The following is a dialogue between two authors, choreographer Liisa Pentti (LP) and dance historian Hanna Järvinen (HJ), regarding how to write about a choreographic process. In 2015, Liisa invited Hanna to collaborate in what became Jeux: uudelleen kuviteltu/re-imagined, a contemporary dance composition for three dancers, Anna Torkkel, Maija-Reeta Raumanni, and Jouni Järvenpää, which premiered at the Kutomo performance space in Turku in October 2016. Liisa directed the process, which was based in part on historical source materials Hanna had gathered from the 1913 choreography, Jeux, by Vaslav Nijinsky to the music of Claude Debussy.
We soon noted there was something peculiar about our collaboration that required further articulation. Although performative histories of dance have become a genre of sorts – thinking here of works like Parades and Changes: Replays (2008) in which Anne Collod returned with Anna Halprin to the latter’s 1965 choreography; or Martin Nachbar’s lecture demonstration Urheben Aufheben (2008) on Dore Hoyer’s Affektos Humanos (1962) – it is quite rare for a choreographer to invite a historian to collaborate in studio practice. Part of this has to do with production schedules being incompatible with the pace of research, particularly historical research, which requires a lot of time spent in archives before hypotheses can be turned into research questions. But such collaborations also require dealing with the issue of authority over the history of an art form, a negotiation that reveals how differently we understand what constitutes ‘research’ or ‘scholarship’, and how institutions define what qualifies as ‘art’ or ‘research’ (see e.g. Franko 1989).
From the start, we were not interested in reconstruction or remaking, in which a new ‘original’ is created from whatever remains of past performances the authors of the reconstruction have been deemed relevant – not even to the extent that Collod and Nachbar re-perform past dances in their performative histories. In Jeux: re-imagined, no claims were made that anything we staged had taken place in 1913, or that we could experience something similar to that past dance. Instead, the images, notations, texts, and contextual information of the 1913 production Hanna had gathered for her historical writing served as a framework for a corporeal, concrete imagining of possibilities for dancers, today. We tried out poses, we explored versions of the music, read cryptic verbal descriptions, learned about context through ragtime dancing, and so on. Relevance emerged in doing, articulated not only in the studio and in performance but in conversations and later, publications.
Much as these remains of the past dance were used to reveal gaps in what can be known in the performances of Jeux: re-imagined, this article focuses on the issues that emerged in turning that practical process into textual representation. It introduces a method of working together and a structure of text that we chose to discuss, Jeux: re-imagined in an earlier article (Järvinen & Pentti 2017). We recorded informal discussions, transcribed relevant parts, and edited them into a dialogue reworked until both of us were content with the end result. We chose the dialogue form to emphasise there are two voices in this collaboration, but not to emulate the oft-emphasised duality of artistic research. Despite our backgrounds, Liisa is not speaking ‘for’ art; Hanna is not speaking ‘as’ an academic. Although both of us teach at the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, Finland, neither one of us has a doctorate in arts, and our collaboration is conditioned by an experience of marginality as well as the precarity of our labour (e.g. Kunst 2015).
Collaboration is easier if tasks are delineated and labour acknowledged. Liisa directed the artistic process, fixing dates to fit everybody’s calendars and keeping us on the task at hand because this was part of her job; Hanna did much of the original transcribing and editing of the text, because she is being paid for doing research on this topic by the Academy of Finland research project How to Do Things with Performance? 2016–2020 (see www.researchcatalogue.net/view/281037/281038). As in all research, there is a degree of fictionality in the articulation: not all of what is written was originally said by the person to whom it is here attributed. Rather, the literary device allows us to explore how we come together in collaboration, the similarities in our working conditions and practices, and what each can learn from the other.
On Supervision and Writing as a Practice
HJ: You have acted as an examiner of doctoral work at the Performing Arts Research Centre of the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki.
LP: Yes, I have now done that twice. It has been rewarding, even if it has also shown how complicated it is for a dance maker or a pedagogue to find words to articulate movement practices, and how much effort has to be dedicated to writing practice so that what you are trying to convey becomes clear.
HJ: Well, ‘clear’ is a relative concept. As someone who teaches writing for doctoral candidates, I prefer to think that writing is a practice like any practice: it requires dedicating time for daily rehearsals, an understanding of techniques and yourself as a practitioner, as well as guidance from more accomplished colleagues. These help you clarify what you are trying to articulate, but what the reader gets out of the end result may still be something completely different.
