Pontus Linder is a Helsinki-based dance artist from Sweden and a member of the Finnish national breaking team. Pontus was one of the artists chosen to take part in the most recent Warjakka Art Residency (a proud part of CROWD International Dance Exchange programme led by the Goethe Institut) held on the island of Varjakka in Summer 2021. Along with artists from the UK and Germany, Pontus spent two weeks exploring community-based and site-specific performance practices – interlacing them with hip hop improvisations, combining breaking with contemporary dance elements inspired by the sad and deep stories of Varjakka and its history.

What was the most challenging in becoming a professional artist?

I think that there are many challenges. Some of them relate to believing in yourself, rejection, stigmas around artists, the pure math of making it feasible to live off of it and more. I’ve always tried to find a balance between having security and taking risks – if I get too comfortable or too scheduled with making income, I become less curious and creative as an artist. It works quite well for me to have some stable and reliable income, at the same time being on my toes and looking for new projects. I like that mix.

It’s a good one. How did you start to dance?

I was about 12 when started dancing… It all started with my little sister’s show. She was dancing, and in the show she was dancing with other kids. It was fun, but I felt dragged there – until suddenly I saw hip hop and breakdancers perform. It might have been the first time I ever saw breakdancing . They were probably not even that good, but they blew my mind – with the music, energy and attitude. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life (laughs). Then I was encountering breakdancing at school – it was a little bit like skateboarding: not as clear as if one joins a football team and practices on Mondays. It’s about a lifestyle, and you get sucked into it, more and more finding yourself around it. After a while I started taking dance classes.

You are bringing contemporary art elements into breakdancing – like you did on the ferry which brings people to the island of Varjakka, being informed by the movements of the rowers. You just started improvising informed by the rowing and moving forward process. How did you come up with combining breaking and contemporary dance?

At a young age I was already able to encounter dance in many different ways: I was studying in a very big dance school of a quite a small city near Gothenburg in Sweden. It’s really no joke – the privilege of being a man in the dance world (or many other places as well). I was terrible (laughs), but still was performing in all kinds of places – they always needed guys. I was so bad at the time, and I realise it was unfair. Yet this allowed me to get sucked into the dance world.

Traditionally if you do just breaking, then you probably don’t do too many shows. The dance school where I ended up teaching after a while had a lot of commercial gigs. I encountered a lot of different dance styles, and there were a lot of shows where I got to do choreography in different styles. I’m not a super versatile dancer, I’m definitely more specialized in what I do most, but I still got to be in many different situations which opened my eyes.

Contemporary elements came in later. I was in my early twenties when I applied to the University of Dance and Circus in Stockholm (now it is called University of Arts) to become a bachelor of art and pedagogy. It was for street dancers, many styles included. One could also choose courses to add to the programme, and I chose a lot of contemporary, adding it to breaking and hip hop impros. I did try ballet and jazz – but it was so difficult for me and it felt that everybody else seemed to be so good at it. That created a frightening atmosphere – I got completely terrified by these dance styles.

You created the opposite atmosphere during workshops within CROWD / Warjakka Art Residency – you were doing the community-based hip hop and breakdance workshop for people who could hardly imagine themselves doing something like that, and you made them feel safe, relaxed and encouraged to self express.

I’m happy to hear that, thank you. It is very important to me that we create an atmosphere in the workshop that feels safe and welcoming. My teaching style draws from different techniques, some from the academia of pedagogy but even more experiences and knowledge gathered from hip hop culture, which for me is all about playfulness, sharing, each one teach one and more.

Do you think that movement is stronger than words?

I like a bit more abstract storytelling. I think when it comes to symbolism in movement, there’s so much room for interpretation, whilst words can guide you into certain directions. I tend to want to use the energy in the room or some soundscape, or directing the focus of the eyes or the body to guide a narrative. 

I am very physical on stage, using a lot the so-called real tasks. I like the task of tiring myself to the point of exhaustion as a performer – you then can go head in. It becomes so clear for everybody: he is so sweaty, grasping for air, and the energy flows… It’s not just some technical choreography where everything has to be in a certain way. It’s raw energy.

The setting of a stage is something people come to expecting certain inputs – already a lot is happening with our focus and interpretation when the stage is involved. In that context I like to play with creating real tension and surprises. I am holding on to silence so long that it gets provoking. Then, from provoking, it moves to being interesting, and then gets back to provoking – until some kind of a relief. Playing with these kind of energies and narratives interests me.

How did you manage to cope without those energy sharings with the audiences during Corona related lockdowns? How did you have to rethink yourself because of the virus?

Luckily I am a chameleon in many senses – I have so many interests. When we got hit with Covid, I had just created a 40-minute solo piece – and got to perform it only three times… There was a lot of work behind it, and it was a bit frustrating to not be able to perform it more. Yet those times when I did perform were so special! I hold on to that reference.

I also study to become a physiotherapist, and I’m in the national team of breaking, so I concentrated on things I actually could do – aiming really high with the breaking, working out a lot. My hands are full most of the times.

Have you developed some personal relationship with the space of Warjakka Art Residency?

