Tomi Paasonen had an upward career as a ballet dancer, interrupted by a serious accident. He began creating diverse and highly eclectic performances that challanged ballet tradition. Stanimir Panayotov provoked him to talk for this year’s issue of the Bulgarian Dance Magazine about the queer perspective in his work on the occasion of his guest appearance in Sofia at the Antistatic Festival for Contemporary Dance and Performance 2023.

Overall, what is the role of the mixed background of dancers in your work? Why is it important to include in your pieces both professional and unprofessional dancers?

I have lived such a life in so many different contexts and countries that I can’t limit myself to one genre. Maybe it’s better to go a little bit chronologically: in the 1990s (I started choreographing in 1991 already), when I was a dancer with the Hamburg Ballet. And then, I had an accident in 1997 that changed my life radically. In the ballet world I was always the black swan, so to say. I was, on the one hand, working very passionately in this very conservative context, but, on the other hand, I was always interested in alternative films and punk, and contemporary art, and performance at the same time.

And so, when I had my accident and I started my first company in San Francisco, this whole three-year period of creating a massive amount of works was really like a homecoming for me. I started mixing my ballet background with all different kinds of ways of dancing and mixing them with subcultures, such as drag and performance. It was also the time of the dot com boom in San Francisco in the late 1990s, which brought a lot of interesting new technology into the mix. The same day when I got a message from US immigration authorities that they won’t renew my visa, saying that I have to move out of the country, I got an invitation back to Finland to make the first professional production integrating people with different kinds of disabilities with two professional dancers. This piece called Olotila: State of Being was something that changed my career completely. It forced me, first of all, to change my working methods: from being the traditional choreographer giving steps to dancers to working with bodies that moved in a completely different way. So this put me into a trajectory of working with improvisation methods, to go deeper into the language of, you know, a seventy-year old woman with cerebral palsy, and a blind man, and a woman with a full body of rheumatism, and paraplegic people who were moving in wheelchairs and all these different currents of bodily histories.

This piece kind of set off a bomb in Finland. And it won all these prizes and was on stage for nine years. This piece completely changed my trajectory. I started working with all kinds of contexts. My next production was in a prison working with a big international group of male prisoners in the biggest prison in Berlin. And I would say, if the 1990s were this period of still doing ballet-based pieces, but mixing them up with different kinds of identities, the next period, I would say, from the premiere of Olotila in the year 2000, this whole period between 2000 and 2013 was a period where I was constantly doing something new. I was going from working with different kinds of bodies, different kinds of identities, different kinds of mixtures of genres. And it just was this cascade of working with different people, with me starting to direct opera, working with actors, doing productions with new music. I’m a very visual person and everything [laughs] to me is interesting. I just saw the world as this huge playground of various new possibilities. And I’m also a very curious person, so I always want to try something new. I just like the contrast between working with a highly-skilled trained body, with all its complexities and different possibilities of doing choreographic exploration, and then this body that has no education, that comes from a completely different world. This, honestly, limitation, so to speak, can speak a completely different language that touches you on a completely different level than you watching something very skillful and very much obstructed by artistic procedures. When working with laymen, people from the street, people with different ages, you bring onto the stage a poetry that you can’t access through technical dancing. It’ll be completely wrong to describe disability through a professional dancer. You know, that would be a mockery of the truth that comes out of, for instance, a seventy-year old disabled woman, with a very, very minimal limited range of motion. It brings life onto the stage as it is engaged in a more direct way, a completely different level of poetry. I’ve always gone back and forth between those polar opposites and mixed them often together. That’s just where my passion lies, these two languages commenting on each other from the two polar opposite points of view. And I find that really delicious. [laughs]

Since your work is largely a demonstration of what is the possibility of queer aesthetics in dance, can we then say that your archive of works and choreographic pieces so far are queering dance by making it more honest because it is more documentary and closer to the bodies of non-professional dancers? Because it is de-skilling also professional dancing bodies? Once you allow non-professional bodies without, as you said, education, to intervene in the work process and in the piece, is it a form of queering dance?

Yes! [laughs] Absolutely, it’s about turning the sense of privilege, in a way, on its head and questioning the elite, which is the place where I came from, this very high-brow opera house, classical ballet prestige. And, of course, me with my queer perspective on life, I wanted to bring the unrepresented onto the platform of the presentation, to conquer the space of privilege by unprivileged bodies. There was power in this. That was very… I don’t want to say revolutionary, but it had this sort of… I needed to bring down my own pedestal, so to speak, that I had been standing on, that was broken down by the accident and seeing light out of how my whole life crashed. And I went from complete privilege to complete survival. This change of perspective gave me the passion to conquer the privileged space with the bodies that had no place in that context.

