A space devoted to dance is a dream that has dwelt in the hearts of Finnish dancers for decades. The thought was first voiced in the 1930s. The relentless work and joint effort of different operators and an extensive group of active participants made the birth of Dance House Helsinki possible. How did it all start, and what turns of events have occurred along the road?
Text: Aino Kukkonen, PhD, dance researcher
A dream from 1932: A dance stage must be established
Surprisingly, the first proposition regarding a stage dedicated to dance can be read from a magazine that was published almost exactly 90 years ago. The pioneer of modern dance in Finland, Maggie Gripenberg (1881–1976), brought up the matter during her 20-year artist's jubilee as follows:“Lastly, I want to mention a dream of mine, which is perhaps impossible to execute . . . I am talking about the thought of building a dance stage. . . . The most difficult question surely is resolving the architectonic matters. You see, a regular stage is not suited for a dance stage. The audience must be able to see the whole stage from every seat of the auditorium, and the level between the stage and auditorium must also be carefully considered.” Naamio 3–4/1932
"Lastly, I want to mention a dream of mine, which is perhaps impossible to execute --- "
— Maggie Gripenberg
Gripenberg was right to state that a regular stage does not serve the needs of dance. She also presumed that the dance stage would become financially profitable with rational arrangements. The space could be rented to others, and other activities could be arranged in the premises, such as dance institute facilities and a dance club. In addition to the dance stage, another acute need for the future of Finnish dance was a trade union. This dream of Gripenberg was realised quite soon when she was involved in founding the Union of Finnish Dance Artists (nowadays the Union of Dance and Circus Artists Finland) in 1937.
The union's purpose was to elevate the artistic, professional and financial status of dance artists. In the beginning, its central form of activity was organising its own dance performances to provide dancers with performance opportunities and to spread knowledge of the art form. These performances were held in the Finnish National Theatre, the Finnish National Opera and Svenska Teatern (the Swedish Theatre).
The opera house in Bulevardi was an old Russian garrison theatre and the home of Finnish ballet since starting its operation in 1922. The Alexander Theatre functioned as the stage for the Finnish National Opera and Ballet until 1993.
The idea of a dance house resurfaced in the 1980s. Back then, the advocate was Doris Laine (1931–2018), a powerhouse of dance and the former prima ballerina of the Finnish National Ballet. When the completion of the new opera house was finally on the horizon, dance organisations saw the opportunity to suggest that the old opera house be made into a dance house. Even a demonstration was organised for the cause.
Interestingly, the same suggestion was brought up again in the early 2000s. Back then, the advocate was Tiloja Tanssille association, known today as Tanssille ry, whose aim was to acquire rehearsal facilities for dance professionals and students. At the time, dance groups, dance schools and Dance Info Finland operated in the Alexander Theatre. However, the technically old-fashioned theatre, which was in need of major renovation, was not a rational decision functionally or financially. Its small stage could not fit large national or foreign guest appearances. In addition, viewers in the first few rows could not see the floor work that is typical to contemporary dance due to the elevated stage.
Vagrant dance culture
The position of dance in Finland had started to change in the 1980s. For example, that is when the Theatre Academy began to offer higher education in dance. The number of freelance artists and performances grew, which brought out the constant lack of facilities. Short-term rental periods of facilities made it more difficult for the audience to find their way to performances.
Dance was scattered in different temporary facilities around the city. School halls, auditoriums, assembly halls or old movie theatres were not ideal dance stages due to their size and the auditorium placement alone. Dance performances also require proper stage technology and a floor, not forgetting other stage components, audience spaces and accessibility.
In the early 1980s, the Cultural Centre of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki produced a wide array of new experimental dance performances for the Old Student House. Among other things, contact improvisation courses were also held there, and interesting international theatre names and butoh dance guest performances were seen as well.
Studio Julius, which was located next to the Student House in the heart of Helsinki, was closest to the idea of a dance stage, but its history was cut short (1983–85). The theatre, which was built specifically for dance, was visited by national dance groups and new choreographers, such as Jorma Uotinen, Reijo Kela, Leena Gustavson and Ulla Koivisto, as well as a few foreign visitors. The modifiable space was lost due to its owner, Julius Tallberg Oy's, financial difficulties. Despite the dance field's wishes, the City of Helsinki and the Ministry of Education did not support the dance stage project at the time.