So many thoughts are triggered here! Starting with the ferry – it’s such a symbol! When I was rowing,  I deeply felt how I was carrying people, taking them from one world to the other through the passage…

As an artist I found myself developing the score that was built on listening – both in nature and in the old Konttori building on the island of Varjakka. What was happening here? What’s about to come? The uncertainty about this place is deep: is it going to be sold? Will there be public access? Will the history of this space be slowly forgotten?

Mainly I found myself in one of the rooms of Konttori building, improvising, listening to and picturing the stories from around the island of Varjakka. I did a small impro after I heard a story of some worker who was employed on the island some century ago. I learnt he was one of the many who was risking his life working with saws and logs, probably not being treated in a welcome way. If the workers were injured in some kind of a way, there would be no welfare system to take care of them. Horrible conditions by modern standards.

We talked a lot about women’s roles on the island. They often were facing even more dangerous working conditions than men. I am listening to that and seeing what it awakens in me. I don’t feel I respond directly to that, just listening, learning, contemplating and then seeing what happens in response, movement-wise. I am not trying to respond with a solution ”you should have done this”. I am feeling inspiration…

Can anger inspire?

I found myself being very gentle and careful – as well as privileged body, as a white man with an opportunity to explore – and be empathetic. When I hear stories like that, my first response is not ”I will join your fight against whatever you are rebelling against”. My first response is ”Oh shit, that happened to you!” Then I take it in and gently try to understand more, dig in and imagine what it has been like…

That was my starting process, then I allowed myself also to think what would happen to me if I was in the position those workers had been a century ago. How would I feel against the people who had been running this place at the time? Then I allowed a little bit more of different emotional states – in movement and in general… There’s also a lot of sadness and contemplating, so the impros turn out to be quite blue. Sometimes I get to sharper movements – sort of attacks: rebelling, tearing stuff down, burning things up (a little bit)… But it all comes from a long time of listening respectfully and gently.

Pontus Linder – photo by Johanna Rontu

You build your improvisations on empathy. Is empathy-oriented art making winning over – the one where the audience are emotional partners of the performer, where community-based wins over hierarchical?

I think it has to do a lot with me being a part of hip hop context – the idea of community is always there. And then, as a white man, you carry a lot of privilege and go through hip hop as a medium – there’s a lot of responsibility there to give back – that is how the deeper dialogue with the audience emerges, touched by cultural context and content I am producing within it.

I was brought up in a lower working class environment in a rural town outside Gothenburg. I remember there was so much anger against fine arts. If they plan some statue and it would cost a hundred thousand euros, the whole city would be angrily asking ”Why? We have no idea what it means, they have to shut down that school, but they’re placing a monument”. Even though I do feel there should be room for very costly high (and low) in art (if we phrase it like that), I also find myself on that side a lot – I think it should resonate not just with ”fancy art people” (smiles). It’s important that there’s always a level of community dialogue.

Do you think empathy is something that makes borders and distances look quite old-fashioned? The pains and injustices are pretty much the same everywhere, which becomes obvious within the community based work.

Yes, and the themes I’ve been exploring are also very eternal, and the hip hop elements connect more with general population and general issues. In the end I don’t do so much commentary on the art scene – I rather do more social commentary on my observations…

For quite a long time there has been quite a distinguished border between personal and political in arts. It seems to be becoming more and more blurry, especially amplified by the hardships brought by the Corona. Have you notices anything like this? Hip hop has deep political and social roots. Do you think other genres are taking up from it?

It’s hard for me to comment on how it is in other genres. I can imagine that the line between personal and political is becoming blurred there as well. I see that in hip hop, in the contexts that I witness and work in there is more complexity in the relating the self to a larger picture. For example doing social commentary and forming opinions, but at the same time reflecting on the right to interpretation, privilege and more. Nuance is a word that comes to mind.

In the terms of the pandemic I feel that as a consequence of things being put on hold. There is now more room for listening and reflection, at least in some sense. For instance regarding Black Lives Matter – the questions the movement brought – were always there in hip-hop. But it is definitely in the forefront of many people’s minds now.

For a long time there has been a lot of appropriation of hip hop. A lot of development and change are happening now. People are looking a little bit deeper into what cultural appropriation means and what does it mean when you bring hip-hop culture to fine arts rooms, like museums and contemporary stage. I think there will be a lot of discussions moving forward on this topic. With time I think we will develop new methods and new answers of how to bring in hip hop to new contexts without appropriating the culture. That is very important work we need to do to move forward. 

Is it one of your dream projects?

They say one has one foot in each can. I rather have four feet in four different cans. In physiotherapy field, the breaking community, and then in pedagogy and dance training development, and also within my artistic path. Depending on what phase I’m in, there’s more energy or more dreams within each of these fields. The one big dream would be to be able to have all of those moving forward. That’s quite tricky – they all require a lot of attention, especially if I want to get good in them. However, all dreams need to be nurtured and deserve focus!

I would love for Finland to develop the hip hop scene more in general. We need more of everything: more teaching, more events, more jams and competitions… It would be lovely to see more people explore on the stage. And by stage I don’t necessary mean the classic theatre stage, but the stage in general – presenting their work in different places. Hip hop dancers are so rich in terms of creative material. We don’t need to bring in inspiration from any other art form or dance style, there are so many important messages there already, so it’s about developing methods of taking those things to other formats and showcasing them to other people.

Pontus Linder was talking with Lölä Vlasenko

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