It seems you imply that an accident can turn around one’s work leading it to a kind of queer eruption. So, in other words, the accident queered your life.

It did. I mean, the stance was there already before; like I said, I was always the black swan of the ballet. You know, I already had a different approach, in general, to reality. But losing my pedestal, and losing my privilege, and losing everything that my life had been built up upon, crashing down… You know, we didn’t have the term “queer” in the 1990s, but I was living a very queer life already, always looking for the most alternative approach to the mainstream. And I was hanging out with the Radical Faeries and all these subcultures. Even the difference between the mainstream gay culture and queer culture was already happening since the 1970s, I would say. So, it felt very meaningful. Also, in my work I think the person, the human, was at the center of the work. There was always a question of some kind of aspect of the biography of the person who was on stage, which gave me the chance to bring the poetry of real life onto the stage by rejecting perfection as a main stance towards what would be beautiful or, [laughs] whatever, skillful.

“Attitude” Photo: Dieter Hartwick

Attitude is described as a ballet etude focusing on the pointe shoe, with the proviso that it is not a parody. Does this mean that in contemporary dance the pointe shoe is not taken at its face value and if it is used, it is used as an attack on the past of classical dance forms?

Yes, and I would also say that my own aim of my 1990s’ work was very much like a rebel reaction towards my past. I had to break down my own barriers at that time and be a rebel. So I myself already at that time, in the end of the 1990s, was very much into, like I said, tearing down my own pedestal, so to speak, tearing down my own past in order to reinvent it into something new. Especially with my second piece of this year, Pas de Q, which also involved drag and ballet. There is a famous company called Ballet de Trockadero. When anyone hears drag ballet, they think of this company. And this is a really great company. It exists since 1974, I think. But it’s very much focused on ballet parody. It’s comedy, it’s slapstick. And it’s good at that. But that doesn’t interest me. And it’s also something that’s already been done. Obviously, as a queer person, I can get around the aspect of sense of humor. That’s not what I want to take away. I don’t want to make a cheap slapstick of ballet. I wanted to go much deeper. For me these days, not having dealt with ballet since the1990s, I’m coming back to it with a very different stance. I don’t want to break ballet. I want to celebrate that original folklore of my own. Something that I was absolutely in love with and passionate about as a child. Then, of course, the industry changed my stance towards it… And then the reality of being in this very conservative context changed it all. Also, I would say ballet in general is very problematic in terms of human rights, and treating people with respect, with its body shaming, and all these very harsh contextual aspects. But, in a way, I’m much more working on my current ballets with the sense of love towards the form while bringing something new into it that doesn’t usually belong to that world at all.

The human body is typically used as a form, as a figure that stands for something other than the body. The figures made by the bodies are thus symbolic. Is Attitude a critique of this symbolism of the body and the substitutive function of the body? In the sense that human bodies are used in dance to offer a figure, a form that says otherwise. As I watched Attitude, I wasn’t sure if this is your approach. Are you using the body to say something other than the body? Or, are you using and working with the dancers and their bodies, so that their bodies are their bodies and not the symbolic substitute for their bodies?

Well, It’s the first time, I think since the 1990s, that I’m coming back to an established form. So, obviously, it’s very referential, someone could say derivative, which has a slightly more negative connotation. But because I take the form of ballet and transform it through individualism and using improvisation methods, using device methods for the dancers to create their own material based on the tasks given to them, I’m extending that form of ballet which is a language of its own. Some people might be able to read into it more if they have knowledge of ballet, some people less if they don’t know ballet. I bring this strong sense of individualism, strong sense of personal biography into this world that usually works within extremely precise form that is given to the dancer to execute. I’m basically finally marrying my past with my presence. And this line of work feels for me as a homecoming after a long journey around the world of performative possibilities. It feels like I have arrived somewhere that feels so true to myself. Also, in a way, one could see my constant excessive exploration towards the unknown and the future. In a way, one could see me running away from my past, running away from where I came from, always going somewhere where I’ve never been before. At this point of my life when I’m older, and especially having returned to the stage myself after twenty four years, there’s something so touching to me to accept my past, so to speak, to embrace my past, to find my way back into the beginning of everything, finding my love back to that passion that I had as a child and both coming in from this place of innocence and at the same time looking at it from very far away. Yeah, it’s a homecoming for me that I’m so happy that I finally have broken down that barrier. And exploring that love that used to exist, and reawakening that love that used to exist and at the same time doing it the way I love to do it, which is, you know, bringing the autobiographical sense of being steeped in life, yet constantly referencing that old hundreds-of-years form that we have, on the one hand, built our Western culture in dance upon before it, then, on the other hand, gradually got broken down. [laughs]

Attitude is a mixture, a story of intimate moments and collective expansions unfolding an ecstatic rave: maybe we can call it body rave. There is this moment in Attitude which almost feels like a rave party. If I’m right, and if you are revisiting the unique moment of the 1990s and their synthesis of everything, of their “anything goes,” then is Attitude nostalgic about something of that period you want to communicate to new audiences?

