Transitioning and Expanding: A Conversation with Yannis Adoniou and Tomi Paasonen

By Katie Gaydos

October 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

KUNST-STOFF = synthetic, plastic, artificial or unnatural
KUNST = art, STOFF = things

AFTER 15 YEARS of experimental art making in the Bay Area, Yannis Adoniou’s KUNST-STOFF Dance Company (KSDC) will no longer operate as a traditional San Francisco based company. The upcoming 15th anniversary season at ODC Theater November 8-10, will mark both an ending and a new beginning. Adoniou plans to move back to Europe where he and KUNST-STOFF co-founder Tomi Paasonen will join forces to open KUNST-STOFF up internationally as a more mobile entity.

This is an image of Yannis & Tomi taking ballet class.
Pictured: Yannis & Tomi
Photo by: Holger Badekow | Hamburg Ballet

When Adoniou personally told me of his decision to no longer be based solely in San Francisco, it was clear that his choice was coming from a place of contentment and excitement for the future. Adoniou explains, “I don’t view the transition as a shift necessarily but rather a natural evolution… like an animal in the desert always on the move for sustenance… we have to move on to survive and thrive.”

Adoniou and Paasonen, longtime friends who danced together at The Hamburg Ballet, created KUNST-STOFF in 1998 as a creative outlet in which they could express different points of view by bringing various art forms and artists together. Paasonen explains, “The idea was to combine ballet with performance art and bring together dancers from different technical backgrounds to learn and exchange from each other’s practices in order to cross-pollinate these hybrids into new forms.”

Cate Riegner played a huge role in the early days by connecting Adoniou and Paasonen with the internet start up industry and bringing in sponsors from the tech community. This allowed KUNST-STOFF to build stages and hold large-scale performances in various non-traditional spaces such as bars, restaurants, deserts, Burning Man and along the rivers up in Willits, CA.

Adoniou says, “Tomi and I were always interested not in what we knew but in what we didn’t know.” This interest in exploring uncharted territory enabled KUNST-STOFF to flourish within a community of supporters invested in new kinds of art. Holding everything from new media festivals to 12-hour long curatorial art parties that included visual art, film screenings and performances, KUNST-STOFF brought together various art forms in an open and non-restrictive environment.

Paasonen remarks, “I loved the combination of classicism intermingling with queer performance art and the drag sub culture of SF, and juxtaposing it with new media, technology and science.” This kind of intermingling of art forms and new media was really new at the time. “No one else in San Francisco was doing that kind of thing,” explains Adoniou.

After his US work visa expired, Paasonen moved to Berlin. While Paasonen has maintained a working relationship with KSDC—coming back to SF to set pieces and working with KSDC in Berlin—Adoniou took ownership of the company in San Francisco. As KSDC continued to grow, so did the need for more structure. Having more streamlined productions allowed KSDC to apply for a number of grants and operate and tour as a more traditional dance company.

This had its pros and cons. Paasonen notes, “Of course as more structure and more money came into play, it also had its restrictive effect. For a period KUNST-STOFF became more of a dance company in the conventional sense.”

Yet while a traditional company in some sense, KUNST-STOFF has always pushed the boundaries of art making and producing. After 10 years of successful performances in a variety of local and international theater spaces, Adoniou opened KUNST-STOFF Arts in 2009 giving KSDC a San Francisco home base in which to thrive.

“As KUNST-STOFF Arts opened, it gave the company the chance to return to its original mission, but on a much larger scale,” explains Paasonen. “It opened the doors to a community of art makers, interested in interdisciplinary experimentation and individual exploration. So from my perspective, the story is quite round.”

For Adoniou, opening KUNST-STOFF Arts not only rooted KSDC in the SF community but also allowed him, and other resident artists, to go deeper into their own practices with the freedom of creating work outside of a hierarchical institution. Adoniou says, “Someone once told me that so long as no one is above you, you can reach the sky. If you work for the system there will always be a ceiling above you—that works for some but I’d like to challenge people to ask themselves whether that’s what they really want.”
While KUNST-STOFF Arts has enabled Adoniou to explore new kinds of art making and focus on process over product, owning a company and running a space requires a certain level of logistical and political adherence to a larger infrastructure. After 15 years of playing more or less within that system Adoniou questions, “Can a system actually support the freedom that’s essential for innovation? Can it support the expansive and complex understanding of creation?”

Adoniou explains, “I think it’s a false kind of thinking that being in the system translates to being a successful artist. Don’t get me wrong, the system may be important and we need to understand it but it is more important to know what you want, what you need and what is compatible or not.”

KSDC has had a wonderfully rich run in San Francisco, but to Adoniou the city no longer feels as open and free as it used to be. Adoniou explains, “I really want to be in a place where as an artist I can be the person I am. I feel like in society here whatever positions you are in you have to behave as such. I want to be in a place where artists can be full time artists without having to shift in order to feed into society.”

For Adoniou there isn’t—and shouldn’t be—a separation between whom you are as an artist/teacher/producer and who you are as a person. He amusingly remarks, “I had a teacher who used to say, ‘even when an artist goes to the bathroom to take a shit, he’s still an artist.’ You’re an artist when you’re on stage or whether you’re in the most natural or perceived downgraded act. All the elements in your life inform who you are as an artist and vice versa. Art doesn’t stop after your two-hour rehearsal in the studio…because it’s not enough. That’s another thing I observe happening here…. everything feels short distanced.”

Adoniou and Paasonen have always strived to not only provide a place for artists to develop their voices but also have encouraged and demanded that the artists they work with own their individuality as both people and artists. Adoniou says, “I think in terms of art making it’s not about whether you are good or bad but whether or not you are practicing your own personal voice.”

While transitioning out of San Francisco, Adoniou acknowledges the tremendous support he’s received in the Bay Area. He explains, “I have had an amazing experience in the Bay Area, the challenges and the support have taught me quite a lot of who I am and I feel I can take that anywhere.” As the company prepares for it’s upcoming 15th anniversary season at ODC Theater, Adoniou remarks, “I always like to leave a place when I’m still in love with it.”

Both Adoniou and Paasonen are excited for the 15th anniversary show and the freedom the future holds. Excited to engage with artists from around the world, they plan, among other projects in the works, to start an annual summer arts festival in Berlin in collaboration with Dock 11 Theater. Paasonen explains, “Now that KUNST-STOFF ceases to be a physical entity based in SF, its geographical independence will give it a lot of potential as an international production company.”

It seems fitting that Paasonen will be returning to SF this October for six weeks to set a new work for KSDC’s last season here. Paasonen remarks, “This particular trip will be very intense, as we try to grasp these big time spans and it is yet another parameter shifting change for both mine and Yannis’ lives. It feels timely to approach this event as a retrospective event, to pinpoint what has been done and where we are as human beings in our lives and artists in our artistic paths.”

Stay tuned for part two of this article that will appear in the November issue of In Dance and focus on the company’s upcoming show and the future of KUNST-STOFF Arts performance space.

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of In Dance.

Katie Gaydos is a freelance dance writer and has contributed to The Daily Californian, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, In Dance, and Emmaly Wiederholt’s blog Stance On Dance. Katie has been dancing with KUNST-STOFF Dance Company since Fall 2011.