Are choreography and movement related, and if so, how? I have incorporated the understanding that choreography and movement are coupled and interconnected, and that both are operative mediums in my artistic practice and works. I have never done choreographic work without processing its relation to movement, but the idea of separating these two might produce interesting choreographic art. I introduce here relevant viewpoints from the history of choreography with which I reflect on and contextualize the research process and the development of my understanding of the notion of choreography. Together with the references from the history of site-specific and context-responsive practices in visual arts, the field in which choreography operates in this research is established.
During the development of my practice the last five years, the most significant shift in my understanding of choreography has happened in the junction of the practices of writing and reading. It has meant a shift in the viewpoint from mastering the movement towards coupling into the surrounding movement in another way as a starting point for making art. According to philosopher Jaana Parviainen, most movements we make are pre-choreographed by the physical, cultural, social, political, and technical environments in which we are embedded (Keskinen et al. 2013). I understand pre-choreographic being the field in which many of my artistic processes take place in the sense of working with the question of what kind of movements are generated when experimenting with and inhabiting the relation between my body and surrounding material motional circumstances, as well as how the chosen cultural context operates as a choreographic apparatus. In this starting point for choreographic process, I perceive and inhabit surroundings through movement, in movement, as movement, and with movement.
The notion of choreography
Susan Leigh Foster presents and analyzes the development of choreography thoroughly (Foster 2011, pp. 15-72, 72-93). She writes:
‘The word choreography derives from two Greek words, choreia, the synthesis of dance, rhythm, and vocal harmony manifest in Greek chorus; and graph, the act of writing.
‘The first uses of the term, however, are intertwined with two other Greek roots, orches, the place between the stage and the audience where the chorus performed, and chora, a more general notion of space, sometimes used in reference to a countryside or region. Where choreia describes a process of integrating movement, rhythm, and voice, both orches and chora name places’ (ibid., p. 17).
Choreography’s etymological Greek roots choreia, orches,and chora, according to Foster (ibid., pp. 16-17),were brought together in the English language at the end of the 18th century, and in the dance context it has had two main definitions: as the art of dancing and as the art of writing dances. ‘It was first used at the end of the eighteenth century to refer back to the practice of notating dances’(ibid., p. 17).
In my work, I understand the prefix choreo- as an synthesis of various elements and in the sense that the process of this synthesis is not necessarily a harmonic choreographic act. Taking this etymological root as a building block for my research project, I have examined what happens when graphing turns to reading. By delving into the synthesis of various elements, choreography operates as a way to comprehend the moving world and the movements that human body makes, and routes that it takes in various social and material circumstances, infrastructures, scales and spheres. That is why I do not use the phrase ‘to compose’ in my research. The verb ‘to compose’ includes the act of putting together, and the act of putting together is something that I avoid in my bodily practice. Instead, I inhabit the synthesis that forms the potential choreographic and then describe how do I do that. This etymologically rooted understanding is why I consider myself practicing choreography and choreoreading in this research.
According to Foster (ibid., pp. 20-26), the connection between choreography and writing in the Western dance history was established by a meeting between young lawyer Capriol and his teacher, priest Thoinot Arbeau. As a result of this meeting, Arbeau created a word orchésographie, which was also the title of his dance manual published in 1589. Professor André Lepecki describes (Lepecki, transl. Järvinen 2012, pp. 78-83) this meeting as the moment dance was written into choreography. The motivation to connect writing and dance lay in a young lawyer’s desire to be connected with a certain kinetic-textual socialization process: namely, to learn dances, which would open a pathway to the hierarchical social life. When it comes to the relation between choreography and a choreographer, this moment can also be thought of as the genesis of the idea of a choreographer as a writer, as affirmed by R.A. Feuillet’s seminal 1701 work Chorégraphie ou l’art de d’écrire la danse (Kliën 2008, p. 35), even if, according to Foster, the word choreographer was first used in the beginning of 20th century to describe and respond to the innovations in ballet by Nijinsky and Fokine (ibid., p. 43). According to Foster, through early efforts to notate dances in the beginning of the 18th century choreography ‘began its life as the act of reconciling movement, place, and printed symbol’ (ibid., p. 17).
