Charles Slender-White interview with Raisa Punkki, 1 of 2

 Photo by Raisa Punkki; Graphic Design by Alice Malia

Photo by Raisa Punkki; Graphic Design by Alice Malia

This interview was conducted in San Francisco on February 28, 2018, leading up to PunkkiCo's premiere of their latest work, Controle

Controle World Premiere
March 15-17, 2018
ODC Theater, San Francisco

Charles Slender-White: What were the initial, leading inspirations or motivating questions for this piece?

Raisa Punkki: In 2015, I started to investigate ‘the female’ and femininity - I’m a strong feminist. I started to look at women and the roles they play in religion. From this, I made Salve Regina in 2016. Most of the performers were women, and we wanted to push the conversation about women a bit further and start opening the boxes. I grew up in a very religious environment, and so I needed to unpack those boxes, too, to try to understand what was going on. That work led to the next piece, A Room (Of Our Own) (borrowing from Virginia Woolf), which premiered in June 2017. We were making that 2017 piece after the US Presidential election. It was about women and oppression, and came out quite dark.

I’ve always followed news and politics, but after the election I had to take a break. It became too much and made me so tired. I had to stop following the politics in this country and in Europe. I thought maybe I wouldn’t make anything for a while. But then, I got this idea about one word, "control".

I’ve never made a piece based on one word before. I was thinking that maybe people needed some structure and maybe there is some sort of safety in that structure - some control in and coming out from the system. Maybe there is a lot of liberty within some control, instead of everyone just doing and saying whatever they want. I got together two collaborators, Jack Beuttler [lighting designer] and Alice Malia [set/costume designer], to start to talk about how we can explore this with lights and set, how we can explore what is seen and not seen, etc. We started meeting regularly for this project more than a year ago.

This is very different for me, because I never started with just one word before.

CSW: Why were you interested in that word?

RP: Because I stopped participating in social media, I stopped watching the news, and with 45 [President Trump] and what he's's like vomit all the time. It would be nice to have a little bit of control and manners. So, I started to wonder about what this word means to me, how I'm reacting to it, and how my collaborators are reacting to it.

 Photo by Raisa Punkki

Photo by Raisa Punkki

CSW: Are you still interested in those inspirations and questions, or has that shifted? How/why?

RP: No, not really. The piece started from the word, but it has started to take on its own life. That's exciting.

CSW: Is there anything you would like audiences to know before they see the work?

RP: No, not really. People should just come to see it. Maybe some people would be interested to know that there’s a visual artist [Alice Malia] on stage who will be performing with the dancers.

CSW: How is this work similar to or a departure from your past works?

RP: Movement-wise, it’s almost nonstop. The last piece, in June 2017, was much slower and almost meditative. This piece is not as emotionally loaded as my previous works, like Salve Regina.

CSW: Have you learned or discovered anything in this process that you think you might carry forward into future projects?

RP: I discovered that I’m very tired. The current situation with news and politics is exhausting. I know that since I’m this tired, I need to take more time before starting on the next work.

CSW: Do you see this work participating in a larger socio-political context? If so, how?

RP: I don’t see now, exactly, how it is or isn’t part of a larger socio-political context. I’m interested in the dialogue that might come out of the audience's experience seeing it.

CSW: As an estimate, how many creative hours would you say it took to make this work?

RP: Approximately 1,500 hours (30 hours/week for a year)

CSW: How many administrative hours?

RP: Approximately 500 hours (10 hours/week for a year)

CSW: How is this production funded?

 Photo by Raisa Punkki

Photo by Raisa Punkki

RP: I work a lot for myself. I teach Pilates to private clients, and I calculate how many sessions I can have to provide money for my projects. I also got the Lighting Artists in Dance Award, a grant from the Wattis Foundation, and a rental subsidy from the Rainin Opportunity Fund to help with renting ODC Theater.

I come from a culture [Finnish] where it’s not appropriate to ask for money. That’s changing there, too, but it’s still difficult for me to ask people for money. I do have a few private donors, though, who approached me about supporting my work.

CSW: Was the funding for this project typical or atypical compared to your past projects?

RP: Typical.

CSW: What are one or two things about this process/project that have been challenging?

RP: The process has been having its own legs and wheels and momentum to go forward. I have a wonderful team of collaborators, and mostly new dancers - all of that is going well. There have been some weird things happening - posters arriving damaged, packages of set materials arriving open and damaged -  little things like this that end up taking a lot of extra administrative time. It’s ridiculous, but it’s frustrating. 

