Topi Lehtipuu in Third Practice. Photo: Kai Kuusisto (detail) View full image

Out of the comfort zone

Tenor Topi Lehtipuu appears in the digital premiere of Third Practice with the Tero Saarinen Company on Friday 19 March. The work is an imagining of Monteverdi madrigals that brings together opera, design and dance. Here he describes the thrills and challenges of dancing – including not fainting

What can audiences expect from Third Practice?

It’s a Gesamtkunstwerk – a dance theatre work. The text is about love and loss of love – how ephemeral it is. We have tried to find different expressions of this ephemerality, including visually. The designers found some very thin silk, which is super light but dense enough that you can project video images on to it, so those images disappear when you take it away – that’s a very important element.

We have a female avatar singer, who has been recorded and appears both as a voice and as an image projected on to the veil. There’s one part where I grab her and she disappears, and sometimes I wrap myself in the veil on which she’s projected. The lighting effects are very beautiful and tell another line of the story.

From the beginning, we thought there had to be some counterpoint to the power of Monteverdi’s music, something that was ugly and unmusical. In rehearsals we developed sections to contrast with the beauty of the madrigals, with Helsinki Baroque Orchestra improvising on their Baroque instruments, which leads to some fantastic moments.

There is always a narrative but not a specific one – the language is symbolic, and everyone can create their own sense of narrative from the dramaturgy. This creates a wonderful experience and there are some staggeringly beautiful moments between the two main dancers, although it is very dark.

How do you approach dancing in the production?

The choreography itself is fixed – where we meet, how we meet, our expressions, how we lean into each other and slip away. Our routes across the stage are very precisely thought out, but within that framework there is a lot of freedom.

Tero has never given me any instruction about what to do and I try to find my own way. There are six dancers. My hero is one lady who has very long arms and legs, so I watch her in rehearsals and put those movements into my body. Interacting with the dancers is wonderful. They’re always in a good mood and work incredibly hard.

I improvise every performance so it’s never the same, although there are certain things I tend to repeat. As a non-dancer, I give myself three principles for developing my own movements, in order to become a dancer. These are to be asymmetric; to feel how my skin is curious and wants to see and feel the air around it; and to be in the constant motion. These instructions allow me to sing easily, because everything remains smooth.

How does dancing affect your singing?

Singing is no different when you are dancing – the diaphragm can work in any position. The problem is when your heart is going 180 bpm – for example in a performance of Rameau’s Les Paladins years ago, where there was breakdancing. It becomes hard to sing long slow lines and you get to the point of almost fainting, so you have to breathe before that happens! I have two or three moments like that in every Third Practice performance – that’s the challenge. I have learnt that when there is a place to breathe you don’t just breathe once but three times. Exhaling like that purifies the carbon dioxide from your blood.

What advice do you give artists who are considering multidisciplinary work?

‘Multidisciplinary’ can either mean ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘transdisciplinary’. The former is about bringing together different factors, but they remain their own disciplines. The latter makes them mix and become a unity where you can’t tell what’s what. It’s important to understand those different essences.

Artists should open their minds to all the disciplines in surprising places, in order to achieve their dramaturgical or narrative goal. By that I mean can the singer dance, or the dancer speak, or the actor play an instrument? It’s important for everyone to look at the possibilities beyond their comfort zones. Directors can try the exercise of working out how they can say the same thing using different disciplines or create a dramaturgical flow that goes from one discipline to another while still keeping the core.

The digital premiere of Third Practice is on Friday, 19 March 19, 2021, and it will be available until 6 April.

Third Practice trailer

The making of Third Practice