Transforming movements into printed symbols meant that movement symbols could be read through knowing the logic of the used notation system. In other words, when it comes to the human body and movement in these cases, the reading practice of the notations had its starting point in turning the gaze from a two-dimensional piece of paper to a three-dimensional space and place where the dance was about to happen. In this act of turning, dance translated to the symbol of movement and vice versa.
In this research project, I have reexamined these relations between movement, place, and printed symbol by transferring the idea of the printed symbol to the material condition of the surrounding, namely the place, space, and context in which the dance in Foster’s analysis of notation systems was about to happen. According to Foster, in this moment in the history of choreography, place, movement, and printed symbol were reconciled together as dance notation (ibid., p. 17). This, according to her, ‘signals a complex relationship between process and place, a relationship that was then translated into a written document’(ibid. p. 17).
Foster’s analysis is important for my project in the sense that she writes about movement, and its translation into the notation, which she then calls a dance-notation, and not a movement-notation. This leaves open the question of what happens to movement when it is mediated to dance. This question is beyond my research framework and is here left open as well. Instead, I have examined what Foster describes as a complex relationship between process and place. In my case, a process means more specifically the process of taking place and the choreographic use of the verb ‘to take place’.
Foster writes: ‘The project of translating from moving bodies to words and symbols was embraced by all these authors as both imminently achievable and a hallmark of progress. They saw no opposition between the written and the live, nor did they lament the potential loss of some aspect of movement that might not be documentable’ (ibid., p. 17). I am interested in the process in which choreography became understood concretely as something written through translating movements into printed symbols, because in the same process a choreographer became a person who has the skills to read the documented notations in order to disseminate the movements or steps of the dances. This process of reading, and its choreographic potential, has been neglected in the history of choreography. I want to introduce, explore further (in the future), and present in my doctoral research project the choreographic potential of reading, which obviously has its roots in the history of choreography when a choreographer was a person who read the notations, not only wrote them. Following this historical understanding of the development of choreography, it can also be approached and understood as a reading practice parallel to understanding it as a writing practice.
A choreographer is a person who…
In my studies in the late 1990s, I incorporated the practice of choreography as a writing practice, which manifested itself as writing movements and movement phrases in the materiality of the human body in order to create composed dance pieces on a proscenium. I understand writing here as a process in which a choreographer plans, tests, chooses, trains, and shares different movement patterns in the materiality of his/her collaborators’ bodies in the context of dance. In my project, I leave the interesting question ‘What happens to movement when it is mediated to dance?’ open and examine more the question of what happens to movement when it is mediated to choreography. In this sense, the relation between the practices of writing and reading becomes relevant when I take the development of dance notation into consideration in my understanding of what a choreographer does.
In the early choreographic works, I was interested in fluid, fast, kinesthetically complex, and trained movement patterns put together as dance-phrases that a human body was able to perform after several years of specific dance training. In my young choreographic thinking, this led to the notion of choreography based on the dancing body and understanding choreography as writing movement phrases on stage and composing them in various spatio-temporal sequences and relations in the materiality of the dancing human body. The body functioned as a container-like vessel for the movements, and the choreographer was a person who planned the movements and their dramaturgy, motivation, and purpose.
Nowadays, the relation between dance and choreography is problematic for me. I have come to realize that my artistic medium is movement – its experience and perception of it – not dance. I consider dance and choreography separate practices, in the sense that dance does not need choreography to be realized and vice versa. In other words, I can start to dance without any choreographic element, but when I observe or witness the dance material’s relation to its surroundings or its motional assembling, choreographic viewpoints can emerge. But I don’t need to have any choreographic interests to start dancing. In this sense, dance is one possibility in which choreo-orientated artistic thinking can be materialized. According to Foster, ‘By the 1740s and 50s, the limits of choreography as a system documenting dancing were clearly recognized.’ (Foster 2011, p. 35). I understand ‘documenting’ here as a way to materialize preexisting dance or the idea of it. When it comes to the relations between documentation, movement, and body, more closely studying the history of visual art has been helpful in understanding the choreographic role of the documentation. For example, the history of land art and site-specific art has functioned as choreographic reference points in which the relation between the human body, documentation, surrounding material, and movement have been critically materialized into an artistic proposal without a dancing body, in the sense of a specifically trained body performing staged composition.