CSW: What are one or two things about this process/project that have been working out really well?

RP: Working with my whole team. Every time I go to the studio with the dancers or have meetings with the designers - they all contribute their ideas and interests, and everything grows together. Working together like this is the main thing, and it’s amazing.

CSW: Anything else to say about the work?

RP: Come and see it!

CSW: Counting both small and larger pieces, how many dances have you choreographed? 

RP: More than 50.

 Photo by Hien Huynh

Photo by Hien Huynh

CSW: What motivates you to make work?

RP: I have a life-long task and question, “why”. When that keeps coming back, it motivates me to make work.

CSW: What is something you’d like to do in your work that you’ve not yet been able to do?

RP: Have money. Then I could concentrate on the art making. Now I’m a producer, fundraiser, dancer, administrator, etc. Having enough funding and a great administrative team would be ideal. 

CSW: What are some outside limitations or constraints on your ability to make work?

RP: Funding.

CSW: What is something you learned earlier in life that helps you in your career now?

RP: I have done so many different types of works - huge theaters, musicals, and smaller productions in non-traditional spaces. I’ve studied music for more than 10 years, so that has helped me know what I want regarding musicality. I’ve gotten to work with other amazing artists in the past, so I know how important that is for me now and going forward. I have learned how to make something out of nothing. I learned this from home - even if you don’t have money, you find a way. If something is worth it, you find a way to do it.

CSW: What is something you didn’t know that you wish someone had told you?

RP: Nothing. I’ve grown into this. I started when I was 9 and knew since then that this was my thing. It might transform into something else, so I stay open to all possibilities.

CSW: When you experience a work of art that resonates with you, what are some of the components in the work that are typically present?

RP: The surprise. If someone can surprise me. I can see the skill and how it’s done, but if I can be emotionally surprised or surprised in some other way, that's exciting. I saw Meredith Monk a few years ago at YBCA and I cried after - there was something spiritual present there. This is why people should see art and why I want to see art, to get something original that stirs the insides.

 Photo by Raisa Punkki

Photo by Raisa Punkki

CSW: What qualities or attributes do you think helps one be a good artist?

RP: Humility. You need to be humble and have your antennae open. You have to absorb what is happening. Artists are vessels and filters, things go through them. Artists are story-tellers.

CSW: What attributes, perspectives, knowledge, or dispositions make for an ideal audience member?

RP: I don’t know.

CSW: How would you describe or define contemporary dance? 

RP: It should be contemporary - present, coming from this time, explored at this moment.

CSW: Do you make contemporary dance?

RP: I put that label on because people want labels. I don’t want to label anything. I didn’t even want a company, but when I moved here I was told to have a company to make it easier to market, I guess...

CSW: How would you describe your work if you didn’t call it contemporary dance?

RP: My works are very collaborative. It’s not just dance. The relationship between costume and set design, lighting design, sound and music are very crucial - the creative process is very interactive. 

CSW: What roles do you think art plays in society?

RP: I wish it had a bigger role. Because, again, the sensitivity and creativity in art is needed in all fields of life. I wish that that kind of thinking was more present everywhere - it would take the world in a different direction. Art making is not about making money, or getting something, or owning something. With dance, you don’t get anything concrete. I would like to see more value placed on things that are more spiritual and intangible.


Raisa Punkki is a San Francisco-based dance artist who was born and raised in Finland. While living in Europe she worked and studied to learn several genres of dance and movement practices including ballet, contemporary dance, butoh, jazz, boxing and Pilates, so she could better understand and tell the stories through the moving body. In Europe she worked and toured with Kenneth Kvarnström, Tero Saarinen and Anzu Furukawa, among others. After moving to San Francisco in 2003, she founded her dance company punkkiCo in 2005. Punkki is a mother of two children. Through that life altering change she has been able to receive yet another way to gain knowledge of the female human body and mind. Her quest in life is to try to find the answer and keep asking the question: why? She constantly tries to broaden her range of experiences so she can find, capture and expose life’s significant moments through her art making. Raisa Punkki’s artistic exploration happens through different forms of contemporary dance, theatrical work and through collaboration with artists from different disciplines. The creation of her choreographies takes time and the final presentation is based on the maturity of the idea. For her, the strongest form of expression is the nonverbal communication that happens beyond words.