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Female bodies – feared and objectified

In Nasty, Susanna Leinonen is at her most outspoken yet, writes Tove Djupsjöbacka.

Nasty is Susanna Leinonen’s most uncompromising work to date. Visually, however, her new choreography is as gorgeous as ever. PHOTO: MIRKA KLEEMOLA

Nasty. Or you could try “vile”, “disgusting”, “horrible” or “obnoxious” even – the choice of negative adjectives to describe women is truly endless. In a recent interview with the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat, the choreographer Susanne Leinonen and creator of Nasty revealed that it was Donald Trump’s description of Hillary Clinton as “nasty” that prompted her to create this work.

To me it feels like Leinonen has decided to adjust course and pursue a new direction here. There are plenty of familiar elements of course: her incredibly considered and distinctive movement language, executed with unfailing attention to detail, as well as the highly and consistently talented dancers, the gorgeous visuals and the first class creative team. And yet, I have never seen her come out with anything quite as outspoken as this.

The effect is entirely refreshing. On stage, Leinonen’s familiar movement language, gradually, begins to evolve. Initially, there are hints at captivity and a highly pronounced sense of unrelenting control along with a series of athletic flourishes. The dancers seem to writhe and twist endlessly, and the flowing energy we are so used to witnessing is entirely absent. There is a constant sense of trepidation and angst, an undeniable and unrelenting darkness prevails. At times, the dancers’ movements are stiff and jerky, while at times we are watching ducklings waiting for their release, for their transformation into swans – all of this serving to underpin the production’s thematic preoccupations, which could hardly be more important or topical.

Nasty is about the female body; the way it is perceived as a threat and treated as a (sex) object. It explores how we are endlessly trying to mould ourselves, make ourselves normal and acceptable. On the whole, the dramaturgy has an uneven feel – some of the scenes are absolute gems, especially the highly vocal martial arts scenes, which serve as a barnstorming celebration of female empowerment. Where Leinonen is particularly successful is in her depiction of aggression, showing us both aggressive women and aggression between women, an issue that, even now, remains a taboo subject.

What Leinonen also presents the audience with are scenes designed to really make you think. At times, the way the bodies are presented on stage has a distinctly cold and detached feel about it but this is most likely a deliberate choice by Leinonen, and the effect is further accentuated by the use of masks that disguise the dancers’ identity and individuality. As a result, I make a conscious decision to focus on the bodies and objects appearing on stage rather than connecting with what I am seeing on a human or emotional level.

The intensity goes up exponentially when the video effects are introduced. They represent sheer genius by Leinonen, the images projecting on to the white stage floor, engulfing the women from underneath. All the misogynistic words women are forced to deal with in the course of their everyday lives scream out in big letters, and the pace is frantic, forming a brilliant contrast with the cool and considered tone that otherwise prevails.

Nasty marks the first time Leinonen has embarked on new visual and musical collaborations. In a notable departure from Kasperi Laine’s established style, Leinonen and sound designer Teemu Korpipää have chosen to play around with a wide variety of musical genres. A highly charged soundtrack lends an additional emotional heft to the final duet between Natasha Lommi and Elina Häyrynen.

This is not a show to sweep you away and leave you cheering in your seat after it is finished. What Nasty does instead is to burrow its way into your psyche and stay there. The issues it raises are as topical as they are important and well worth thinking about.

Tove Djupsjöbacka, Hufvudstadsbladet, 8.9.2018