LP: I think supervision is really important especially in the writing stage, because the practice of articulation and argument has to be rehearsed as well as the practice of dance. Although doctoral candidates also write a little about their research process, as with a performance, an examiner only sees the end result. That may vary a great deal depending on the field of the practitioner, their interest, and their level of confidence in what they want to convey about their practice.
HJ: Personally, I would hate to see myself in a supervisee’s work, because that work is supposed to be their self-expression! My job is to let them find their voice, and I sometimes use writing exercises to do so, either specific tasks or simply advice about different kinds of things to try when you are stuck. For example, some artists are really eloquent in speech but hypercritical about writing, in which case it usually helps to bypass writing. So talk aloud and record what you say so that you can type out the transcript…
LP: Like we do here!
HJ: Exactly. Or tell what you want to convey to a stuffed toy, who has endless patience. You will note that the stuffed toy will start to look like they understand what you want to say once you have clarified this to yourself.
Finding one’s voice as an artist-researcher is actually as difficult as finding one’s voice as an artist, especially because the articulation uses tools you would not necessarily have mastered before starting in the doctoral programme. It takes time and effort. Yet, mostly when I see students struggling, I simply try to make them go back to their practice, keep their focus on their art.
LP: Yes. At the heart of artistic research lies the practice of art. Some artists practice conceptually, their art is very amenable to philosophy and they may be very well-versed in philosophy because they get so much for their practice out of reading it. But not all artists are like that. Some have decades of practice that they are trying to explicate, but they are not comfortable with Deleuze or Lakoff or whatever. You can see this in the language these candidates use: when they finally get to their own practice, their style of writing changes, their vocabulary becomes poetic and far more legible and easier for another artist to understand than when they try to write like philosophers do.
HJ: Practicing writing as one tool for articulating in a deeply thought-out fashion what you understand in practice does not actually necessitate taking recourse to philosophical systems of thought or even academic structures of writing. We tend to forget that it is only in the twentieth century that the discourses of art have been dominated by critics and philosophers (e.g. Werner 1967). Artists did not need philosophers to tell them what they were doing, they developed their own articulations predominantly out of practice and had no fear of challenging critics or philosophers, either.
LP: However, for artists today, a degree of understanding of the conceptual frameworks of contemporary art is crucial. We should not reinvent the wheel. I think Kirsi Monni’s (2004) work is a particularly great example of how philosophy can be useful: she is not doing an interpretation of Heidegger, she is explicating her thinking- in-art through Heidegger. Her book is not a thesis on Heidegger, but it requires an understanding of Heidegger’s conceptual framework in order for the reader to understand what she takes from Heidegger and thus understand what her thinking in practice really is. The philosopher is merely a tool for articulating crucial things about choreography that are beyond this philosopher’s thinking. At the same time, the work done is important for other choreographers, because even if you disagree with Monni, she offers you something to think about and challenges you to articulate how and where and why you disagree with equal clarity.
HJ: What I meant is that philosophy should not dissuade the practitioner from finding ways of explicating both in practice and in words and other media something that has been perhaps self-evident but never thought through or shared in this depth. It is a question of attitude more than skill. Practitioners are too often hesitant to voice disagreement with philosophers simply because philosophers argue with concepts in a seemingly masterful way that effectively excludes the kind of artistic insight that emerges not from theories and concepts but from practical doing with bodies. (Nauha 2017)
LP: I think this is also a matter of supervision: the supervisors see the process at a stage where it can still be influenced. The process of doing a doctorate is long and complicated, and examiners are often chosen relatively early in this process. Finding words for the experiences and perceptions encountered in the process is hard work for the candidate, and it may take a while for them to figure out the crucial topics in their research, which means the questions they ask can change in a process over which the examiner has little influence.
HJ: Yet, the practice or its articulations cannot be too solipsistic, they also have to be meant for an audience that does not share your practice. By themselves, anecdotes about practice are irrelevant. Others become interested in your research if and when your articulation takes a form that they can themselves apply, argue with and against. I think this is the one thing often misrepresented about research in this age of over-production of research ‘outcomes’: what keeps you going is not only dissatisfaction with what you have produced but becoming aware of how what you have produced is meaningful and useful for others. It is a different kind of meaning-making than that of art precisely because although art sometimes starts from the assumption it will be challenged and argued against, it rarely starts from the assumption that the argument will continue in the next art project. This is the staying-with-the-trouble of artistic research: making an argument in practice, defending and reformulating that argument in practice, and refining your articulation in practice. Verbalisations, spoken or written, are merely one aspect of those argumentations.
