Photo by Chelsea Rowe

The Stuff That Art Is Made Of

Sunday, September 26, 1999

Andrew Poule San Francisco City Search The shoulder-length blue dreadlocks don't immediately conjure up images from the world of classical ballet. For that matter, neither do the wallet chain, the nail polish, or the secondhand clothing. In fact, the whole ensemble seems to shout "gutter punk." Aesthetically and financially, Tomi Paasonen may have a lot in common with this Upper Haight contingent--that's OK. As cofounder and artistic director of KUNST STOFF, an avant-garde dance company, he doesn't exactly aspire to toe shoes and tutus. If you have experienced KUNST-STOFF, you know that Paasonen approaches the dance world with the same sense of interdisciplinary experimentalism as Robert Joffrey, an impresario he deeply respects and for whom he danced in Chicago. Although Paasonen's works are tightly choreographed and deftly performed, this classical recipe is spiked with the tonic of drag queens, 11-foot-tall Daliesque monsters, and acerbic Gen-X "Prince Charmings," all of which leaves his audiences gasping instead of yawning--something that not all ballet companies can claim. This edgy street-sullied sensibility infuses all KUNST-STOFF performances. The December shows featured an anti-"Nutcracker" in which little Clara drifted into sleep only to enter the realms of incest and family dysfunction. Also featured was was "Mega Hz," which used cellular phone technology as a metaphor for the blase, channel-surfing approach that Paasonen feels people, especially gay men, are increasingly taking toward life and one another. March's show, "White Time," presented an ambitious evening-long work entitled "Tube 58," which introduced audiences to a terrifying future world and commented on the cult of youth, our obsession with beauty, and the absurdity of travel in a world that is becoming increasingly uniform. It's this overlap of seemingly separate spheres, this classical articulation of the seedy side of modern life, that leaves audiences' minds reeling. Is the intention of KUNST-STOFF's performances to shock, entertain, or revolutionize? And how to they come up with this stuff? Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact source of inspiration, one can often identify the catalyst. For Paasonen, it took the form of an entire ceiling. One fateful day, while in class at the Joffrey, a section of the studio ceiling gave away and came crashing down, hitting him squarely on the head. Although the imagery is rather slapstick, the results were serious: the accident left Paasonen with a compounded vertebra, a reduce range of motion, and the knowledge that he would not likely dance professionally again. Paasonen had the opportunity to explore the transition from the realm of dance to the everyday working world when he was required to apply for ten jobs a week while on disability. Although prospective employers may have been impressed with his fluency in four languages, his breathtaking arabesques, and his ceiling-smashing pirouettes, these talents apparently didn't correspond to any job descriptions. During one interview, a restaurant manager asked Paasonen about his previous work experience. He replied that he had been working for the Joffrey Ballet. "What?" asked the manager, "Jeffery's Ballet?" Swallowing his pride, Paasonen agreed that he had, in fact, spent several years working for "Jeffrey's Ballet." But even lying didn't get him the job. During this time, while Paasonen was staying in a friend's cellar and living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, he and cofounder Yannis Adoniou began to develop the concept of KUNST-STOFF. Being acutely aware of the wealth and range of talent that San Francisco attracts, they wanted to create an umbrella organization to synthesize these supposedly disparate voices. They saw no reason why paintings, dance, experimental film and DJs couldn't share the same venue. At their first planning meeting, they realized they would require a minimum of $25,000. Even though this seemed a world away from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the cellar, the two proceeded, and, with the help of their financial manager Cate Riegner, acquired the money necessary to make it all happen. Since then, the company has put on three shows and gracefully survived its first tumultuous nine months. Amid all of their successes, Paasonen and Adoniou are learning to handle the setbacks as well. The most recent problems were caused by the real estate crunch. First, the Brady Street theater was closed, depriving them a venue; this closure put further strain on the afflicted 50 Oak dance studio, reducing space and forcing it to begin charging; this crowding, in turn, caused them to cut back on Paasonen's teaching schedule, which translated into less money. However, the currently homeless troupe of dancers has been forging onward with a busy summer schedule. On July 16, they performed at Theater Artaud, and in the third week of July, they cohosted a wilderness weekend in Mendocino with dance performances and DJs, and in September they will make the pilgrimage to Nevada's Black Rock desert for the farmed Burning Man Festival.