and Yannis in Ballet Class, Hamburg 1989.
Photo Credit: Holger Badekow.

Tomi studied in Hamburg for two years, then signed with the Hamburg Ballet, where he danced for the following five. After that, Tomi was ready to leave classical ballet behind. He wanted to build a career in contemporary dance, he seriously considered an offer from the Netherlands Dance Theater-2 in Den Haag. Respectfully declining, Tomi moved to San Francisco to be with Yannis, who had moved to there two years earlier, and was dancing with  Alonzo King’s Lines Contemporary Ballet. Tomi danced with Lines for one year as well, then, during the company’s spring season the two split up. Tomi had fallen in love with someone else, a man who lived in Chicago, and followed him out there. Needing to find a job, Tomi auditioned for the Joffrey Ballet, and within two days signed a two year contract. Thus began an era which in hindsight, Tomi describes using words such as, “catastrophe”, “turmoil”, and “disaster”.

Tomi’s first year at Joffrey, was to say the very least, a challenging one. He incurred various injuries, and as a result was not in proper shape to take auditions elsewhere. During the second year, Tomi was in far better condition. He went on several auditions, receiving offers from Geneva, Madrid, and the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. Gulbenkian was Tomi’s dream, he had instantly fallen in love with the city, the country, the company, their artistic mission. They were equally as interested in having Tomi produce original work, as they were in having him perform in their contemporary pieces. Tomi accepted Gulbenkian’s offer, and quietly waited as the remaining minutes on his Chicago clock ticked steadily away. With only one short season to go, Tomi went to morning ballet class, a day seemingly like any other. There were roughly forty people in the room, and tombé pas de bourrée crash – the ceiling fell down on Tomi’s head. He began to laugh and then he fainted. The resulting injury, three herniated discs in his cervical spine, an abrupt and devastating end to Tomi’s performing career. He was the only person injured that day.

No longer able to fulfil his contract in Lisbon, Tomi produced a few small projects in Chicago, then moved back to San Francisco in the fall of 1998. He had no money, no structure. Tomi moved into Yannis’s basement, and began producing original works at a maniacal pace, Kunst-Stoff was born. Creation became Tomi’s outlet, his way of dealing with everything that had happened. Tomi had always wanted to be a director, viewing performance as a path to get him there, though no one, not even he imagined this shift would happen so soon.

 Juliann Rhodes and Yannis Adoniou in Mega Hz, San Francisco. Photo Credit: Andy Mogg
Juliann Rhodes and Yannis Adoniou in Mega Hz, San Francisco 1998. Photo Credit: Andy Mogg.

“Probably the favorite part of my life will always be those years I think. Blue dreadlocks, pure heart-blood, everybody had their lives organized so they could make art. It was of course totally chaotic, but it was just the most amazing freedom in the sense like nothing was in our way. It was just explosive and we didn’t question anything. We did events at Burning Man, in Willits, we took spaces from pizza parlors to downtown streets, to these full-blown ten-hour events at Brady Street Theater, wherever, always building community around us with other artists. Of course there was drama, screaming and yelling, and all that passion, people not showing up. Looking for Nol who was on a drug binge somewhere. We’d have a show in two days, we’re putting up street signs to find Nol, we’d somehow find him, and he’d make the show on his weak legs. It was non-stop, chewing, making, kind of like a tunnel,  almost fifteen pieces in two years.”

Nol Simonse in Swansong, San Francisco. Photo Credit Andy Moog
Nol Simonse in Swansong, San Francisco 2000. Photo Credit Andy Mogg.

By the turn of the millennium, Tomi was completely burnt out. He’d received news that he would not be able to renew his visa, and on the very same day, received an email from the Rajat’on community of disabled performers in Helsinki, asking him to direct their first professional production. This offer provided Tomi with the sign that he needed to feel good about returning to the EU. It also set the stage for future improvisational task-work. The bodies of these performers were completely different from any he’d worked with before, each presenting its own distinct language and possibility. “Of course it was personal for me too. I had an injury that changed my life, and so, to have this gift of working with bodies that all had undergone the transformation of either injury or accident, suicide or sickness, bodies with stories – to have the gift through my own sensibilities to put those stories into form was just, ah it was so great.”

