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Bold visionaries

Body and Soul

winter 17


Saara Roppola is a new breed of performing artist.

She is a performing visual artist who designs and constructs her own costumes and characters, then shares them with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

The universal themes and dynamic nature of Saara’s performance art allow her to move fluidly from gallery spaces to nightclubs to festivals, including Woodford Folk Festival, and for the first time this year, the Sunshine Coast’s Horizon Festival.

You probably won’t recognise Saara when you see her perform – she will be clad in a stretchy, spiky, LED-lit bodysuit and a full facial mask, or something just as fantastic to capture her audience’s imaginations.

Saara specialises in immersive installation performances, which can be funny or confronting, or both, often eliciting mixed emotions and reactions from the viewer.

“I don’t like to impose anything on people but I do think there’s massive value in people having an awareness of themselves that includes not just what’s socially acceptable but acceptance of our own nature,” she says.

“We’re so much more than what we’re led to believe we are.

There’s this hope for humanity that underlines things, although things might seem quite subversive.”

Saara grew up in Buderim and attended Mountain Creek State High School.

“I wanted to do music, art and drama, but I was told to choose only one of those.

I hated high school because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. It took me 10 years to end up performing anyway, because I love it.”

After graduating from high school and moving to Brisbane, Saara started a visual arts degree at Queensland University of Technology, but she wanted to learn about the world, “so I quit uni and went travelling around Europe”.

(She returned to university some years later to complete an honours degree in visual art.)

She moved to Amsterdam in 2012 to study Okido Yoga with Masahiro Oki and butoh, the ancient Japanese dance art, with Stefano Taiuti.

“I knew what butoh was after a Brisbane workshop,” Saara says.

“Butoh is in the cells of your body and it’s like you’re tapping into an energy or a connection with the environment around you, and you’re also affecting the environment, and the bodies in the space.”

After extensive butoh training, she has retained a sense of authenticity in her approach to the way she works.

“This idea of authenticity is the sense that everybody should have their own butoh dance, and in another sense, a butoh dancer’s body has to be empty enough to receive other dances.”

She likens the idea of the body as an empty vessel to a painter’s blank canvas and palette of colour.

“In butoh you have the ‘hijikata’ ,the poetry and imagery the dancers put into their bodies to inspire their movement. In the same way, I posture myself in a certain way to create a character evoked by the costume.”

When she started making her own beautifully sculpted costumes, Saara also began to generate movement that would go with those newly imagined and created forms.

Sometimes it would work the other way around; a dance would inspire an act or a costume.

But Saara was beginning to see the limitless potential of a unique imaginative process, not bound by materials or conventional form.

She says this process involves a sort of body augmentation.

“I see a form that excites me and I want to put it on my body.

My arts practice was based around actions of the body so it became my performance practice.

I was performing actions, opening the channels and possibilities for the work to manifest, and keeping those possibilities open for individual expression.”

Through this work, Saara was also making spaces available for people to meet together in a public place, without the conditions of what’s socially, culturally and politically acceptable.

She says the architecture and the atmosphere of a performance space informs a performance just as much as the ideas that led to its manifestation, and often intensifies the affect it has on audiences.

“A big part of my work is the interface between me and what it is I’m presenting to the audience, so I’m aware of the edges.

In a gallery context I’ll take the opportunity to unravel the characters more fully and test the boundaries of what people will accept or not accept.”

Ever the learner, in July Saara will travel to Hakuba near Tokyo to undertake an intensive training program with the world’s most respected butoh company, Dairakudakan, and perform at its annual festival on stage with the company and other students of the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Masters of Professional Practice (Performing Arts).

It’s a new course created for the university by Lynne Bradley, the founder and director of Australia’s leading physical theatre company Zen Zen Zo.

Saara says the eight-day program in Japan is an opportunity to dive in deeply; a chance for the artists to immerse themselves in the form and technique, and in the cultural traditions of the dance.

Despite being seen as Japan’s “dark dance”, Saara notes there is lightness and extraordinary beauty in butoh, as well as humour, which is reflected in her own performance work.

She sees the absurdity of the humour in her characters’ actions that gives people permission to watch her performances from a position of acceptance and play.

“Often my work will combine the creepy and the beautiful, the scary and the funny, and the dark and the light.”

She says the juxtaposition of light and shade is what’s human, and it’s the reason her dynamic form of performance art, like any other art form, holds in it something everyone can appreciate.


words xanthe coward
photos anastasia kariofyllidis