This article appeared in SF Weekly January 6, 2016
Photo by Pak Han
San Francisco dancer, choreographer, and founder of punkkiCo Raisa Punkki digs the dark side. A native of Finland, and grew up in a place that encourages introspection.
“It’s dark and cold there most of the year, and that affects your mind. Finns tend to be artistic and stoic,” she says. “A colleague once warned me that Americans might not like my darkness.”
Though the brightness and openness of the Bay Area — in terms of the art scene and the weather — are part of what keep Punkki here, she continues to mine the darkness for its generative potential. Her current piece,Salve Regina, delves into that most dark and holy mystery, the female body. The Latin title comes from a medieval choral piece and translates to “hail, holy queen.” For the ninety-minute performance, Punkki and her collaborators created six dances that examine the complex of admiration, queasiness, and terror that men and women feel about our mammalian first home.
“The dances will address the theme from different perspectives, but all around a basic question: Why? As I think about events in the world, and about women’s place in it, this question underlies all others,” she says.
Punkki and her fellow dancers are exploring some big whys. Why are women’s bodies regarded as property? Why do we not see many women in the images of refugees in Europe? Why do some cultures cover the female body, while others seem intent on revealing every dimple, and why do both approaches often denigrate women? Naturally, Salve Regina is also a celebration of woman’s capacity to remain strong as she navigates a world that disregards her mental prowess and aligns virginity with saintliness and sensuality with the devil. You know the place, my sisters — the one we can’t live in freely, but that can’t live without us.
I must admit the costumes are what compelled me to write about Salve Regina. Working with designer Alice Malia, Punkki covers her dancers’ bodies, often including the face. Such a simple idea is employed to very striking effect. Looking at the photos I’m posting here, I am struck by yet more questions. What does it mean to obscure the organs of perception? Isn’t the face where mercy lives, where emotion is most obviously registered? What power is found in anonymity? Clearly, how we dress the female body relates to our collective human fear of and marvel at the processes of gestation and birth.
“Salve Regina includes the performance of a very pregnant dancer, it has been amazing to see her dance evolve as her body has changed,” Punkki tells me. “There is also a duet with a man and woman, who take off and put on and exchange the roles of man and woman.”
Punkki explains that she thinks of her collaborators first as people rather than as performers. In other words, she likes to consider what arises organically from life experience, even as she works to distill that raw stuff into something refined and particular. The dancers in Salve Regina include her two children, ages 11 and 8, whose movements she has come to know so well.
“They asked to be in the piece! It is wonderful to see a child’s perspective on the performance, to see the way they interact with professional dancers,” she says.
Punkki has a background in all types of theater, and the list of her collaborators and influences is eclectic. She cites Jean Jeanrenaud, Georgia O’Keefe, David Mamet, and Butoh master Kazuo Ohno. Though she once built a dance based on one of Jeanrenaud’s compositions, Punkki thrives on working with composers from scratch, so that the music and the dance evolve together and fuel one another. Salve Regina features music by Mark Hertensteiner, a long time collaborator.
“Mark’s music has a drive and (of course) a darkness that I like. Music is the backbone, it has to be right. Mark is mostly using computers for this piece, but he is classically trained and has an incredibly broad palate.”
Hail Salve Regina! It looks like a wise, weird, and somewhat scary performance — what else should we expect from a child of the darkness? Come to think of it, ultimately we all come from there.