Diary of an American in Finland, Doing ‘Essential’ Work in Ballet
Diary of an American in Finland, Doing ‘Essential’ Work in Ballet
When my phone rang very early on a September morning and a number from Finland appeared on the screen, I immediately thought, “The project is dead.”
Amid the ever-worsening pandemic, I was supposed to be heading for Helsinki to serve as the dramaturge and artistic adviser on a new full-length ballet, “Jekyll & Hyde,” at the Finnish National Ballet. My agent wasn’t keen on the thought of me trying to get to Finland with the virus raging, even if by some miracle, the ballet, which was set to premiere on Nov. 6, was still happening.
The prognosis for the American performing arts was so grim though, I couldn’t even visualize being in rehearsal in my own country again. So I was willfully holding out for Helsinki, for a project that had been in development for over three years.
It was Tytti Siukonen, the ebullient and efficient producer of “Jekyll & Hyde,” on the phone that morning. It took me a moment to realize what she was saying: Everything’s moving forward, and I should book a flight as soon as possible. Val Caniparoli, the show’s creator and choreographer who, like me, lives in San Francisco, had begun creating the ballet on Zoom in May while we were in lockdown; he had made it to Helsinki in August and was deep in rehearsals. Now the rest of us had to get there.
Like much of the world, Finland had locked down for several months last spring. But a combination of factors — including the country’s small population, excellent health care system and trust in government — meant that by summer, the case load was very low and the country was mostly open.
Management and safety experts at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet began creating a “preparedness group” in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Culture, following recommendations from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, to figure out how to start up again.
But the United States was on Finland’s “red alert” list, so Americans were not allowed in except under extraordinary circumstances. Since most members of the creative team for “Jekyll & Hyde” (including the set and costume designer David Israel Reynoso and the lighting designer Jim French) were American, Tytti was terrified that the project would collapse if the company couldn’t get us into the country.
The good news, she told me on the phone, was that effective immediately, artists could be included in the “special group” category, created for those doing tasks deemed “essential” for a given field. Essential. I took that in for a moment. It was astonishing that the Finns were concerned enough about keeping cultural exchange alive that they would offer artists a special tracking number to get us across their locked-down border. “Really?” I said to Tytti in disbelief. “Yes. Come. We need you.”
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Art has played a major role in bringing this once poor and isolated country into the international arena, and the government subsidizes culture in a big way. That’s why artists continue to be employed — and why, even though socially distanced performances will never cover their costs, companies in Finland are putting them on, secure in the knowledge they have a financial cushion.
So I went to Helsinki. These are edited excerpts from my daily journal.
Oct. 6: A virtual rehearsal
I book a flight for Oct. 15. I have to get a Covid-19 test 72 hours before flying, self-quarantine for 72 hours upon arrival, and then get a second test — if both tests are negative, I’ll be granted entrance into the opera house for rehearsals.
To catch up on what’s happening, I join a midnight (for me) virtual production meeting with the team for the first time. It’s 10 a.m. in Helsinki and all the department heads and many craftspeople are on the call. I scan the faces of the production-starved Americans onscreen, as we witness a performing arts organization in full swing. We’ve all forgotten what this feels like.
The big issue of the day is the music. Only 30 players can fit into the socially distanced pit, so the sections of the score requiring large-scale orchestrations have to be prerecorded and played on tape; other parts will be performed live. Regardless, the whole score has to be recorded, in case a musician tests positive during the run. The conductor, Garrett Keast, a Texan who lives in Berlin, has only two weeks to rehearse and record the whole thing with two separate groups of musicians. Scary.
Oct. 12: Nasal swabs by the bay
I get tested at a free site run by the city of San Francisco down by the Embarcadero, where you stare at sailboats on the bay as they stick a swab up your nose. Quick and easy — and my negative results arrived via text this afternoon. I guess I’m really going.
Oct. 15: Takeoff
I’ve traveled incessantly my whole career but have forgotten how to pack. How cold is it? What kind of electrical plugs do they use? Is opening night dressy in Finland? (Will we make it to opening night?) Mostly my suitcase is full of protective gear — masks, goggles, food for the plane. I can’t believe how nervous I feel.
Oct. 16: Essential worker, ballet division
I’m sitting (double-masked) at Heathrow Airport Terminal 2, having survived the first leg of the journey. I had a near disaster at the San Francisco airport: When I presented my papers to the staff at British Airways, they told me no one was allowed into Finland except family members.
I gave them my contract and my designation as an “essential worker.” They looked at me in bewilderment: “Essential? What do you do?” I sheepishly explained that I’m the artistic consultant on a new ballet. Silence. The gatekeepers at British Airways cannot not wrap their heads around the combination of “ballet” and “essential.” And they certainly can’t read the Finnish document. Eventually, they figured the idea was so strange it must be true, and they relented.
Oct. 17: “We’re Finns — we like social distancing”
Every seat is taken on the Finnair flight to Helsinki. There’s no social distancing (although everyone wears a mask), and people are milling about in the aisles. Nerve-racking.
When we land, the border-control guard checks my papers and welcomes me to Finland: The combination of “essential worker” and “artist” does not faze him for a second.
On the ride into town, my driver regales me (in excellent English) with stories of Sanna Marin, Finland’s 35-year-old prime minister (who also happens to be a vegetarian, raised by same-sex parents). “She’s not from my party, but I respect her,” he says. “We all do. She’s done a great job with Covid, so we listen to what she says. Besides, we’re Finns — we like social distancing.”
Oct. 17-19: Getting to work
I don’t sleep much because I’m too excited to see what’s happening with “Jekyll & Hyde”; my reward is a four-hour Zoom rehearsal. I love watching Val work — he’s so calm and specific, you can’t guess where he’s going, and then he puts it together, and suddenly it’s all clear. The dancers are fierce and alive. In masks. I long to be in the room.
