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Interview with a Finnish-American acting legend, Taina Elg

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At 83 years old, Finnish dancer and actress Taina Elg still carries herself with a dancer’s posture. Much of her vigor is probably due to her active lifestyle: she still has a manager who helps her scout for roles in commercials, for example. Elg also enjoys going to the movies and to the theater. Elg was born and grew up in Helsinki but spent much of her childhood summers in Impilahti near the Soviet border, a place which they had to abandon as a result of the Second World War. Her father, a talented pianist, died in the war.

Among Elg’s first experiences with cinema was seeing Ben Hur in Sortavala. Enchanted by the film, she and her friends memorized the names of the actors and collected cards with their names and pictures on them. Elg began acting and dancing at a very young age, appearing in her first film at the age of ten. She began to train as a professional ballet dancer at the Finnish National Ballet in Helsinki and went on to study ballet in Stockholm and Gothenburg; “at the time, studying abroad was extremely uncommon for Finnish students,” she says.

She remembers how everyone in Sweden was especially nice to the small group of Finnish girls who were starting their lives anew after the war. Elg was supported financially by her Swedish host family, who gave her the opportunity to continue her dance training at the esteemed Royal Ballet in London.

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Elg was soon discovered in London by an American movie producer. She got a seven-year contract with MGM, meaning not just opportunities in Hollywood films, but also a magnificent chance to train further as a performer.

Elg speaks fondly of her Italian singing coach at MGM. Each actor also had drama coaching in groups and one-on one. “During these sessions we worked on things like using our eyes when acting.”

A dancing background became a valuable asset for Elg: She was able to obtain roles in such films as Les Girls (1957) that required skills in both dancing and acting. Les Girls was a hit and so was Taina. She was awarded with a Golden Globe first in 1957 for Best Female Foreign Newcomer (Gaby, 1956) and again in 1958 for Best Actress in a Musical (Les Girls).

Tough competition behind the scenes has always defined Hollywood, but Elg says she was fortunate to work with many people whom she remembers fondly: one of them was Les Girls director George Cukor, whom Elg describes as “the ideal director.” Elg has also followed the career of Sophia Loren and her fellow cast members from the musical Titanic.

Much of Elg’s later career has focused on Broadway musicals and theater. She has appeared onstage in e.g. West Side Story and The Sound of Music, as well as A Little Night Music and Where’s Charley?, for which she earned a Tony nomination.

Les Girls © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer MGM

Les Girls © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer MGM

Taina tells us that she rarely watches her own films, but admits that Les Girls remains one of her all time favorites. Old dance movies and a selection of French films are also close to her heart.

Elg has lived in New York for over 30 years, and loves her home city. “In New York you have the opportunity to meet people from all around the world; this gives New Yorkers a magnificent possibility to learn from one another,” she says.

Taina visits her son, the gifted jazz musician Raoul Björkenheim, and her old friends from the days of the Finnish National Ballet in Finland almost every summer and she feels proud of her country of birth. “There is something so decent about how for instance schooling is valued. It is also great that young people today have more opportunities to travel and put their education to use in an international context.”

One day at MGM all actors and actresses who were present that day were called in for a group photo. Taina Elg second from the right in the back row wearing a red shirt.

One day at MGM all actors and actresses who were present that day were called in for a group photo. Taina Elg second from the right in the back row wearing a red shirt.

Taina is always ready to volunteer at events of the Finnish community in New York; she has read poetry at many an Independence Day celebration of the Finlandia Foundation New York Chapter, and recently volunteered for a promotional video for Finland Center’s new Kota Project (video can be seen here: http://vimeo.com/cwmedia/review/74212132/0b5313fe00)

Last year Taina was invited to attend the Sodankylä Film Festival in northern Finland as a star guest and was introduced to the Finnish film historian and director Peter Von Bagh. He will soon visit New York to attend the screening of his film, The Story of Mikko Niskanen, as well as the screening of director Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots at MoMA’s International Festival of Film Preservation.

When we ask Elg how she would advice aspiring Finnish actors and actresses dreaming of an international career, she emphasizes the importance of having fluency of the English language. “The inability to produce a certain kind of dialect, in this case American English, can be a major hindrance,” she says. 

Interview: Marjo Eskola and Jaana Jumisko
Article: Finland Center Foundation, and Marjo Eskola
Photos: Marjo Eskola, Jaana Jumisko, and MGM

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Finns in New York: Anna

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Q: Why did you move to New York?
It’s always been a dream of mine to come and live in New York, even for a little while.
So when I had the opportunity to come here and do my internship I took it!