Following the Rajat’on project, Tomi moved to Berlin, where he has been based up until about a month ago. A town where artists move to live cheaply, then travel to work elsewhere; for the past thirteen years, Tomi has kept a flat in Mitte while traveling non-stop, to Japan, Brazil, Finland, the U.S., etc. “It’s almost addicting to start a new life every two months, with new people, new projects, new context, new adventure. You create something, you have a blast, you have an outcome. Then you leave and you’re in the next place, and the next thing starts. It’s crazy, but I love it.”

Tomi directing a workshop, Tokyo 2012. Photo Credit Miki Sato
Tomi directing a workshop, Tokyo 2012. Photo Credit Miki Sato.

In Tokyo, Tomi directed 60 amateur dancers, age seven to seventy in Yume No Minato – Harbor of Dreams, a community project performed at Suntory hall. The largest cast that Tomi has worked to date, when realizing it’s magnitude he thought, “Oh my god, I‘m going to make this North Korea mass piece with precision walking!” Collaborating with such a vast group of non-professional performers was a process which Tomi found to be hugely rewarding. “When there are sixty people having strong emotional experiences through the work that they’re doing, and all of the strings go through you, you can imagine how your soul explodes. It’s just such a high that I don’t know, I can understand dictators now.”, he laughs.

Stylistically, Tomi has never felt fully integrated into any one world. “I feel like I’m a bundle of contrasts, where references that are not supposed to fit together coexist. Too open, hungry and curious, in an art world obsessed with reduction, I’ve definitely been sort of an odd bird. In the end, it’s impossible to avoid a sense of Tominess in whatever I make. I find the aesthetics throughout the body, or through the expression of the people, and before you know it there’s a glitter dress somewhere.”

Continuing, “I like to work with people, not just confine them into forms. The task-based choreographic structures I choose depend on the theme of the piece. If we’re talking for instance about Giga Hz, which is a reaction to Mega Hz from 1998, because I want to talk about the internet, I decided to work with neurology as the base. I gave the dancers a lot of neurological tasks to work with, to both organize and confuse the connections between the body and the brain. All of this coordinational expressivity is very zappy, it’s like electrocuted dolls gradually getting stuck in a tape web imagery. The dancers use their voices to illustrate movement, but also match the movement with their voice, making different neurological departments connect, in order to formulate a choreographic language. After a while you start speaking the language, and that’s when the dance and the movement and the expression starts coming out of each dancer in a different, personal way.”

Katie Gados in Giga Hz, Berlin 2013. Photo Credit: Tomi Paasonen
Katie Gados in Giga Hz, Berlin 2013. Photo Credit: Tomi Paasonen.

Masks have played a huge role in Tomi’s work as well, this is a theme which surfaced shortly after the accident. A primary theatrical element, Tomi is interested in removing a performer’s identity, turning him or her into moving sculpture, creating abstracted human form. Tomi’s first go at this was the nylon piece Mega Hz, dealing with themes of sexuality, dancers were dressed in a manner which suggested the idea of condoms. This theme has continued consistently. In 2011, Tomi directed the contemporary opera, Nothing to Declare, at the Finnish National Opera; an absurd, nightmarish commentary on corporate bureaucracy. By the end of the show, the singer and musicians ended up wearing empty cardboard boxes on their heads.

“I don’t like to save for later, I like to be strong and impactful. If it’s founded in thought, if you can back it up, then you’re on a good track to communicate; and if you communicate, then you’re on a track of probably at some level touching someone. I want to communicate. I love life and I want to experience that intensity as fully as I can, in as real of a way as I can. Understand or not understand, or just be in it, be with it. The rule of thumb is that if you don’t want to do something you shouldn’t do it, but you should ask yourself why you don’t want to do it. So then that question opens up another question and then you go deeper into the thing, and then before you know it there you are with your uncomfortabilities and your realness, and your vulnerability, that human weakness we can all relate to.”