The City of Helsinki's cultural activity centre Stoa, the current cultural centre of Eastern Helsinki, was completed in Itäkeskus in 1984, which improved the situation slightly. Contemporary dance performances are still seen there, but the same facility is rented by many others than just dancers.
“Back then, the Student House was a unique, active forum, and open performances were organised in Annantalo Arts Centre by Dance Theatre Hurjaruuth,”
— Hannele Niiranen, a founder of the dance theatre.
A resonating suggestion
At the turn of the millennium, the few available performance facilities kept accumulating an increasing number of users. More dancers were being educated, but the number of available performance facilities remained the same. There were no places to practice the profession; they faced a very different situation than in dance institutes, which had better circumstances in terms of space, reminds Niiranen.
A concrete move toward a house dedicated to dance was a plan drawn up by the Union of Finnish Dance Artists in 1999. In the plan, VR's workshop area in Alppiharju was suggested as the location of the dance house. A major renovation to the old initial construction building was planned, which would create a theatre space for 200–500 people as well as three rehearsal spaces, one of which would function as a performance hall. It was optimistically hoped that the city would reach a construction decision by the year 2000.
However, after the recession in the late 90s, dance was still one of the least known art forms in Finland. Public basic funding was in a bad state and the benefits of free agents were cut. The Dance Council of Finland adopted a critical view of the financial plan because it was desired to use the limited grant for activities.
“The house was, of course, a big risk and it was feared that it would eat up the little money that dance had. The idea behind the Union's plan was that the house would gather the field's operators and services in one place, and the house would also have its own performance production,” says Niiranen.
Even though the Union's plan did not materialise, it might have had a resonating effect.
dance needed its own space, a dance house, so that it could rise to the same level as other art forms.
Small steps toward the house
Things started happening at the beginning of the 2000s. Artist Professor Alpo Aaltokoski decided to convene professionals to discuss the Dance House in spring 2007. After the discussion, a group of dance activists from the administrative and artistic side (Aaltokoski, Iiris Autio, Sanna Rekola, Sari Lakso, Kai Lehikoinen and Ari Tenhula) made a proposition to the Cultural Committee of the City of Helsinki to bring about a report of dance space requirements.
A bill was eventually made to the City Council (2007) to develop dance in Helsinki by Päivi Lipponen and other city councillors. Soon the city established a working group and a final report of the working group published by the Cultural Office (Selvitys Tanssitaiteen esiintymis- ja työtiloista Helsingissä, 2008) highlighted the dance field's situation at that time, the lack of proper performance and rehearsal facilities, and went through a couple of international examples and possible locations for the dance house in Helsinki. The conclusions of the report were clear: dance needed its own space, a dance house, so that it could rise to the same level as other art forms. The house would also increase the possibility of international cooperation.
Dance field operators were now starting to come together for the common cause. In 2010, Marjo Kuusela and Kenneth Kvarnström organised an event in the Theatre Academy, which resulted in the establishment of the Helsinki Dance House Association in June of the same year. It aimed to promote the creation of a proper space for dance art and culture in Helsinki. Both individual members and community members were involved in the association. During the first year of operation, the Chairperson was choreographer Tuomo Railo (Glims & Gloms company).
The house project began to take shape with the help of a dedicated association. The board, which was selected on the first annual meeting in 2011, included a versatile selection of Finnish dance and culture operators. The Chairperson was the Director of Dance Info Finland Sanna Rekola, and other members were the Director General of the Finnish National Gallery Risto Ruohonen, the leading expert of Senate Properties Tuomo Hahl, City Councillor and Vice Chairman of the board of Helsinki Festival Tuuli Kousa, Theatre Academy Rector Paula Tuovinen, Tuomo Railo, Tero Saarinen Company's Managing Director Iiris Autio, Zodiak - Center for New Dance Managing Director Raija Ojala, choreographer Samuli Nordberg from Tsuumi and academician Marjo Kuusela.
