Tero Saarinen Company: Dancing with light at the Kennedy Center

Video: Members of Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company dance in “Wavelengths.” Choreographed by company founder Tero Saarinen, the piece was one of three performed at the company’s Kennedy Center debut Tuesday.

Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen is obsessed with light and darkness, and it’s no wonder. Helsinki swings between extremes of light, with its midday nightfall in winter and midnight sun in summer.

Light was an active player in the three intriguing works that the Tero Saarinen Company performed Tuesday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater as part of the Nordic Cool 2013 festival. It contributed to their atmospheres and subtle moods and, it seemed, to the motor impulse of the dancers. In “Westward Ho!,” a deeply moving portrait of the changing relationship among three sailors, the men were buoyed by gentle waves of brightness and shadow that seemed to shift the ground under their feet and echoed the sway of the sea.

(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post) - From left, Henrikki Heikkila, Mikko Lampinen and Pekka Louhio with the Tero Saarinen Company perform “Westward Ho!” during a dress rehearsal Tuesday at the Kennedy Center. The performance was part of the Nordic Cool 2013 festival.

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Clear blue light turned murky as tensions developed; when the glow of sunset arrived, the dancers’ response was so minutely attuned, it was as if the dimness had seeped into their bones. By nearly imperceptible degrees, the mood darkened, and through the most delicate means — changes in posture, an isolated gesture, a few repeated steps — a tragedy unfolded. (Saarinen studied butoh in Japan, and the understatement of that movement style is clear in his choreography.) It was especially poignant because the emotions felt so rich throughout, and the lighting communicated a large part of that magic.

Mikki Kunttu designed the lighting for this program and has worked with the company since its founding in 1996. In “Wavelengths,” Kunttu’s deepening amber glow warmed the balance of power and passion between a man and a woman. In “Hunt,” a solo that Saarinen performed to Stravinsky’s pounding, punishing “Rite of Spring,” effects including a single bulb, footlights, strobes and video projections transformed the space from primitive to futuristic.

It’s unfair to focus on the lighting, though, at the expense of the other elements of this extraordinary evening. Light is seldom used as imaginatively as it was here, but I could say the same about the costumes — especially in “Wavelengths,” where the kimono-inspired wide-leg pants, created by Erika Turunen, looked chic and moved gorgeously.

Saarinen’s musical selections were also rewarding. He created “Hunt” in 2002 as a commentary on technology’s dominance, he said in a post-performance discussion. “We have become these kind of ‘screen people,’ ” he said, which explains the collages of images (all photos of himself) that were projected onto him. This is his last year dancing it — at 48, he’s feeling the strain. But because 2013 is the music’s centennial, this is also a good year to take the work on tour.

Much of the homespun simplicity and directness of “Westward Ho!” came from its music: composer Gavin Bryars’s arrangement of a London tramp singing “Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet” in a soft, childlike voice. And Finnish composer Riku Niemi’s stark percussion in “Wavelengths” highlighted the lushness of the dancing.

The dancing was by no means the least delight of this program. The company numbers only five dancers, including Saarinen. You felt as if you’d seen many more. Not because the stage was overrun with activity but because the movement was so sumptuous, expansive and expressive. Each dancer was a jewel, but I was especially taken with Maria Nurmela’s melting quality in “Wavelengths.”

Not one moment in the entire evening looked awkward. Everything fit, like fine cabinetry. Choreography, music, dancers, light: a most complete experience. And one I hope will come again.

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