It was Emmi Salonen’s first day on the set of a new HBO-MAX show when all work was suddenly suspended due to the outbreak of Coronavirus in the U.S. and worldwide. Emmi, who is originally from Finland, decided to stick it out in New York and not return to her home country like many immigrant artists ended up doing. In true lockdown fashion, I video-chatted with Emmi from the comfort of my Hell’s Kitchen bedroom to hear her inspiring story told from the comfort of her East-Harlem bedroom.
Emmi was born and raised in the city of Tampere, which is one hundred miles north of Finland’s capital Helsinki, and started dancing at the astonishing age of three. She explains that she was an incredibly hyperactive infant, but apparently her love of movement got serious very quickly and she reached a performing level as a Tap dancer by the age of six. “I don’t have a lot of memories from my first performances”, she says, but as the story goes, choreographers came scouting for young male Tappers who were nowhere to be found, and ended up casting Emmi in the roles instead, and tailoring them to fit a girl. This narrative sounds familiar to me as a male dancer who always felt like a rare commodity among a multitude of female dancers, and I’m thrilled to be hearing this narrative spun around from Emmi’s angle.
Aside from being a highly skilled Tap dancer, Emmi also received training in Ballet, Modern and Jazz from the beginning of her journey, and later joined the Ballet School of the Finnish National Opera, where she took Ballet to the next level and completed her high-school academics during the evenings. During her summer breaks Emmi attended the Boston Ballet’s Summer Program, where she got a taste of the American dance world. “I was captivated by the level of the company dancers”, she remembers, ”and I knew I had to come here for college”. Emmi stuck to her plans and after graduating from both Ballet school and high-school accepted an offer to join the Dance-Theater program at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) with a scholarship. Her teachers recognized her talents and invited her to choreograph for the school’s semestrial showcases. “If they see you’re talented they give you more responsibilities and more opportunities to shine”, she reflects on her alma mater, as she describes the unique experience of performing and choreographing within a single showcase.
After her graduation Emmi had to return to Finland in order to renew her F1 student Visa and apply for an OPT, a year-long employment permit for foreign graduates of American schools. While Emmi waited for her new Visa she was invited to direct and choreograph a show that was featured in the Tampere Theatre Festival. Her show, “Dance Through the Walls”, featured an ensemble of actors, singers and dancers, including a solo performed by her and costumes that she designed and sewed herself.
Once her new Visa and OPT were approved, Emmi headed back to New York to join a production of “The Miracle of Christmas” at The Queen’s Theater. Though she was considered for the leading role at first, Emmi was thrilled to have been given a role in the ensemble instead, which gave her an opportunity to show many sides of her as a performer. “I had five quick changes, a featured dancer role, and I got to sing the soprano parts”, she joyfully describes. After wrapping up the Christmas show, Emmi headed back to Finland to film a dance movie that she booked during the summer, and keeping her schedule tight, headed right back to New York to start rehearsals for a new musical show and to work on a new HBO-MAX series, when Coronavirus brought it all to a halt.
Like the rest of the dance community, Emmi has had to muster much motivation and creativity in order to stay in shape during quarantine, and while Ballet and Jazz are styles which are barely but somehow adaptable to a home environment, Tap is a whole other story because of the noise it generates. “I live on the top floor of an apartment building and I didn’t want to drive my neighbors crazy”, she describes, and so she started practicing Tap routines with pedestrian shoes which reduced the noise while still providing support for her feet. She was so thrilled with her experiment that she decided to start a blog in which she features her array of shoes as she practices her Tap combinations. This blog is a masterful crossover between footwear and footwork, and can be found on her website
It’s still hard to say when Broadway and the rest of the show world will be open for business again, but it seems like Emmi isn’t losing hope and is putting her creativity to work in order to find productive solutions for the restrictions that the pandemic has brought about. Necessity has always been the mother of creation, but somehow Emmi manages to make it fun and creative in a way that left me deeply impressed. “I can’t wait to get back on stage”, she concludes, and I couldn’t agree more, it must be a thrilling spectacular to watch her perform.