Another important step was also taken in the same year when the Finnish Cultural Foundation granted the first project grant for the house. It was used for the background research of Dance House Helsinki and to hire the first employee, project manager Hanna-Mari Peltomäki.
“The facilities and the house were the main focus of my work but, at the same time, I also had to solve issues related to operations models. Everything was still in the early stages; we only had money for one year. Back then I did not realise how long this project was going to be,” notes Peltomäki, who worked on the house project during 2011–2018.
" Back then I did not realise how long this project was going to be."
— Hanna-Mari Peltomäki
The attitudes of decision-makers start to change
Dance House Helsinki was also starting to appear on reports, visions and strategies. The house was no longer just empty words or utopia. Instead, it had become a goal to be reached. For example, the Dance Council of Finland brought it up as one of the central objectives in their strategy for 2010–2020. Similarly, the City of Helsinki suggested a dance house to solve the space issue of dance in their five-year culture strategy. The house could be implemented as cooperation between the city, state and other operators, which is what happened eventually.
Different papers made the costs visible and enabled negotiations with decision-makers. Persistent advocacy work highlighted the value, needs and possibilities of dance. At some point, the decision-makers' attitudes began to change.
“When we spoke in the parliament or to the city's civil servants, they no longer questioned the matter. They understood that the dance house is truly needed. First Marianna Kajantie from the City of Helsinki Cultural Office had warmed up to the idea along with Deputy Mayor Ritva Viljanen,” says Sanna Rekola.
Even though the matters started to progress, Rekola presumed that because the house project is such a demanding task, something would halt the progress and force it back to square one. This, however, did not happen.
“When we spoke in the parliament or to the city's civil servants, they no longer questioned the matter. They understood that the dance house is truly needed."
— Sanna Rekola
The house is erected at the Cable Factory
Nokia Cable Factory in Ruoholahti had once been the largest building in Finland. It shut down its operation as a factory by the early 1990s, and space was freed up for rent. Cultural operators and artists from different fields gathered at the Cable Factory, and dancers found their way there early as well. At first, they renovated the spaces themselves. Zodiak Presents organised the New Dance Festival at the Cable Factory as early as the turn of the year 1989–1990. Dance Theatre Hurjaruuth also settled there at the beginning of the 1990s. Kiinteistö Oy Kaapelitalo was established in 1991. Old industry was starting to step aside and give way to artists, new city culture and the business world.
In addition to constructing a new building, many old buildings were brought up in the different stages of the project to be modified for dance use. Previously, the following places had been suggested: the so-called Jätkäsaari Bunker, Taivallahti barracks in Töölö, Ford House in Hernesaari, and Suvilahti, among others. Even the possibility for a joint space with the Guggenheim Museum was brought up. Finally, in 2014, Dance House Helsinki was proposed to be located in a part of the Cable Factory. This suggestion was brought up in a space requirement survey conducted by the City of Helsinki with help from JKMM Architects, who later designed the new building.
The next big step for the house was also taken in 2014 when the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation decided to grant a conditional grant of EUR 15 million for the construction of a new building. The condition was that a contract regarding the realisation of the house project had to be worked out by the end of the next year. Otherwise the money would be lost.
The Mayor of Helsinki established a Dance House Helsinki working group, which began to investigate the house's establishment in 2015.
A framework agreement, which was the condition of the Erkko grant, was signed. It formed an agreement between the City of Helsinki, Kiinteistö Oy Kaapelitalo, Helsinki Dance House Association and the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation on, amongst other things, the financing of new construction, the planning process and the public funding of activities.
“It was not easy to get the city and state involved. However, the general atmosphere toward dance changed during the 2010s, and people began to believe in its possibilities. The Museum of Contemporary Art was also in the works for several decades. Now no one questions its necessity,” says Rekola.
The foundation stone of Dance House Helsinki was laid in January 2020, and its grand opening is being celebrated this spring in 2022.
The impossible dream voiced by Maggie Gripenberg almost a hundred years ago has been realised.
The impossible dream voiced by Maggie Gripenberg almost a hundred years ago has been realised.
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Hannele Niiranen 18.11.2021
Sanna Rekola 19.11.2021
Hanna-Mari Peltomäki 23.11.2021