Yes, it has definitely a sense of nostalgia in it, as I’m returning to my roots. But it’s also something that I’ve never seen myself. It’s both old and new at the same time. I think I’m maybe approaching a sense of timelessness in my work in the sense that you can’t really put it in any bag. It has very long deep historical roots, but it’s very much in the now. And that’s how I see myself going into the future. I now have this very holistic approach of accepting my own past and taking that acceptance of my own past and celebrating it through my current point of view. At the premiere of Attitude, I had this strange feeling without trying to or wanting to. I felt like I had started a company which is not even something that I was interested in or had planned to. But there was such a strong reaction from the team, the dancers, and the audience, and then my own, as I said, homecoming, that I felt like I had found my own gold mine of a deep well out of which I can create for many years to come. I would say the last three years have been extremely transformational in that way. But yeah, nostalgia is there, absolutely. And the 1990s are absolutely there. But at the same time it’s something that I haven’t seen. I’ve seen many pieces using the pointe shoe. But it’s always been with this very clear disrespect towards the form, let’s put it that way.

It feels as if your nostalgia is directed towards the future, not the past.

Absolutely, yeah. It’s becoming whole. Because I feel like I have been in my branch of various genres that had been spreading out and spreading out and spreading out and spreading out. And, I don’t know, it feels like all the branches are somehow coming together after three decades of working.

Even before watching the show, the name and description evoked Madonna’s Vogue which, of course, parasitizes on New York ballroom culture and the ethnographic work of Jennie Livingston. That is quite clear already when Leo Mancuso says to the audience “Welcome in da house!” If you are returning to the past of a culture and want to carry it over to the present, then can this spontaneous communal culture of “striking a pose” be ever recuperated? It feels like you want to salvage something in Attitude from these communal cultures, and that happens via dialogue and the participatory elements of the piece – by having the dancers speak to the audience.

I guess for me it’s more a question of cross-pollination. I like to bring separate things that don’t belong together and marry them to create hybrids that belong in neither category. So, maybe it’s not so much about salvation. Attitude is the very first piece where I’m dealing with ballet again. And it also was a low budget project, so I did it really fast, only in three weeks. I think at the time of its creation I was just really like a kid in a candy store bringing all the favorites with new favorites, and seeing what happens, and also just bringing my current situation. I’m married to a drag performer and I’m very submerged in the Berlin queer community, particularly the performative drag ballroom queer dance bubble, or community. And because it’s a marriage between past and present, these are just the results of that cross-pollination.

So, it’s not a question of salvation, as you say, it’s a question of hybridization.

Yeah, hybridization of forms, and hybridization of cultures, and hybridization of the distant past with my current world.

But I do believe there is a new element here that’s worth thinking about, which is the speaking dancer, particularly the speaking drag dancer, the dancer that engages directly with the audience in a now very traditional queerly manner of dare. This is not so much about breaking the fourth wall as a convention in dance and theater, but it’s more about a rarely used participatory function, which is what happens when a dancer speaks to the audience. This is new to ballet but a tradition to drag.

Yeah, it’s storytelling.

But it is crucial to acknowledge this is completely outside the tradition of ballet.

Yes, absolutely, yes. It has nothing to do with it [laughs], it shouldn’t be there.

That’s why I’m saying it’s in the storyline of hybridization. Because in ballet, in particular, dancers’ bodies are supposed to tell the story.

Yes, and instead I went all ballet in the first part, which is completely abstract.

It’s also very achromatic, unlike the other parts.