On occasion, Tomi considers the idea of performing again. A few years ago in Berlin, he did a production of Felix Ruckert’s Secret Service, in which audience members were blindfolded in a darkened space. Tomi ran them around the room, lifting and improvising them, doing all sorts of sensory work. This was an interesting way for Tomi to perform without performing, without being seen, to re-test the ground of the stage. Another project paired Tomi with Finnish videographer Elina Brotherus, in a piece called 4 Solos for 4 Tattoos. For the first time since ballet school in the 80’s, Tomi choreographed himself. Countless hours were spent confined to the studio, alone with a camera, where Tomi organized his body into four specific worlds. “When you’re dancing in front of a camera you give everything. I was sliding on water in a really small space, pushing myself from wall to wall. I hit myself against the corner of the wall, super hard in my lower back, and I did something with my knee. I was limping for a couple of days, you know, art-bruises.”

Tomi in forest, Finland 2008. Photo Credit: Tiago Da Cruz
Tomi in Forest, Lapland 2008. Photo Credit: Tiago Da Cruz.

“I’ve had such a rich path in life and work, with so many different opportunities to try out different things. There has never been any careerist strategy behind it, but rather a chaotic stumbling with mad creativity, life itself the guiding force behind my decisions. I’m not sure that the choices that I made were artistically or professionally always the right ones, but who cares? As long as I can keep on exploring this world through the stuff I love doing, and learning through the incidents I face.” Continuing, ”I didn’t really stop being a diva until the accident, that kind of broke it all up, Kunst-Stoff broke it all up, brought the humility out. Art making only has the rules which you impose on it yourself, regardless of the medium. Today, choreography has a much larger definition, there are so many different ways of choreographing, and in our constant quest to reinvent we can see it in everything. Just us sitting here is already choreography because we moved our bodies to get to this place, and we can dwell infinitely on the philosophical questions, of whether an object can be choreography or not.”

About a month ago, Tomi moved to Kuopio, in eastern Finland to begin appointment as Artistic director of ITAK, Finland’s eastern regional dance center, an organization which issues artist grants, curates festivals and programs for various theaters in different cities, supporting the contemporary dance community through mentoring. This new epoch is a result of Tomi wanting to be closer to his eighty-seven year old father, in part, a reaction the heartbreaking loss of his mother in 2012.

Tomi created a piece surrounding his Mother’s death, a solo work, which after seeing performed at the Kunst-Stoff retrospective in San Francisco last month, I would argue to be a pas de trois between dancer, musician and foil. Those Golden Years, shares the story of a dream that Tomi had the night before his mother passed away. The movement of Yannis’s naked form, rising like a phoenix from underneath a sea of golden foil, snaking his way in and out of the metallic bolts, moving through space, accompanied by the music of Yuko Matsuyama, herself dressed from head to face to torso to foot in multicolored crocheted doilies, handmade by Tomi’s mother. Utilizing sounds of bells, tea cups, cigarette lighters and electronics to compliment the white noise rustling of foil sheets, she too furthered the narrative in this oddly delicate tale. With only three minutes left in the piece, Tomi’s voice appeared, a recorded prosaic recanting of what we’d all just been through, completing the circle, or in this case, the krackly golden heart. It had been a little over four years since I sat in a room with one of Tomi’s pieces. I felt as always, that I had just experienced something very sad, very beautiful, something very strange and exceptionally genuine; something which I would consider to be indicatively Tomi.

“And in this dream it was before a première, in this pre-première feverish state where I was folding and unfolding, and stretching and crumpling large sheets of foil. And they were flashing and creating this staticy electrical atmosphere. And I had this strange feeling in my stomach that I had already premièred this piece ten years ago, yet there was a première. And we were waiting for Mom who had promised to come to the show, it was my birthday. And it couldn’t start, she was late so we just kept folding and folding, this staticy noise over and over again. The performance took place on a necklace. It was a necklace my Mom got from my Father on the day I was born. A golden, wrinkly, krackly heart. My first memories are of sitting on her lap, and pulling and tugging on the golden heart, “Inte för hårt, inte för hårt”, not too tight, she warned. And suddenly the performance started, and I could zoom in on her neck, and on the heart that was slowly rising and sinking, and see the performance roll into its shape in a golden ocean, I felt like exhaling only Mom hadn’t arrived, she couldn’t make it.” 

Yannis Adoniou in Those Golden Years, Berlin 2012. Photo Credit: Tomi Paasonen
Yannis Adoniou in Those Golden Years, Berlin 2012. Photo Credit: Tomi Paasonen

* For direct links to Tomi’s website and to view video excerpts, please visit www.paasonen.com/de/3

** Green laser cover photo by Ivo Serra

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