Contextual Choreography: A dance-mat workshop Simo Kellokumpu

Posted · Add Comment
Simo Kellokumpu


In Theatre Academy Helsinki there are several dance-studios. The studios are equipped with basic technical equipment. They are variable and they are meant to be used for training, rehearsing and performing within the curriculum. When it comes to the equipment and material conditions of the studios there are studios with and without dance-mats. A dance-mat is commonly used in the studios for dance-training (and on proscenium stages) with various motivations such as safety-issues or aesthetic reasons. Usually a dance-mat in the institutions is regulated by various rules, for example in Theatre Academy in some dance-studios it is not allowed to walk on the dance-mat with outdoor shoes and in some cases one must ask for a certain kind of tape if one wants to tape something on the mat. These regulations are there to ensure the sustainable use of the dance-mat. Since Carpa 4 took partly place in Theatre Academy studios with its theme The Non-Human and the Inhuman in Performing Arts – Bodies, Organisms and Objects in Conflict I wanted to take a closer look at this specific object with which my body is familiar because of my educational and professional background.

The choice of this object sprang from my current artistic research doctorate project in Theater Academy, which is titled Contextual Choreography. In this artistic research the focus is on the relations, interconnectedness and reciprocity of choreography and context. The focus is on the question how a chosen cultural context operates as a choreographic ‘apparatus’. A context is understood here broadly as a set of relations between various spatial, temporal, social and material entireties. At this phase of the research the problem of recognizing, naming and framing the context functions as a generator for artistic practice. The starting point to unfold the context is here the idea that a human body is taking a place always in certain conditions. For the workshop this meant to think about the studio and its material conditions more closely.

Choreography as a concept is thought here as a way to understand the question how the social and material circumstances and the (performance-) environment take place in relation to the human body and accomplishment of movements and vice versa. Choreography here couples 1) perception of the environment, which includes information and experience from numerous sources and 2) accomplishment of the movement, which includes processing perceived information and experience from numerous sources. For the workshop this meant one choice from the material surroundings of the studio to work on, in order to possibly open up broader thinking about the studio and the chosen material itself. Choreography is thought in the ongoing research as a reading and writing practice, both being active simultaneously. In the workshop I wanted to explore how the reading-writing of the dance-mat happens and what kind of choreographic and performative possibilities are unfolded through this approach? Thought like this, the research project Contextual Choreography aims to bring out the experiential entanglement of the lived and the conceptual in a meaning-making process of a chosen context. The research attempts to bring out material choreographic forms to the following questions: How to multiply the perception of a chosen context? Which relational movements, which are part of my experience of the chosen context are hidden? How does my lived experience and conceptual knowledge about the performance-environment conflict in and with the chosen context? Who or what moves and how?

The questions I was puzzled with and interested in when choosing the dance-mat were such as: How has it affected my somatic experiences in my dance education as being part of the material circumstance where I have studied and worked? How is the dance-mat part of the curriculum of dance and choreography studies? What kind of subject does this object produce (with the subject here I mean for example a dance-student in the Theater Academy)? Does the dance-mat dominate or affect my somatic life when I step on it? Does it produce, as an ideal or should I say on an ideological plane, the desire to become a smooth mover with certain virtuoso qualities?

The workshop in Carpa 4 was a possibility to gather some feed-back from the participants and co-researchers about this object and process. For the workshop I asked from the organizers a studio, which does not have a dance-mat on the floor, but that I could bring one roll of a used dance-mat in. The description of the workshop for Carpa 4 was as follows:


revolutionary abstraction rolled utopia bulldozing cliché rubbed atlas something else

This workshop-proposal is approached through working with the material circumstance of the dance-studio in Theatre Academy where Carpa takes place, instead of giving a participant a report of an external research – project in the given studio. Studio is thought here as a multidirectional and layered social and material processual entity and it is thought as a common working-space of my discipline, choreography.