This work is a bringing together of my old way of working with my current way of working, which is storytelling, and it’s autobiographical, and it’s steeped in life. And I also like stage art dance to be a place of communication. I personally have been blamed many times for saying what I want to say in my piece as opposed to only letting the audience decide what it would be. I like to tell stories. I like to bring up people. I like to go deeper into actual substance, what I would call substance, and not keep it on an abstract level. I’m very generous, let’s put it that way. [laughs] And there’s also been a lot of criticism towards me for being so generous, particularly by professional critics who prefer things nobody else can understand, only them. Again, it’s taking away that elite dimension from the art and actually saying “No, this is what I am, and this is what I want to talk about.” And bringing the gender aspect strongly into the piece. For me that’s interesting. Ballet is such a context where the gender roles are so extremely separate. You have different classes, you have different techniques. Women wear pointe shoes, men don’t. Men lift women, men control women. And I want to erase that aspect and bring the queerness, and bring the real life experience of what does it mean for me to be on this stage right now as this body, with this technique, with these facilities, in this costume with their own stories from their childhood, of why am I here, you know. That for me is what I love. And it’s, again, this hybridization between the classical and the contemporary.

The last one third of Attitude feels like a manifesto of identity politics. It is very organic, soul-driven, blurring the boundary between postmodern parody and personalistic drama. Flamboyance is both serious and played with. Drag is part of it, but ballet too. At the end, it bursts into an exploding picturesque opera, appropriating and reclaiming the pink triangle, under the aegis Roland de Lassus’ Surge propera mica mea. Do you feel these different levels of culture are serving dance to change perceptions of identity?

Absolutely. I mean, that’s also what I was doing when creating a dance piece on stage with disabled people who can’t move. I love to undress the perfection of stage design, of choreographic form, as to radically change the perception of identity. But I think you described the piece beautifully there with all these sentences. [laughs]

But then again, some would say, “Well, this play of identities is too nostalgic, it’s passé.” “Why are we going back to these questions of the 1990s?” “Hasn’t culture really changed?” “Do we need to reiterate these changes from the past?”

Yes, we do. [laughs] Well, first of all, the aspect of gender, or the conversation around the aspect of gender has exploded in the last couple of years. So it’s topically something that is changing language around the world right now. In Germany, it’s so complicated, because it’s such a gendered language. And they’re trying to do it with asterisks, and little pauses in the words. It’s so hard to degender a very gendered language. You know, Tennessee is outlawing drag performances. In their law, drag is not allowed in the state of Tennessee without penalty anymore. So, it’s not like the issue is resolved. And I think in Attitude politics is as hot a topic for today as it was in the 1990s, now even more so. I think that the polarization that is happening in society is absolutely something that we need to address.

So, Attitude is a reminder to everybody that identity as culture isn’t something that’s comfortably institutionalized and we still have to fight for it.

We absolutely have to fight for it, and especially when invading such a conservative context as ballet in this respect. That’s where the danger lies. Ballet is very much a taboo in contemporary dancing. So, in a way, I’m also doing something that’s not allowed from the contemporary point of view. But I’m also doing something that’s not allowed from the classical point of view. So, potentially, with this line of work I can just be hated by everyone. [laughs] But, you know, I’m just sticking true to who I am at the moment. That’s all I can do.

SP: Imagine this scenario. What do you think will be the reaction to – and understanding of – Attitude if you stage it for an exclusively heterosexual audience? Do you feel like we live in an age where a completely heterosexual audience can sit down and read what you’re doing?

I think more so now. Because, you know, for instance, the whole gender language problematics brings the topic into the sentence formations of everyday people. And of course you can have a strong reaction against it, because people have to change their way of thinking. And that’s always a really hard thing to achieve, especially if you’re someone in a very settled context of reality. But yes, I think it is a topic that has arrived very much in the mainstream. And, you know, some people hate it, obviously, and some people are very passionate about it, and then some people are just ignorant about it. But yeah, obviously, this problem has to come out of the closets of its past. We can’t keep hiding only in friendly contexts, in the clubs and the darkrooms and the little underground bubbles where we feel free to express ourselves. Particularly, this aspect is very interesting to bring into contexts where it is outlandish and strange and potentially insulting, or however people decide to react to it.

Transcribed from the English original by Roman Islamov.

Tomi Paasonen, born in Helsinki, Finland, is a choreographer, artistic director, curator, multi-disciplinary director, mentor and teacher.

Stanimir Panayotov is assistant professor in philosophy and cultural studies at the School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen, Russia.

A joint publication with Dance Magazine, Bulgaria, nr. 5/2023.

Dance Magazine is initiated by Antistatic Festival within the European project “Life Long Burning – Futures Lost and Found (LLB3)” funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the EU. It is realized by Brain Store Project and Nomad Dance Academy – Bulgaria with the financial support of the National Culture Fund under the “Programme for the Recovery and Development of Private Cultural Organizations”.

Cover image: Tomi Paasonen in Retrospective – 5 Solos for 5 Decades at Antistatic International Festival of Contemporary Dance and Performance, Sofia | Photo: Teodora Simova