Q: What did you get from this experience?
I have met some amazing people, seen some amazing places and I’m sure that it’s going to take some time for me to understand that I really did stay in New York for 3,5 months!

Q: What are your three favorite places in the City?

Central Park, all the parks actually and West Village

Q: Do you have a favorite restaurant in NYC? 

I’m the worst person to say any good restaurants. But there is a great italian restaurant on 2nd avenue, famous pizzaplace Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn and best sushi comes from Roosevelt Island.
Q: Do you have a favorite store?

Not really, we don’t have Forever 21 or Brandy Melville in Finland so I did spend some time (and money) there. There are lots of great small stores all over the city. Whole foods is also nice!

Q: What are your favorite things to do on your free time here?

Just walking around, there is so much places to see and you always end up somewhere nice!

Q: What do you think is the best thing about living in New York?

Well it’s New York! Who wouldn’t want to live here? Everybody always talks about New York, movies and tv is full of New York and now I’m able to say; been there done that!

Q: What do you miss from Finland?

Chocolate, my dog, family, and friends

Q: Describe New York in three words

Spectacular, scary, and stylish

Q:  Describe Finland in three words
I’m not going to say cold because people here think it’s freezing cold all the time. I think Finland is clean, care-free and cheerful!

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Happy Midsummer!

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Imagine you are sitting by a quiet lakeside at midnight and reading a book in clear daylight. Or leaving a nightclub to find the sun has risen before you even got to bed. Finland is at its magical best from June to August. Even though the towns and cities thrive, many Finns head for their lakeside summer cottages to relax. Most people head to the country especially for Midsummer’s weekend in June. It is a weekend of celebration of the amazing daylight. Around that time in northern Finland the sun does not set for several weeks.

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Midsummer is one of the biggest celebrations in Finland. When staying at the country there are loads of traditions people like to do, for example bonfires, barbecues and dances. They boat and swim and practise one of their most relished traditions, sauna-bathing. It is not only sitting on the sauna bench and sweating in the heat, it is a much appreciated ritual for those wanting to get the ultimate relaxing experience. For you beginners out there, here are some guidelines you should follow.

  1. Reserve enough time.

  2. Take ALL your clothes off. We Finns consider nudity natural.

  3. Start by having a shower. For reasons of hygiene, yes, but also bathing in a hot sauna is said to be better if your skin is wet.

  4. Use a bench cover to sit on. Again there is hygiene to think about but also the benches in a sauna get very hot. Leave your newspaper, your cell phone, and your drink outside.

  5. About the heat level, the advice is that 80°C is enough and less for beginners. Add moisture by throwing water on the stove.

  6. Finns sometimes compete about who lasts the longest in a burning hot sauna, but you should know that is unhealthy. You should only stay as long as it is enjoyable.

  7. Use birch twigs, if provided, to beat yourself to stimulate circulation. It is considered common courtesy to beat or scrub your sauna mate’s back too.

  8. A sudden change from hot to cold is not recommended. Cooling off and resting are an essential part of the sauna ritual. The advantage of a waterside sauna is jumping into the cooling water straight from the heat.

  9. Warm yourself up and have a shower before heading back to the heat.

  10. Repeat the sauna/cooling off process as many times you like. Maybe once is enough, for Finns three times is perhaps the average.

  11.  Finish the sauna ritual by washing yourself with refreshing water. After a sauna you should not be in a hurry, even dressing can wait. Just rest, drink something refreshing and have a light snack.  That is the perfect ending to an enjoyable sauna.

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Q&A with Deborah Ottenheimer

On June 16th, Finland Center will hold its second annual 5K run in Prospect Park. In addition to bringing together active New York Finns and friends of Finland, the event supports the work of an organization benefiting peace, gender equality, education or health care – all aspects of Finland Center’s mission statement.

This year Finland Center has partnered with Hope for Haiti (HFHF), a foundation that helps provide medical care, education, environmental awareness, community growth and faith-based services to the country’s poor communities. The organization was founded in 1999 by Jean Elade Eloi, originally of southeast Haiti. Among the group’s most important causes is reducing maternal mortality in a country where a woman’s lifetime risk of dying in childbirth is an estimated one in 47. 

New York -based OBGYN Deborah Ottenheimer has taken part in Hope for Haiti’s efforts for two years. We spoke to her about her experiences.