LP: From the perspective of doctoral education, the biggest issue could very well be how to create a programme that fosters freedom for each artist to articulate their practice in a way that reflects who they are as a person and how they work as an artist, including how they may change in the process of making their research.1
1 In our native Finnish, ‘tekijä’ (author) derives from ‘tehdä’ (to do, to make) – an author thus concretely ‘does’ or ‘makes’ art.
HJ: Yes, and also allowing them to articulate in ways that suit them and still be understood as research. Writing is a corporeal practice that is not very easy or comfortable. Priya Srinivasan (2011, 46–51) writes of this from the perspective of a dancer, which made me understand how my own familiarity with far more extensive requirements of sitting in archives doing historical research has blinded me to how difficult the practice of shifting through archives required of historical work can be to a dancer used to physical practice. Although her reaction of finally discovering what she was seeking for in the archives was extremely familiar to me, her attention to the corporeality of research taught me not to demand quite as much from my art school colleagues or students. Similarly, the process of writing these texts with you have required a lot of patience in forming this legible thing out of spoken conversations not all of which have stayed on topic.
But just as writing is a practice that can be rehearsed in many different ways, so is reading. For example, a good reader does not assume they already know the topic better than the author – or that the discourse they are familiar with is the master discourse. Reading requires a willingness to be persuaded, just as writing requires ability to persuade. Arguing with philosophers does teach you to argue well.
LP: I understand that a historian works with text. But what was relevant for you in the studio work we did in the rehearsals or in the performances? What was your motivation, there?
HJ: Well, participating in trying things out for one; and through the practice, understanding why so few scholars risk discussing creative processes. Although most of dance making takes place in the studio, histories almost never discuss the how of corporeal practice – the focus is far more on the stage and the critical reception of the performances. Writing on dance also tends to represent works as unchanging from performance to performance because the name of the work is a kind of shorthand for what those performances had in common, even if histories are sometimes based on one performance or documentation of one performance. Experienced spectators of improvisation understand that each performance is unique – for example, in Jeux: re-imagined there was the seventh event, where the configuration of who stands, who whispers, and who moves was an agreement between the performers after the sixth event had taken place. Participation in the process gave me a degree of understanding of the significance of such choices that is not visible in the end result even if you are an expert enough to realise that the roles of the seventh event are not predetermined. I could see what was not there, what was the potential that could have been, just as working with Anna, Maija, and Jouni gave new ideas as to what movement was implied in the sources with which I was seemingly quite familiar.
But one of the questions I had afterwards was who were the ‘we’ in this collaboration?
LP: Well, the original group was us two and Anna, Maija, and Jouni. Sound designer Jouni Tauriainen, lighting designer Vespa Laine, and the designer of our scenography and costumes Graziella Tomasi joined our rehearsal process in September 2016.
HJ: You, Anna, Maija, and Jouni were all given choreographic credit for the piece but you had different roles.
LP: Yes. Sharing choreographic credit did not mean a collective or democratic share in the creation of the composition but authority over the movement material. In my opinion, choreographic credit also belongs to the performers, who develop movement material and propose different suggestions about its relationship to space, for example, so that we can together set the material in relation to each other’s movements. Here, my job as a choreographer was also to invent the concept, gather the group, and continue to develop the choreography through the proposed material. I was also responsible for staying on schedule, structuring the compositional and movement suggestions, fine-tuning movements, and ultimately, making choices. As the choreographer who did not perform in the work, I was the ‘spectator’ perceiving the totality, including not only the dance but also the light, sound, and scenography.
In contrast, when I have worked with the feminist collective Blaue Frau, led by Sonja Ahlfors and Joanna Wingren, they have a different kind of collaboration: they have invited me and a number of others into a specific, non-hierarchical process, where the participants take different roles and negotiate choices as a group. Now, for 2019, I am making a piece where Sonja and Joanna perform in my work, as invited performers. This changes the horizontality of the creation process into a more vertical one, and it is crucial that in this production Sonja and Joanna are not performing as Blaue Frau. They are remarkable women to work with precisely because they are so aware of the differences in such variations in working relationships, which makes collaboration much easier.
HJ: But as you just said there are also different kinds of decisions to be made in each collaboration: a dancer makes certain kinds of decisions regarding their practice; a choreographer — different decisions; a manager or a producer — yet other kinds of decisions.
