By Laura Diffenderfer, with help from Terhi Mikkonen
Mikki Kunttu carves light, shade, and smoke into stunning dreamscapes.The lighting and set designer for Tero Saarinen’s Morphed, Kunttu is currently one of the most sought-after stage designers in Europe, having worked with artists such as Jorma Elo, Jirí Kylián, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, in addition to Saarinen, with whom he has collaborated since 1993. Kunttu has won many prestigious awards, including a 2005 “Bessie” Award for lighting design for his work with Saarinen and Akram Khan. We sat down with Kunttu to learn more about his unique style and his vision for Morphed.
You and Tero have been working together a long time. How did the collaboration begin, and how has it evolved?
We started back when I was studying lighting. My very first design project was Tero’s work for a local dance group. I guess it was somewhere around 1993. After that, we started to create more works together and over the years there have been some clear turning points with certain pieces. I would say the most important ones have been "Westward Ho!” (1996) (below), Overdosed Mood (1997), Kaze (2001), Hunt (2002), Borrowed Light (2004) and also the two latest ones Kullervo (2015) and Morphed (2014). Little by little my role has grown to cover the whole visual of the stage (except costume design). I’m still very much light-oriented in my designs, but there are elements of set design in there from time to time.
Working with Tero has been the very core element in the development of my career. This is the collaboration that opened up the world for me. Without working with Tero I would have never been able to find similar expression on stage.
Does designing for dance make you look at space differently, in general?
For me dance is so amazing. It’s such a natural and primitive form of creative expression. It’s free of fact, which makes it pure and beautiful in its vocabulary. We just need to try to get as close to the core as dance itself is. It means being open to emotions we are provoking on stage. For me emotion comes first, always. It is the emotion that makes people believe what they see and draws them into the piece. Fact, skill and even storytelling are secondary.
Do you think there is a particular Nordic - or even Finnish - design aesthetic that you feel you fit within? Or, do you find inspiration elsewhere in the world?
Of course the place where we live has an effect on everything we do. But I have never seen that there is something particularly Finnish with my work. I’d rather like to think there isn’t. I find my inspiration in working with creative people, such as Tero and (Morphed costume designer) Teemu. Music is also very important to me. And the creative process itself is super inspiring. It’s simply starting with a black box and imagining what it could be made to be within the theme we’re working on.
What were you hoping to convey with the designs for Morphed? Were there any special challenges or surprising moments during the collaboration?
I wanted the stage to be very clear to read. So we get maximum attention to the guys on stage. It’s a pretty vast amount of movement that you’re supposed to take in as a spectator, so the visual must help there. We were also looking for something that would represent the male theme, and as a result of that process I found the idea of using large ropes as sets. I’m very happy with that as I think the ropes give this piece a perfect setting. Their meanings can be many and in the end they are also very interactive.
Your designs always feel architectural or sculptural, to me. What inspires you to create such three-dimensional designs? Did something inspire you to begin working with space in this particular way?
I’m always interested in creating some kind of mystery in depth and time. I guess it’s also about what you show and what you don’t. A flat space has always been very difficult to me. If the design doesn’t have this sense of dramatic depth, I’m just not happy with it. So I think in other words sculpting the 3-dimensional space that is created with both light and materials, is what I am drawn to. I can very clearly remember the exact turning point in my work when I found this. It was back in 1997 when working on “Overdosed Mood” with Tero. That piece sort of gave birth to everything that then has followed.
What inspires you to continue to work in dance, particularly with Tero?
I guess we are drawn to similar kind of poetry in life. The kind that always has a dark undertone, but can be quite funny as well at times. I’m very happy I have had the chance to stay working with Tero all these years. I’m very privileged to have met him and the same goes for all the people in the company. I think we are a kind of a funny tribe or a very strange family.
Tero Saarinen Company will perform “Morphed” at The Joyce Oct 18 – 22, 2017.