Sinikka Gripenberg: A Dance Life in Photos

(Sinikka Gripenberg: Tanssitut elämän kuvat)

By Aino Kukkonen
152 pp. Helsinki: Parus Verus Publishing House.

Reviewed by Margareta Sörenson*

The threads in a spider’s web are thin but hold together through storm and rain, as do the radiant lines from the center of modernism to the periphery. Finland, in the northeast corner of Europe, was geographically far from the hot spots of dance during the early 20th century but all the same the metaphor works and this monograph by Aino Kuukonen about Finnish dancer, choreographer and pedagogue Sinikka Gripenberg fits perfectly into the greater picture of how modernism in dance conquered the world. The fact is, Gripenberg is not well-known outside of Finland, not even in its neighbor Sweden, where I live and work.

Subtitled ”A Dance Life in Photos,” suggesting that this monograph will not be analytic but rather descriptive, it must be said that the photos are certainly numerous, beautiful and interesting. Neverthless, if the text had been expanded the volume might be even more valuable, especially for readers outside Finland. But, every country and every culture needs its own leading figures, and Gripenberg is clearly one of Finland’s. That said, even with its limited text, Kukkonen manages to clearly map the intricate ways in how new thinking in the arts gets transported across borders. That is to say, how the story of modern dance arrived in Finland.

The volume basically shows how Sinikka Gripenberg, born in 1940, has been able to dance in the arms of modernism twice – first with the ”old” Modernism, as introduced in the early 20th century in France and Germany, and then, a second time, as Post-modern Dance began to establish a new but more solid thread for the spider web with its evolving center in the United States.

Gripenberg first met dance as a little girl in 1945, when Finland was emerging from World War II and the dance field was still dominated by classical ballet in the Russian tradition, or by what was called ”plastic dance” or ”free dance” in the 1930s in Finland, the latter a continuation of the early modernism of Isadora Duncan and expressionist dancers such as Mary Wigman, Rudolf Laban and the dance-theatre oriented Kurt Jooss.

Kukkonen gives a rich picture of the dancers a generation or so earlier than Gripenberg. The leading figure of that period in Finland was Maggie Gripenberg, who, despite the name, was not a close relative of Sinikka. Maggie, it turns out, came from another branch of the Gripenberg family into which Sinikka later married. Indeed, the two ladies Gripenberg actually only met twice. Maggie Gripenberg’s importance was certainly national in scope. The fact is that, as so very often for the first generation of modernist women, Maggie came from a privileged family — her father was a Baron from the Swede-Finn upper classes. Maggie loved dancing, but in her social circles, young women were not supposed to dance for a living. But dance took over her life after seeing Isadora Duncan on tour in Dresden and in Helsinki. Maggie subsequently visited Stockholm where she studied with one of Duncan’s enthusiastic followers, Anna Behle. Soon after, she began to study in Dresden with Émile Jacques-Dalcroze, a key person for the so-called ”free dance”movement who had a range of new ideas about rhythm, the human body and a more natural, body-friendly way to move.

Back in Finland, Maggie began to soon work with the Finnish National Opera and the Finnish National Theatre as a choreographer. ”With Maggie Gripenberg, dance began to be regarded as an independent art form in Finland” says Kukkonen. One photo shows a smiling Maggie in an elegant hat and cape, an Isadora of the north.

Kukkonen’s well-written and meticulous mapping of the landscape effectively describes the conditions inherited by Sinikka Gripenberg and others in the 1950s and 60s. Sinikka was herself born and raised in a working-class family, but, unlike Maggie, was encouraged to dance by her music-loving parents. Such a background clearly reflects the new possibilities for everyone in post-war Finland to have access to education and social welfare — the Scandinavian lifestyle. Though Finland survived many meager years after the war compared, for instance, to Sweden, the fact is that strong trade unions, professional associations and a firm cultural policy for the nation helped change the social situation enormously and doors opened at that time for even the non-privileged. A firm belief in the arts also made dance possible as a profession for young people with talent and determination. 

That said, the 1930s fascist and Nazi movements tried their best to cut off the growth of modernism in the arts and, to some extent, they succeeded. But modernism was already established — at least its first version —  when the war was over. It was then that Sinikka, age five, began attending the dance school of Kaarina Kuoppamäki-Mansikkala, a Finnish pioneer of free dance and, coincidentally,  a student of Maggie Gripenberg. Like Maggie, she ”used improvisation exercises in her teaching.” The techniques and working methods of the first generation of modernists had clearly fostered a new way to work, study and train. It was this attitude that prepared the second and even third, generation of dance modernists. To this end, a Finnish Union of Dance Artists was established in 1937, offering a structure as well as a place to meet for the growing number of freelance modern dancers, most of whom combined life as a dancer and/or choreographer with professional work as dance teachers.

The Union of Dance Artists, Kukkonen tells us, was divided into two sections — one for ballet, one for free dance. “Since few dancers were able to study abroad and training was needed, the Union by the 1960s was actively organizing courses. Joseph Gifford (a specialist in Doris Humphrey technique), was the first of many American teachers offering a summer course in 1961. Enthusiasts from all over the country gathered at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium gymnasium, (Sinikka) Gripenberg among them.”

Indeed, central Europe quickly felt a flood of American influence with both visiting/performing companies and visiting teachers. The companies of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey, as well as the Anna Halprin Dancers Workshop Company and Donal McKayle’s Black New World all visited Finland during this period and Sinikka Gripenberg ”was deeply affected in particular by Martha Graham’s dance works, their movements, expression and drama: this was how she too wanted to dance!”