In order to contribute to Carpa’s theme, the focus here is on one particular material condition often used in the dance-studios: a dance-mat. A dance-mat is a techno-industrial object, which is at the same time physical, lived, mental and conceptual. It offers a plane, which rubs off and erases the characteristics of the surface beneath it attempting to homogenize the surface of the space. It aims to offer a feeling of safety and it is supposed to be an ideal plane to work on. It lifts the bodies above the messy and noisy ground. It aims to offer a neutralized and atemporal topography where the body is put, thrown and positioned on. The dance-mat aims to open a place, which is nowhere and at the same time it has a possibility to interact with all places from e.g. ballet, butoh and belly-dance. Literally, the sensuous body is rubbed against a dance-mat.

With this thinking above, the focus of the workshop is to explore the affectual relation between a body, a dance-mat and movement. What kind of aesthetics does the dance-mat bring out and what matters are in- and excluded when we get in touch with it?

Choreography as a concept is thought here as a way to understand how the social and material circumstances take place in animate relation to the body and accomplishment of movements and vice versa. When it comes to the body, choreography here couples perception of the environment, which includes information and experience from numerous sources, and accomplishment of the movement, which includes processing perceived information and experience from numerous sources. In this research a social, cultural and material situation is turning into a choreographic ‘apparatus’ where we are and which produces the ways we move.

In the beginning of the workshop I gave a short introduction to the dance-mat by opening shortly the history of it through the information that I had found and received by contacting one of the main manufacturers of dance-mats and floors in Europe. In order to activate the workshop as an experimental situation with the participants and co-researchers, I chose four concepts to approach the dance-mat with: 1) the sacred (dance-mat with high terms and conditions for use), 2) obedience (referring e.g. to the dance-education), 3) resistance (materiality of the object), 4) conflict (how the body is literally rubbed on the mat).

For each concept there was one five-minute action/intervention proposed where the co-researchers could participate or they could also just observe what happens when I was going through these actions. The chosen actions were:

  1. The sacred: to spend time quietly with the dance-mat leaving it untouched. The dance-mat was erected upright as a roll in the middle of the studio.
  2. Obedience: pushing repeatedly the erected upright vertical dance-mat to fall to the floor.
  3. Resistance: throwing the dance-mat into the air.
  4. Conflict: unrolling the dance-mat and rubbing the body on and against it.

The workshop ended with a short discussion after the actions. Some of the participants were familiar with the dance-mat through their professional engagements and others were not. The discussion travelled from the personal previous lived experiences to more conceptual ponderings about the dance-mat. The choice of the concepts to approach the dance-mat and their impact on what happened and their echo to broader social implications were discussed.

The aim of the workshop was to think about the dance-mat’s instrumentality and materiality in practice and to test it with chosen concepts in relation to the human body and choreography. The try-out was referenced for example with the on-going research-interests for new materalism’s mode of inquiry, which aims to re-orientate the ways of thinking about matter and materiality (see i.e. Coole and Frost 2010, Introduction). The chosen approach was influenced by affect-theory (see i.e. Gregg and Seigworth 2010, pp. 1–29) and the ponderings about the relations between choreography, a human body and an object (see i.e. Lepecki 2012). When it comes to the spatial interpreted transformative qualities and agency of the dance-mat, the on-going process is influenced for example by the philosophical line thought regarding non-place and wrong place articulated by Marc Augé and Miwon Kwon.

The workshop’s aim was to function as a testing ground for the possibility to think further possibilities of the project A dance-mat to be one part of the first artistic part of my on-going artistic research. With the choices, try-outs and discussions done within the theme of Carpa 4, I found this experience an encouraging one to keep this project in process and to develop it further and to focus on experimenting with its materiality.


Augé Marc 1995. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. London, New York, Verso.

Coole, Diana & Frost (eds.), Samantha 2010. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics. Duke University Press.

Gregg, Melissa & Seigworth Gregory J. 2010. The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University Press.

Kwon, Miwon 2000. Art Journal vol. 59 Issue 1. College Art Association, pp. 32–43.

Lepecki, Andre 2012. Moving as Thing: Choreographic Critiques of the Object. In October Magazine Ltd. No. 140 Spring 2012 MIT Press, pp. 75–90.

Lehtonen, T.-K: How does materiality matter for the social sciences? In D. Colas & O. Kharkhordin (eds.) The Materiality of Res Publica, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge 2009, pp. 271–288.


Carpa4 Proceedings

The Non-human and the Inhuman in Performing Arts — Bodies, Organisms and Objects in Conflict