Peek behind the scenes of the Finnish National Ballet
The loveably philosophical Moomins head to Japan for the premiere of Moomin and the Magician’s Hat.
Stretching like a cat, Mai Komori arrives for morning class at the Finnish National Ballet. The piano keys tinkle as she begins her warm-up – a compulsory ritual six days a week.
The company’s working language is English, as the ensemble employs dancers of 21 different nationalities. Three are from Japan, including Nagoya-born Komori, who – after 17 years with the Finnish National Ballet – is thrilled to be joining its first-ever tour of Japan in April. “It’s so exciting to perform before a home crowd!” she says.
The highlight of the tour is the premiere of Moomin and the Magician’s Hat, a new choreography by Kenneth Greve, artistic director of the Finnish National Ballet, based on Tove Jansson’s famous children’s book Finn Family Moomintroll (1948).
After a quick lunch of rye bread sandwiches, Komori sets off to prepare for the afternoon dress rehearsal, which will be staged before a live audience. Komori dances the role of Moomintroll’s sweetheart, the somewhat vain and frivolous Snorkmaiden.
“I grew up reading the Moomin books in Japan, so the characters are very familiar. It’s fun playing a girly-girl, but I personally identify more with cheeky Little My,” she says.
A flicker of dismay crosses Komori’s face as she lifts her hulking costume: this is her first time dancing the entire piece in full garb. The hot, mascot-style outfit is as bulky as an inflatable sumo suit, added to which visibility is limited to a narrow slit roughly a metre in front of her.
“It was a surprise putting it on for the first time. When I’m wearing the suit, every gesture must be exaggerated, otherwise my movements are obscured – but I mustn’t exaggerate too much either,” she says.
The lights dim, the spotlights fall, and the music – by composer Tuomas Kantelinen – strikes up softly in the background. The corps de ballet glides onto stage dressed as delicate spring flowers. The ballet begins.
Sixty minutes later, the hall rings with applause. The dress rehearsal has gone off impeccably – at least to the untrained eye of the casual observer.
“Whenever I looked down, all I could see was my huge belly! I was worried I’d step off the edge of the stage! I just tried to focus on Moomintroll and make sure our hands connected when they’re supposed to,” giggles Komori.
The ruby in the suitcase
Joining Komori on the Japanese tour is Hanako Matsune, who has been with the company for four years and was newly promoted to the status of soloist dancer. Matsune performs the enigmatic role of the Ruby, the prized possession of the Magician, who brings the precious gem to life in the form of a beautiful woman.
“I dance in a regular red tutu, so I don’t face the same challenges as my colleagues in Moomin costumes,” she says, with a smile. “The Ruby is an abstract character. Everyone admires her power, but she doesn’t have a personality in the conventional sense.”
Matsune is thrilled to be performing in Osaka, which is near her home town, Kobe.” It will be wonderful to reunite with friends and family,” she adds.
The spirit of Snufkin
The Moomins are loved not only for their gentle, philosophical outlook on life, but also for their instantly recognisable idiosyncrasies. We all know at least one feisty Little My, one bossy Hemulen, or one neurotic Fillyjonk. For the dancers, this is a challenge, as audiences tend to have firm opinions about how their favourite characters should be portrayed.
“All Finns have an intimate relationship with the Moomins. We read the books as children and we all have Moomin cups in our kitchens,” says soloist Antti Keinänen, who dances the role of Snufkin. Also in his seventeenth year with the company, he was the obvious candidate for the role: choreographer Greve felt his pliant physique was ideally suited to portraying the dreamy, philosophical vagabond.
“I can relate to Snukfin. His spirit is free as a bird, which I try to capture with poetic, peaceful movements, as contrasted with the agitated, angular movements of Little My,” says Keinänen.
Trolls for tolerance
Today the famous Moomins command a franchise empire. They have been translated into everything from cutlery to comic strips – but why ballet?
“I find the Moomins very graceful! They’re floaty like marshmallows,” says director Greve.
Greve customised the piece especially for Japan, where the Moomins are hugely popular. “They’re Finland’s best export ambassadors.”
When asked about the message he hopes to impart with the Moomin ballet, Greve beams widely. “The Moomins are very tolerant creatures; their home is always open to misfits. I’m a goodwill ambassador against racism, and themes promoting tolerance are close to my heart. It’s part of my personal ideology.”
Being invited to tour Japan is a “huge honour,” adds Greve: “Japanese audiences are very discerning. Only the best ensembles in the world are invited to perform there. They’re accustomed to top quality in every detail, so we aim to put on a gala show that showcases our company’s wide range of talents,” he says.
Moomin magic in Japan
As part of Finland’s official centenary celebrations, the Finnish National Ballet will stage six performances at the Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo on April 22–25 and two performances in Osaka on April 29–30. In addition to the premiere of Moomin and the Magician’s Hat, the gala also features highlights from the classical repertory, including The Swan of Tuonela, Swan Lake, and Don Quixote as well as an excerpt from a contemporary piece, Ballet Pathétique by Jorma Uotinen. Finnair is the official partner for the tour.
Text by Silja Kudel Photos by Mirka Kleemola/Finnish National Ballet and Susanna Kekkonen
This article is published in the April 2017 issue of Blue Wings.