Tomi Paasonen: Questions & Dreams

[Photo Credit: Ivo Serra]

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.

1970 suburban Helsinki saw the birth of a boy with crystal-blue eyes. At first, he came as a surprise. Neither his housewife mother nor sea captain father planned on the pregnancy. But unlike the births of their older two kids, the Captain happened to be home between journeys, so both Mom and Dad were present for Tomi’s arrival.

Tomi’s childhood was in many ways an era of unbounded freedom. His mother strung a key around his seven-year-old neck and said to call if he wasn’t coming home. Together, Tomi and the Captain made up imaginative games, which they played for hours on end. One was set in Australia where anything could happen because the world was upside down. Another had Tomi moving fluidly between female and male personas.

San Francisco, 2013 Photo Credit: Ivo Serra

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.

Tomi’s sister, a playwright and dramaturge, took on the supporting role of “art mom.” Thirteen years his elder, she first turned Tomi on to music, film, literature, and drawing. As she cared for him, Tomi cared for his older brother who lives with mental and physical disabilities. Their relationship, though tempestuous at times, sharpened Tomi’s sense of empathy.

When something is “the best in the world,” it’s 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.

When Tomi was five, he flipped through his parents’ theater magazine, stopping to stare at glossy photographs of ‘Swan Lake’ ballet dancers. Each emotive physique spun an intoxicating tale of romance and tragedy. Mesmerized, he pointed so his mother could see, then gazed at her with big, wide eyes. Insistent, Tomi declared, THAT. You’re going to take me there.

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 the age of eight, Tomi enrolled in ballet class. He was a natural on the dance floor. Elegant and poised, without question, the artist had found his calling. Then at seventeen, with all of Europe watching, Tomi entered the Eurovision Young Dancers contest. Representing Finland, he went to the final round, performing a ‘Swan Lake’ pas de deux. The same ballet that sparked his passion cast him onto the international stage. Recruited by higher-ups from the Hamburg Ballet, Tomi moved to Germany.

Having never lived away from home, Tomi was overwhelmed. Keeping to himself, quiet and reserved, he hardly spoke to anyone for a year. Then after summer break, he saw his classmate Yannis. Something was different. His face had changed. The two dancers fell in love and a new universe emerged.

I came to Hamburg through a competition, and I was kind of the star of the class. 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 (R) and Yannis. Hamburg, 1989.
Photo Credit: Holger Badekow

Once done with school, Tomi danced as a soloist at Hamburg Ballet. Five years later, needing a change, he set his sights on contemporary dance. After considering a contract with Nederlands Dans Theater 2, Tomi moved to San Francisco where Yannis was living. Together, the couple performed side by side at Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet.

The following spring, inexplicably in love with someone else, Tomi left Yannis and chased his heart out to Chicago. Looking for a job in the Windy City, he auditioned for the Joffrey Ballet. Two days later, Tomi signed a two-year contract. Everything fell into place. New love, new gig, new city. New questions and dreams.

Joffrey wasn’t quite what Tomi hoped for. It proved little more than a string of injuries. As Tomi’s body broke down so went his new, mystical romance. Time for him to go. But when the world crumbles, a window’s bound to open—Tomi landed his dream job in Lisbon. At the Gulbenkian Foundation, he was slated to perform contemporary works and create original productions.

With one short Joffrey season left, patiently, Tomi waited for his exit. Then one morning, he went to ballet class and took his place among forty dancers. Tombé, pas de bourrée…rumble…crash. A section of the ceiling fell on Tomi’s head. Shocked, he laughed. Then he fainted. Off to the hospital he went. Three herniated discs in his cervical spine, a devastating end to his performing career. Out of all the people in class that day, only Tomi was injured.

Kunst-Stoff, ‘Mega Hz.’ San Francisco, 1998. Photo Credit: Andy Mogg

Canceling his contract with the Gulbenkian Foundation, Tomi moved back to San Francisco, into Yanni’s basement. Creating new work at a maniacal pace, in 1998 Kunst-Stoff was born. The dance-theater collective—run in partnership with Yannis—gained infamy in the Bay Area arts scene. Merging avant-garde performance to the booming tech wave, Kunst-Stoff events popped up everywhere.

Probably the favorite part of my life will always be those years, I think. 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.

In 2000, Tomi’s US visa expired and immigration refused to renew it. On the same day he received this news, an opportune email appeared in his inbox. It was from a Helsinkian group of disabled performers who wanted Tomi to direct their next show. This was a sign from the sky, its timing uncanny. He was still working through the trauma of his own neck injury. Tomi took the job, packed his bags, and promptly returned to Finland.

‘Olotila – State of Being’. Helsinki, 2000. Photo Credit: Sakari Viika

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, [attempted] 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.

Working with different bodies required a new directorial approach. Tomi developed a task-based, improvisational style: modeling movement by impetus to form unique theatrical language. His first purely task-based work, ‘Olotila — State of Being,’ won Finland’s Theater Center’s coveted “Event of the Year” award.

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. Some are very specific, some are more free. For example, whatever your right hand does, your right foot does; whatever your right knee does, your right elbow does. All of this coordinational expressivity is very zappy. It’s like electrocuted dolls gradually getting stuck in a tape web imagery.

Tokyo, 2012. Photo Credit: Miki Sato

In 2002, Tomi moved to Berlin, a city known for its contemporary dance scene. With the German capital his home base, he worked on projects all over the world. In 2011, Tomi directed ‘Nothing to Declare’ (an absurdist, nightmarish commentary on corporate bureaucracy) at the Finnish National Opera. In 2013, he directed 60 amateur dancers in ‘Yume No Minato — Harbor of Dreams’ at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. Also in 2013, Tomi took over as Artistic director of ITAK, Finland’s eastern regional dance center. He held the position through 2018.

Tomi has since moved back to Berlin, where he runs PAA (Public Artistic Affairs), co-directs Kunst-Stoff Productions, teaches, curates, and on occasion dances as well. His latest autobiographical piece, ‘Retrospectrum — 5 Solos for 5 Decades’, debuted on film, May 2020, at Dock 11 in Berlin. He remains a respected presence in modern dance, utilizing movement to transmute experience. From the sublime to the obscene to what’s unseen, Tomi continues asking critical questions.

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.

For additional information, photos, and videos, visit

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.