Connecting the Dots: Catching a Moment with Raisa Punkki

By Maureen Walsh

November 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

When something strikes you–some intangible moment of artistic connection, energy, and kinetic charisma–often there aren’t words to describe its effect. Maybe it’s the color palette of a classic painting, or a hand poised in articulating a point of conversation, or the soft, inadvertent padding of piano keys as they press into the chords of a standard tune. There is something anticipatory and at the same time kinetic about these subtle moments; they hold sublime and beautiful energy. How long will the moment last? Does anyone else see it? What creates that magical spark?

“You just feel it when it’s the right moment,” says Raisa Punkki candidly. The comment rolls easily off her tongue. This is who she is: a humble, energetic, happy, and present woman. And her work follows suit.

I recently had the chance to sit down to coffee with Punkki to ask about her upcoming performance, Pick Cells, set to perform November 11-13 at Dance Mission. The punkkiCo mission is to create artistically satisfying, high-quality performance through collaboration with artists from different disciplines in order to transform emotion into motion.

When asked about her artistic inspirations, she mentions her passion and love for multiple art forms: painting, photography, theater, and more. She is truly an aesthete, a lover of art in all modes. “I just like watching people, I like colors, and I love going to see paintings,” says Punkki. She frequents many visual art galleries in the Mission district of San Francisco to gain inspiration, attends performance of all types, and constantly invests in the collective collaboration she feels is so deeply rooted here in the Bay Area.

She derives inspiration for her work from any number of moments in her art-filled life. “Sometimes you just connect with something, and you never know what it is,” she states.

Pick Cells, for example derived inspiration from an old photo–in conjunction with artist and costume designer Claire Pasquier’s exploration of pixels–which in turn was figured into this November performance. In an effort to create a visual element of movement and chaos, Pasquier styled futuristic-looking bubble-dresses and suits from long panels of glassine paper, wrapped and taped around each dancer’s body. They are captivating. They inform the dancers’ movement and timing, the ambiance, as well as some of the sound score. The rest of the score is by Albert Mathias, and ranges from suspenseful and propulsive to dreamy and sensual. It will include recorded cello solos by Joan Jeanrenaud.

Punkki revels in the collaboration process, having been inspired by working with both Pasquier and Mathias on many projects in the past. When asked why she is drawn to the Bay Area, Punkki says it comes back to the sensitivity and connection to such cross-disciplinary collaboration, which she’s thoroughly impressed with and invested in. “I love when people give you crazy things and then you can edit it,” she says. “It’s important to have good people around you who don’t let you dwell in things. I trust them. I’m really strict at what I want and I don’t let people come in and change ideas.”

Punkki’s process strikes a fine balance between ample creative play and well-edited sequencing and pairing. “Sometimes you see work that is so much about the person. For me it’s always about the work. There needs to be something grounding,” she states with matter-of-fact tone. For her, it all comes back to the complete product. When everything comes together–music, atmosphere, costume, lights, etc.–in her eyes, the project is successful.

What strikes me most in conversing about her creative process is her love of film. It’s a blip on the radar of her general interest in art, but it informs the tight timing and pacing of her finished work. “My sister is a filmmaker,” she says, continuing to connect her own editing to the choice and sequencing of film.

“Sometimes I think I’m editing too much, sometimes I don’t let things go. I like fast, I like fast so much. I almost never do anything slow. That’s why I’m trying to go slow [in this performance] with the solo I’m doing with the fabric.” Titled Waiting, this 2009 solo is a slow, methodical piece, featuring her focused energy and subtle gestures shrouded in fabric. She turns and undulates, slowly wrapping and binding herself in fabric. With her signature style she brings a mesmerizingly kinetic energy to sustained movement, filling the space with unforced, genuine movement and just the right lighting and music.

Originally from Finland, she attributes her style and penchant for tight composure to a study of a broad range of performance types. “I started with jazz and tap, and everything. I did release work and Butoh. I start with all of these various things and at some point my intention is to meld everything together.”

When it comes to her work, Punkki leans toward an aesthetic that welcomes the energetic, sensual and strange. She’s not afraid to play. She and her dancers laugh as hard as they work, and their familial energy translates into a connection in their dancing. Not every single moment can be the pinnacle of energy and charisma, but Punkki’s rehearsal process is effortlessly laced with these un-nameable moments.

As I sat in on a recent rehearsal, I sensed a warmth and connectivity between the three movers. And although their number is small, there was a largeness to the sense of fellowship and togetherness between Punkki and her two dancers. “I love to touch and love to see people touch. And a lot of times when you see people touching they’re not actually touching.” The sensuality comes through in snippets of movement during their rehearsal. There are obvious embraces, intertwined limbs that flow into releasing spins, but there is also a mental connection, eyes meeting, and a lust after each other’s movement. Toward the end of the rehearsal Punkki mentions that she’s looking for more than just visual contact between the three: “We might do it hundreds of times over, and you can get something similar [to true connection], so that’s the challenge.”

She and her dancers have built a camaraderie that will translate to just what Punkki is seeking. It’s the moments, those many flashes of inspiration that she weaves and fastens together to configure an arc of performance. Her artistic media are converging, and she would present her own ideas in no other way.

Pick Cells will consist of her solo, Waiting, a piece from her repertoire, and a new work performed by Jennifer Meek, Sarah Keeney, Patric Cashman and eight other performers.

When asked why she’s an artist, Punkki’s easy-does-it response is quick: “Because I am. I just couldn’t do anything else. I’m working now with being present. And trying to catch the moment.”

Maureen Walsh is Communications Director at Dancers’ Group. She loves of all forms of art, both planned and unexpected, and is currently endeavoring into the intersection of mobile media and art.

This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of In Dance.

Maureen Walsh lives in San Francisco and enjoys the city’s craziness and wonder. She spends her time dancing, playing, finding funny things on the internet, giggling, baking, working as a Social Media Strategist, learning to play the bass guitar, surfing, and adventuring.