In other words, I can start dancing without any choreographic inputs, but while witnessing the dancing body or dancing myself, I can direct my attention to the choreographic that emerges. Choreographic in my understanding is not enveloped in only the dancing human body but into the relational matrix in which this dancing body takes place. In this sense, choreography is not about dance but any kind of material in relation to one another. I understand material in my practice being constituted by various movements and experiences of these movements between the body and its surrounding conditions. Choreography is thus understood here primarily as an artform of motional relations that examine and materialize these relations. Through this examination, choreography can then also be practiced as a strategy for facilitating the emergence of certain relations and to continue examining the emerging relations, perhaps with another choreographic strategy.
To put it another way, as a choreographer I can work with any kind of dancing body, but the choreographic operates in the process of contextualization of certain material with others in and with movement. As Foster writes, that choreography and choreographic thinking can take place in various disciplinary fields, (ibid., pp. 2-6). Choreographer Michael Kliën also writes about the notion of choreography, saying, ‘The diverse application and connotation of the term makes it difficult today to talk about “choreography” as a singularity’ (Kliën 2008, p. 38). In my research material, the common denominator is found by understanding that choreography, choreographic thinking, and movement are coupled and operating simultaneously in choreographic practices. However, as stated earlier, I think it would be worth challenging this coupling, not only in terms of problematizing the relation between dance and movement further than it has been already but to probe the profound historical link between movement and choreography. What if movement and choreography were not linked? What kind of choreographic art and practice would that approach generate? These kinds of speculative projects could contribute to and multiply significantly the discussion about various skills and sensitivities that choreographic studies should support and develop.
In the end of 1990s, the requirement for entering the MA studies in Choreography at the Theatre Academy Helsinki was that the student possess the knowledge and experience of a dancer. I find this approach insufficient, even suffocating, reducing the field of choreography as an artistic practice to the realm of dance. Choreography can operate, and does operate, broadly in the field of contemporary art. There is no particular reason why choreography and choreographic thinking should be reduced to concern only dance.
Performance artist, writer, lecturer, and scholar Jenn Joy writes that ‘To engage choreographically is to position oneself in relation to another, to participate in a scene of address that anticipates and requires a particular mode of attention, even at times against our will’ (Joy 2014, p. 1.)
The process of ‘positioning oneself’ can happen and be materialized in many ways, and this process of positioning can itself already be choreographic and generate choreographic art. In my research, this positioning has happened through examining the choreographic potential of the verb ‘to take place’. Also, as curator Mathieu Copeland writes (Copeland 2013, p. 20) about exhibitions‘To understand exhibition as a “fragmentary unity” enables us to consider it as an abstract structure – a conceptual, contextual, and perhaps formal backbone that acts as an active link between, and enabler of, artworks. It constantly re-contextualizes (without perverting) their nature. An exhibition, in this sense, is the ignition of a process that becomes autonomous and self-generating.’
The common denominator with my choreographic thinking in the quote above is the understanding of choreography as an active, autonomous, and self-generating link between motional materials and operating as an enabler of a choreographic work and experience to emerge. The materiality of an exhibition understood as being a physically immaterial counter-form that makes the physical reality to be in revealing itself continuously (ibid. p. 23), choreography in my thinking is understood as an autonomous and self-generating artform that examines the movements forming the invisible, transforming sphere between the moving bodies and surrounding material forces and which re-contextualizes this sphere when processed into choreographic art. I also agree with Joy that the choreographic can be understood as a ‘particular mode of attention’ in and with the relational visually hidden matrix where one’s body is located. In my artistic works, I have experimented with what this particular mode of attention could mean and how that particular engagement could bring the hidden matrix into existence within a particular location.