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Q: What first drew you to this particular organization and cause?

A: I first went to Haiti with Medi-Share in July 2010 after the earthquake. I didn’t feel that my unique skill set [in women’s health] was being used there, but I knew I wanted to return to Haiti for further work. I started calling around and following leads, and Hope for Haiti Foundation was the only organization I found that was truly interested in sustainable development. I had no interest in going to some hospital for a week and cranking through 1,000 patients; my interest was in educating Haitians so that they could care for themselves. The fact that HFHF was led by someone who grew up in that community also lent credibility to its vision. And once I spoke to Kim Sniffen, the midwife in charge of maternal health at the organization, I was sold.

Q: You’ve returned to Haiti a couple of times each year. What have been the most rewarding, and the most challenging, aspects of your work there?

A: The most rewarding thing is seeing changes in the health of the community, both in the yearly reports and during our visits. People seem to feel comfortable about coming to the clinic, and the nursing staff has been very capable. I’m always welcomed back as a friend, and feel privileged to be able to help. The most frustrating thing for me personally is that I can’t spend more time there; witnessing the level of health care available (or not) in a place located just three hours from New York by plane has been shocking.

Q: What changes would you like to see happen at Hope for Haiti, and in Haiti’s medical community in general, over the next five or so years?

A: I’d like to see better education among local girls and better access to birth control; I’m currently working on funding a grant to introduce IUDs to our clinic, for example. I’d also like for there to be regional hospitals that can provide surgical services and transportation so that women stop dying at home because of fairly simple obstetrical complications. In addition, I’d like for us to have more clinics in the mountains, a doctor on staff, midwives, a consistent supply of medications and other necessities, and an ultrasound machine.

Q: Has it been challenging to get friends and colleagues in the U.S involved in Hope for Haiti? Do people become overwhelmed in deciding what causes to support?

A: People have “tragedy fatigue” and short attention spans: once the acute phase of a disaster is over, we move on to the next thing. I tell people about my work, hoping to inspire by example. I have decided on a fairly narrow area of focus, but most people look out there, see unbridled chaos and prefer to hide.

To find out more, visit hopeforhaitifoundation.com.

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Q&A with Flutist Anna Urrey

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Interview by Laura Palotie

Finnish-American flutist Anna Urrey has built her career – and a solid reputation – in New York and beyond. The Manhattan School of Music alumna has performed, among other ensembles, with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Symphony in C in Philadelphia and Le Poisson Rouge’s new orchestra in Manhattan.

This Friday, May 10th, Anna will perform alongside distinguished South Korean pianist Soyeon Kim at the Salmagundi Club (see our events page for more details). We recently caught up with Anna to talk about her career, her sources of inspiration and her life as a classical musician in New York City.

Q: You have a Finnish mother and an American father. How would you characterize your own connection to Finland – and your experiences of performing with Finnish musicians?

A: Both of my parents are musicians, and met while studying voice in Vienna. I’m proud to be American, but also feel a strong connection to Finland. I love learning about my mother’s culture and the country’s history – and let’s be honest: pulla is one of the best things ever created. I feel a particular connection to Finland as a musician, too: my first Finnish musical experience was several years ago at a small summer festival in Riistavesi. I quickly learned that there was a depth to the Finnish musical approach, an understanding of the music that was incredibly inspiring. Finns have a serious work ethic and they feel deeply, and it all comes across in the music. It feels honest and not superficial. They want to do things right, not half-way, all of which appeals to me as well.

Q: As a performer, how would you describe the Finnish music scene?

A: It’s busy, and performances are given at a very high level. This is rather amazing, considering the fact that the population of the country is smaller than that of New York City. The high level clearly reflects the country’s serious commitment to their musical education system.

Q: You have also performed with a Chinese music ensemble. Tell us about that experience.

A: I love working with musicians with different backgrounds and perspectives. The Chinese East-West ensemble, for example, combined western instruments, like the modern flute and the piano, with traditional Chinese instruments, such as the pipa and the erhu. My Chinese colleagues have so much pride in their traditional music and are true masters of their instruments. They are also passionate about finding ways to expand their repertoire through contemporary music.

Q: Is there something in particular that draws you to multicultural collaborations?

A: Much of my interest stems from my childhood. I saw my father travel all over the world for concerts, to places like Turkey, Japan, Spain and Portugal. In high school, I also began to travel and perform in Italy, Finland, Germany, France, and most recently, Oman. Whenever possible, I take advantage of opportunities to share my love of music and be inspired by others. I hope that music will continue to help me explore the world.