LP: Yes, and for a collaboration to work, who takes responsibility for what has to be agreed-upon and clear. Trust between collaborators is crucial. It is the same here: we trust each other in this text. I trust you to do things in a certain way and you trust me in my articulations of my practice. This research would not work if you only did this because you get paid for it, or if I did this simply to get my name in print. There has to be respect and trust in the collaboration, even when we disagree.
HJ: This brings me to the question of critical distance. In the studio there were some disagreements and we did end up talking about what of that we could put into our previous article. In that, I felt that you were uncomfortable about some of it.
LP: There is always at least one moment of crisis in an artistic process, a moment when the work seems to lose its direction or just to fall into a void – at which point emotions run high and people argue. But no-one wants to offend anyone.
HJ: But does this silencing of the discord not mean you self-censor? Does the process not appear smoother than it actually is?
LP: The process of making choreography is about finding the closest possible accuracy or expression of each work. This is not about truth and truthful articulation. You have to remember that for me, this process of making a choreography was not an academic research process.
HJ: This may well be at the heart of how we think differently about articulation: I was in the studio as a kind of participant-observer, and in that moment of crisis I recognised something that I think also takes place in written articulations. Researchers, too, self-censor all the time and hide various kinds of personal, collegial, and institutional crises in reporting their projects where everything apparently went just fine and dandy all the time.
Perhaps we should note that we have self-censored part of this conversation? We certainly do not wish to offend anyone.
On Collaborative Processes and Institutions
HJ: The limits institutions place include the requirement that any artistic part of a doctoral work at the Theatre Academy is essentially defined as work by a singular author: even collaboration is defined through the doctoral candidate having a verifiably independent role in any collaboration. Yet, what kind of artistic practice can be examined as the work of the doctoral candidate does have an effect on what kinds of questions our doctoral candidates can ask and how. At present, a performance collective cannot apply into our doctoral programme, except as individuals with separate projects.
LP: Of course institutions matter, but they also function like that in the art field! If I were working in a different institutional context, such as ballet, where it would be possible to do big spectacles and tour works, do the same piece in different theatres and always have that great big stage apparatus at hand, that would affect what I do as my practice. Choose the institution that allows you to work in the way you need to work.
HJ: My concern is that text as a form of communication not only fixes a narrative about a work of art, it also makes that work of art stand out as a special instance worth researching in the author’s œuvre. Out of everything you have done in the past thirty years as an artist, how do you feel about this one piece from 2016 – Jeux: Re-imagined – getting this much attention? As an artist, are you bothered by being remembered for this work?
LP: Not at all! In my practice, art works and themes do not have a clear, fixed life-span that would begin from an idea and end with the performances. I do not think of my works or my career like that. Rather, each piece lives on in a different way in what has come since. A good example of this is Klaustro, the first solo I made in Finland after my graduation from SNDO in 1987. Three decades later, in 2017, I returned to it with Veronica Lindberg, a young, emerging choreographer, who co-choreographed the old material into a new solo for me as the dancer, Klaustro – shhhhh! It was a great project. Already in 1987, Klaustro was the product of its time and highly personal for me; the three decades and the way Veronica staged me against the video documentation of the original dance gave it necessary freshness and also depth.
In other words, Jeux: re-imagined lives on in this peculiar fashion of discussions and articles. It has a different kind of afterlife.
HJ: That is good to hear. I sometimes do feel that research creates what are considered great works, especially when it comes to contemporary dance. For an artist-researcher, this may lead to an impasse: a fear of the articulation as fixing these works, as somehow too significant.
LP: Yes, but the way I see our texts is that what is said here is, in a way, no longer about Jeux: re-imagined. Our discussions go beyond the specific collaboration in that one work. A doctoral thesis is similarly not about the works discussed. Actually, that is what takes a thesis out of solipsism: what is said of the practice is relevant for others.
HJ: As a historian, I perhaps worry too much about how text fixes what can be researched later. Following American colleagues’ discussion on which works they use as examples on a dance history course brought home to me that Nijinsky made four works, out of which at least one and usually two appeared in these lists. I mean, name another choreographer who gets 25–50% of their work into the curriculum like that!
LP: Oh my goodness, that is so true!
HJ: Yes, and then, of course, the artist also gets discussed through their works as if they described their off-stage person, too. Nijinsky, for example, has been represented as ‘growing up’ as a person in the psychoanalytical readings of his work because L’Après-midi d’un Faune is read as a masturbatory fantasy whereas Jeux is a threesome and Le Sacre du Printemps about community (Järvinen 2014, 184).