While I wait to be tested, I walk for miles around the city. Trams are full, kids are in school, everything’s open, restaurants are packed. A hip-hop group is dancing in the plaza. I pass an egg-shaped chapel made from bent birch wood and then a church dug out of prehistoric rock. Inside, people are singing.
Oct. 20: Covid-19 test
At dawn, I go to a neighborhood clinic for my Covid-19 test. Fingers crossed.
Oct. 21: So close …
Tytti sounds upset on the phone. I panic — have I tested positive? The lab didn’t get a decent sample, she tells me. I’ll have to try again, which I do immediately.
But it means I can’t be at the first onstage rehearsal tonight. Instead, I watch on Zoom as more than 100 dancers and crew members cram into the theater to listen to Madeleine Onne, the company’s artistic director, welcome everyone. And then suddenly, 16 asylum beds swirl onstage, forming the mental asylum where Dr. Jekyll undertakes his experiments. I’m like a hungry child with my face pressed up to the window of a cake shop, so close I can smell it.
Oct. 22: An actual live rehearsal
My negative test result in hand, I have a complete day of rehearsal in a theater for the first time in almost a year. Backstage, watching the dancers warm up and the crew set the stage, I feel immediately and blissfully at home.
Val asks me to do some character work with the dancers, who try valiantly to understand what this jet-lagged American in a face mask is saying in rapid-fire English. There are lots of story issues to be solved and transitions to be imagined, but the work feels exactly where it should be. At lunch, we gather in a beautiful light-filled cafeteria and watch tiny dancers eat huge plates of food.
They give me a 10-page document of Covid-19 mitigations to adhere to. I wonder, but not aloud, whether we’ll make it to opening.
Oct. 25: Changing it up
We’ve divided up, so that I work with Val’s assistant, Maiqui Manosa, on coaching while Val continues staging in the studio. The ballet has 19 scenes, and it’s a huge challenge to complete. We make Covid adjustments where necessary. The ballet begins with Robert Louis Stevenson hallucinating from drugs that combat his lung disease; we dissuade the dancer from actually coughing, fearing the audience will think it’s the dancer who is sick and not the character.
Oct. 26- 28: Our best and worst instincts
Today, I finally get to see the ending. The ballet builds to the moment when Jekyll and Hyde battle it out in a complex duet for two almost naked men. It’s a visceral fight between our best instincts and our worst. I find it incredibly moving to watch these dancers, so vulnerable and so strong.
And then, at night, we gather in a dark theater and start building light cues. I had forgotten the thrill of that first moment when a lighting designer transforms the stage into the mysterious world of our imaginations. It feels miraculous … and also like a profound return to normalcy.
Oct. 29: A first pass
This morning is our first rehearsal with the orchestra. It’s heart-stopping just to walk in and hear musicians tuning. We have to stop and start several times, but by a small miracle, we actually make it through the entire ballet with about three minutes to spare. Madeleine is elated. Now we can finesse.
Oct. 29: A night at the opera
Tonight, I attend the opera! A real live one, called “Jaal” (or “Ice”), performed on the stage where “Jekyll & Hyde” will be, with full orchestra, 100 singers, a new Finnish score and a creative team of female artists. The theater was only about a quarter full — but when the lights went down and those gorgeous live voices began filling the space, I wanted to cry. At intermission, there were pre-ordered drinks waiting at candlelit tables, people talking about the show and taxis waiting outside, just like old times.
Oct. 31: Keeping the story taut
Happy Halloween. Val and I walk home from dinner late at night, trying to sort through Jekyll’s journey in Act 1. A lot of time elapses between when he drinks the transformative potion and when he actually turns into Hyde, so sustaining the drug’s euphoria until his “alter ego” appears is tough. We come up with a solution to try on Monday.
Nov. 2: Pre-election jitters
We’ve now introduced three dramatic “sightings” of Hyde in Act 1, renewed jolts of adrenaline that keep Jekyll’s conflict alive. It works, and we feel jubilant until we remember that tomorrow is the election back home, which immediately floods us with anxiety.
Nov. 3: Synchronicity
A muscular dress run with Cast 3 in the midst of chaotic election news from home. I sit in the balcony and watch the pianist in the pit performing Chopin in perfect accord with the dancer playing Stevenson, though neither can see the other.
Nov 6: Opening night
Everyone is remarkably calm at our final rehearsal. And then suddenly, there we are, in fancy dress plus face masks, holding our breath at 7 p.m. as the lights dim on a night we never thought would happen, in this sane and reasonable country where art still seems to matter.
Lucas Jerkander and Michal Krcmar, our Jekyll and Hyde, find their groove immediately. Even though the theater is at half-capacity (600 people), the energy is palpable. It occurs to me that the story of Jekyll and Hyde is perfect for this moment, in which the highest and lowest of our dueling natures are on full and equal display.
Knowing that my next opening night may be in the distant future, I try to savor every second. After the applause, we all gather backstage, where Madeleine thanks, by name, every single person who created this premiere. And then we elbow bump and go home, elated and grateful.
Nov 7 At 5 a.m., I head to the airport. In line for my Finnair flight, I am surrounded by a group of passengers in full hazmat suits, goggles, gloves, masks, face shields, the works. Who are they? Where are they going? Realizing that the world is suffering through another enormous wave of the virus bursts my monthlong bubble. I close my eyes and try to hold on to the memory of last night. It will have to last me a very long time.
Carey Perloff is a director and playwright who served as artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater for 25 years. She is the author of “Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater.”