Q: What has been the most memorable moment in your career thus far?

A: This past November, I went on tour with Maestro Lorin Maazel and his Castleton Festival orchestra to perform Puccini’s “La Bohème” at the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman. Puccini’s music is beautiful, Maestro Maazel is a musical genius, and going to such an exotic location was a surreal experience. Because I was making music with such amazing musicians and friends, it really didn’t feel like work at all.

Q: New York is, obviously, a musical mecca. What is it like being a classical musician in the city today?

A: On just about any given night, one can attend an opera, orchestra concert or Broadway show, hear a jazz combo, check out an indie singer in the West Village, go salsa or swing dancing…you name it, and NYC has it. As a freelancer, I experience a great variety of work. I could perform at an opera one evening, play the Brahms Requiem with a large chorus and vocal soloists the next day, and then a couple days later give a solo recital! It’s hard work, but also extremely gratifying.

Q: What are the downsides to being a classical musician in this city?

A: Unfortunately, classical music in general is decreasing in popularity. Especially since the recession, work opportunities have been significantly reduced. Even seemingly well-off, large orchestras are experiencing financial struggles. Today the classical musician must be creative and an active entrepreneur to create his or her own “niche.” It’s no longer enough to simply play well and hope that someone takes notice. While this career involves hard work, it forces each musician to take ownership of his or her craft. I find that empowering.

Q: Any upcoming performances you’d like to share with us?

A: I’m part of Ensemble LPR, the new resident orchestra at Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker Street) conducted by Tito Muñoz. Our debut concert with violinist Jennifer Koh will be on June 14th. The next day I leave for the Castleton Festival in Virginia to work with Maestro Maazel for six weeks. This season we will be performing three fully staged operas: Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West,” Verdi’s “Otello,” and Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine.” There will also be several orchestra concerts with substantial programs, including Mahler’s 4th and 5th Symphonies and Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony. I’m looking forward to it! 

As for post-summer plans, pianist Ritva Koistinen and I are already planning another recital at Finland Center. I’m also part of a flute-harp duo with Kristi Shade, and we will be performing on November 17th as part of the Concerts on the Slope concert series in Brooklyn. There will definitely be Finnish works performed at both of these recitals.

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Supporting a new generation of women in Nepal

By Sari Gold

On Friday, March 1st, Finland Center will host a special fundraiser in collaboration with the Empower Nepali Girls Foundation, which supports the education of girls in rural Nepalese villages. The organization was begun more than a decade ago by Dr. Jeffrey Kottler, and provides education to nearly 200 girls all around Nepal. It only costs about $125 to provide a full year of education for one girl.

I’m an active member of the ENG, and this past Christmas, after several months of intensive fundraising, I took my first trip to Nepal as part of an annual delegation. We connected with families, village elders, schoolteachers and administrators to encourage cultural exchange and appreciation towards educating girls. Our motivation was running high as the alternative is unthinkable: early marriage to servitude, or even worse, ending up as victims of sex trafficking that takes over 12,000 young girls away from their families annually.

Below are a couple of entries from the diary I kept during our trip.

12/24/12

“We got up early to enjoy one last look at the view from Bandipur hilltop campsite down to the partially cloud-covered valley. We then hiked downhill to the village, bid everyone farewell and hopped onto a bus towards Bullbhule. Several hours later some of us switched to another bus, while some took the option of hiking uphill to a mountain village for the next school visit. Us hikers walked nearly halfway up, but it was such slow going that we had to ride the bus the rest of the way. At the top, we were greeted by the teachers and students, and proceeded to award multiple scholarships to smiling faces and outstretched hands. This particular village is so remote it has not received visitors in at least two years. Later we engaged in games and songs with the children and shared information with parents and teachers.” 

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12/25/12

“After a break we walked over to the Bahundanda village school for our last ceremony and the awarding of scholarships. Long speeches were given as usual, but today was special. This time the scholarships and gifts were given out by an all-female team, either by graduates of the program who are now in college, or by the very capable Babita Gurung, the general secretary of ENG. What wonderful role models these young, articulate women were!”

Our trip was unforgettable. The new friendships that were formed and the amazing experiences of meeting countless warm and lovely people are forever with us. We are excited to continue our work to help as many young girls as possible to reach their dreams and become the new leaders in their communities.

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