LP: This is precisely what we talked about earlier: that there are certain myths about artists that are really poisonous and just keep coming up time and again. For example, an interviewer recently asked me what kind of clothes I normally wear in performance, and when I said jeans and a t-shirt, they told me that would not work for the image they wanted to accompany the story. As if a dancer really ought to have a costume – or else, perform naked.
No, seriously, they asked me to pose naked.2
2 A week later, the reporter informed LP that she would be cut from the story because she had refused to pose naked for the photographs.
HJ: Right. As if art is the artist’s confession about their personal life. (Cf. Nochlin 1989, 149).
LP: Certainly, some artists – or their managers – consciously create brands, which sometimes follow these prejudices about what an artist should be like more than what that artist does as their art. In contrast, artistic research should be about critical engagement with the practices of art, and we should know better than to repeat such well-worn myths when writing ourselves into research, too.
HJ: Well, perhaps reporters just assume that these myths is what their readers want – the same thing done again. Like the mad creative genius stereotype, I’m so tired of that one… So I think changing the opinions of the public, including reporters, is one important use for artistic research as well: make it known that this is not what art is and how artists work.
By the way, did you ask the interviewer if you get paid for the story?
LP: A great question. I probably should ask them about that… Honestly, it did not even occur to me to ask. The assumption is, of course, that an artist agrees to be interviewed in exchange for visibility.
HJ: Yes, after three decades you’ll need the extra visibility.
LP: Hah, right! Seriously, though, this did make me think of my limits in terms of what I am willing to do, in what kinds of representations I will agree to participate.
HJ: Hopefully, this one we are now working on will be a positive one.
LP: I do think it will be.
- In our native Finnish, ‘tekijä’ (author) derives from ‘tehdä’ (to do, to make) – an author thus concretely ‘does’ or ‘makes’ art.
- A week later, the reporter informed LP that she would be cut from the story because she had refused to pose naked for the photographs.
Reference List and Additional Resources
Franko, Mark. 1989. “Repeatability, Reconstruction and Beyond.” Theatre Journal 41, (1) 56–74.
Järvinen, Hanna. 2014. Dancing Genius: The Stardom of Vaslav Nijinsky. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Järvinen, Hanna & Liisa Pentti. 2017. “Koreografian ja historiankirjoituksen uudelleen kuvittelua.” Tiede & edistys 4, 215–232.
Kunst, Bojana. 2015. Artist at Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism. Zero: Winchester.
Monni, Kirsi. 2004. Olemisen poeettinen liike. Tanssin taidefilosofisia tulkintoja Martin Heideggerin ajattelun valossa sekä taiteellinen työ vuosilta 1996–1999. Acta Scenica 15. Helsinki: Teatterikorkeakoulu.
Nauha, Tero. 2017. “A Performance Entangled with Philosophy.” In Poetics of Form. Nivel 8, edited by Outi Condit and Liisa Jaakonaho. Helsinki: University of the Arts Helsinki. nivel.teak.fi/poetics-of-form/tero-nauha-a-performance-entangled-with-philosophy.
Nochlin, Linda. 1989. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?.” In Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays, 145–178. New York: Harper & Row.
Srinivasan, Priya. 2011. Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Werner, Alfred. 1967. “Introduction to the Dover Edition.” In The Gentle Art of Making Enemies by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, v–xxii. New York: Dover.
Dr Hanna Järvinen currently works as a Senior Researcher in the Academy of Finland project How to Do Things with Performance?, 2016–2020, and as Lecturer at the doctoral programme of the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, Finland. She is a docent in dance history at the University of Turku, Finland, and the author of Dancing Genius (Palgrave Macmillan 2014) as well as articles in journals such as Dance Research, AVANT, The Senses and Society, and Dance Research Journal.
Liisa Pentti (MA) is a choreographer, dancer and the artistic director of her international dance company Liisa Pentti+Co. Her works have been presented throughout the Scandinavia, Russia and in many European countries. She has a long teaching carrier both as a freelancer and in the Theatre Academy of Helsinki. She has been working with autistic young people since 2015. Through her company she curates seminars, events and workshops related to the role of the art in the society, like the After Contemporary-project 2011–2017 and Floating Memories 2018–. Liisa Pentti is one of the co-creators of Zodiak-Center for new dance and she was part of the artistic board 1987–2012.