Sinikka also attended a summer course in Sweden in 1962, a course which played a similar important role there. And twice in 1968, she took additional classes in Sweden eventually going to New York to study at the Martha Graham School.

Back in Finland, and now in her thirties (the same age that many modern dancers were when they turned  professional), she started her own professional work as a modern dancer. And as most, she too spent a long time fighting the obstacles to being ”modern” in a world of strict tradition and conventions.  This was clearly different than the career paths of  ballet dancers who usually started careers in their early twenties (or younger) after having struggled with the discipline and its pointe shoes from childhood.

Sinikka Gripenberg too enjoyed teaching and giving classes, a skill she maintained throughout her life on a freelance basis, clearly necessary to earn a living. It should be noted here that dancers generally were not paid for rehearsals, only for performances, a tradition that later happily changed.

Kukkonen describes how a new acceptance from the theatre world created a demand for modern dancers both for art and entertainment. A wave of dance-filled musicals virtually forced theatres to hire modern dancers who more and more evolved into choreographers. The leading figures eventually established their own dance companies — groups like Praesens (led by Ritva Arvelo, a former student of Maggie Gripenberg) and the Dance Studio Group, where Jorma Uotinen started his career, later a leader of the Finnish National Ballet and the artistic director of Kuopio Dance Festival, the first dance festival in Scandinavia which was launched in 1970.

Sinikka Gripenberg was often hired as a dancer in these new companies as well as in established theatres, and was seen as one of the country’s foremost modern dancers. To follow these threads here is fascinating, creating a wish to see a map of the correspondences between schools, teachers, years of training abroad and coming back into still newer constellations. Martha Graham technique, in particular, was creating its own pattern within the larger pattern, a difficult technique but still the favorite of Gripenberg.

”It takes time to learn Graham technique”, writes Kukkonen. “According to Graham herself, a professional dancer needs some ten years to master it. The method has been considered static and even rigid, but Gripenberg has learnt that it always involves fluidity. Breathing gives the movements freedom and continuity….The 1980s saw the emergence of new, young teachers who had embraced the idea of the fluidity of movement.”

Clearly, the kind of modernism from the 1940s and 50s had a comeback when post-modern dance began to flow into the western world in the 1980s.  At this time, Sinikka Gripenberg was wanted more and more, was seen as a highly-respected teacher, and not only in Finland. In later decades, Japanese butoh became another new discovery. Inspired by aging butho dancers, Gripenberg asked herself whether ”anything actually stopped her from still dancing.” From this, she created in Paris a solo piece called Journey (Matkalla) in 1993, in which  ”she wanted to re-explore the meaning of movement and find a reduced form of expression….Dance is a demanding art,” writes Kukkonen, ”and dancers tend to be highly self-critical. When Gripenberg returned to the stage in her fifties, she found a new kind of self-confidence and started to create more choreographies of her own, including Journey 2 (Matkalla 2) and My Mind Is Moving On (2005). This new experience of dancing with an aging body led to courses, improvisation sessions and more teaching and — in Finland as in many other Western countries — a wave of dances for old age grew in the first decades of the 21st century. ”At the age of 82,” states Kukkonen, Gripenberg still ”teaches caring and gentle dance at the Helsinki Dance Institute and performs occasionally. Dance goes on and movement never stops— only its forms change.” 

This main text section of the book — ”Dance brings freedom, joy and meaning,” described above, gives a precise picture of just how dance modernism landed in Finland. Mme. Gripenberg is a perfect example of this in both style and technique and Kukkonen gives a clear mapping of how this field was built. And how much time and work it takes, how traditions and influences are carried by persons investigating themselves in new art forms. Often, this was achieved by a single person and, as in the case of Finland, by a woman.

The volume’s concluding chapters are heavily photo-based with captions in both Finnish and English. And this works. ”Dance photos constitute the memory of dance” is a statement on the cover of the book, and it is easy to agree. The human body might look the same through history but nylon tights,  hanging hair, bare feet and the slimness of the dancers without visible or defined muscles make change visible and perfectly conclude this story of a world-level dancer in the 20th century.

The reader is invited in this volume to follow Sinikka Gripenberg’s path — from a child dancing bunnies and nettles in the 1950s, to typical postures of the 60s, in a chorus line from Oklahoma in 1973, to unisex costumes showing typical modern, jazz-inspired moves, to the dramatic positions of Graham-inspired dance, and even street dance in the 70’s. And it is all here. Even finally, the elegance and self-consciousness of the aging dancer.

Certainly one sees clearly here the many thin threads of the great spider web of contemporary dance that held the field together as it grew into a respected part of today’s performing arts. This valuable monograph about one key figure in the movement clearly shows us how modern dance has travelled the globe. 


*Margareta Sörenson is a theatre and dance critic based in Stockholm, Sweden. A former president of the International Association of Theatre Critics, her orientation is toward multidisciplinary stage arts such as contemporary dance, circus, animation theatre, and the influence of classical Asian performing arts in European culture. She has published books on theatre, puppetry, children’s culture, and dance, including her 2011 book on Mats Ek. She has been a lecturer on the traditions of puppetry in Finland and Sweden, holds an MA in dance studies, and lectures on dance history and aesthetics.

Copyright © 2024 Margareta Sörenson
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