This open and broad understanding of the notion of choreography can be criticized, for example, from the interrogation that if any relation is choreographic, then what is the specificity of the choreographic practice compared to the others? In my case, it is choreography’s coupling with movement, not objects or things or colors and sounds. Various materials form motional relations that my body inhabits in order to perceive and examine those relations. Choreography can start from any point and any time, but the specificity of choreographic practice lies in the specific kinesthetic and proprioceptive perceptual sensitivity that is activated in establishing, examining, and materializing the motional relation at hand. The examination of the relation in order to make an artistic proposal embeds deep engagement within the phenomenon of movement. In order to manifest this specificity, instead of asking what choreography is, I need to ask what choreography does, how the choreographic practice operates, and what the constituents of this practice are.
I have examined three ways choreography operates in my research project: as an analytical strategy, as a question to be studied, and as an artistic outcome. I have drawn these three approaches from Henk Borgdorff’s essay ‘The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research’ (course material Arlander, Kaila 2013, doctoral studies, TeaK) in which he discusses artistic research as a form of knowledge production. Borgdorff writes of how artistic practice constitutes, at the same time, a subject, method, context, and outcome of the dimensions of artistic research. I find his definition apt in artistic research and something I can relate to, and I have specified his viewpoints concerning my artistic history, interests, and this research project in the field of choreography studies. Borgdorff’s text made me realize that in this artistic research project in which the research method is experimental practice, the challenge in describing various viewpoints is that these modes operate simultaneously in the practice, framing and defining each other, observing and witnessing each other.
Choreography as an analytic strategy
In the works A Dance Mat and Mesh, choreography operates mainly as an analytic strategy for examining the formation of the characteristics of a certain place. I expose the process of A Dance Mat here a bit more closely. In A Dance Mat, for approximately one year I examined the quality of the dance studio, the materiality and agency of the dance mat itself, and my body’s actions with the dance mat. The project’s starting point was to displace the dance mat from its appropriate use and form, namely rolling it off the floor of the dance studio and taking it other places and using it in forms other than the flat plane of the dance studio floor. However, I also experimented with the dance mat in the studio, and this performative mode was part of the first examined artistic part of the doctorate. At this moment of the research process, I was also studying the basics of new materialism and affect theory. A Dance Mat functioned as a practical experimentation within these frameworks and in building my understanding of the agency of the matter, material, and materiality in my choreographic work and thinking.
To understand choreography as an analytic strategy in this project primarily refers to a broader framework, namely to my interests in the studio as a place and space. To engage intensively with the dance mat was my way to destabilize and analyze the history of my artistic practice, which had mainly taken place in the studios. At the same time, the project became an ongoing analysis of the qualities and agency of the dance mat itself. Thus, two different registers, immediate engagement and personal artistic history, fall under the active inquiry in the project. By being more than just one directional, analytical stance towards the dance mat, the project also produced information for the question of what kind of a body this object produces. In this sense, the analytical, understood as gathering and processing information through tacit engagement with the object at hand, functioned reciprocally. Various choreographic approaches bring forth different qualities of the dance mat, and this can be seen in the videos of the project. I could call this approach an experimental phenomeno-choreographic approach, because to analyze the qualities of the dance mat like this is a creative process, which develops and probes my choreographic thinking and practice.
The first setting for gathering practical and tacit knowledge about the dance mat was facilitated in the dance-studio. Here, both objects of choreographic analysis are present, namely the dance mat and the studio. Later on, when the project developed and I took the dance mat outdoors, this action can be understood as focusing on one material part of the larger ecological framework. In this phase, the connection to the dance studio faded but, nevertheless, for the development of my understanding as to why my studio-based work became insignificant, the question of a studio has accompanied this work all the time. In my understanding, ‘to analyze’ refers to a process of inhabiting the research questions of what kind of body this specific object produces and what constitutes a dance studio. When inhabiting the questions, the analytical stance evolves along with two other modes, namely choreography as a question to be examined and choreography as an artistic outcome.
Choreography as a question to be examined
The approach to choreography as a question to be studied has been present in all of the artistic works in this research project. Seasons as Choreographers: Where Over the World is Astronaut Scott Kelly? is one of the projects in which the examination took place in the spatiotemporal scale that extends my lifetime and space to the scale of outer space. Practice-wise, this project is one of the most important ones in examining the transformation from choreographer towards choreoreader. Working with the linkage of terrestrial and extraterrestrial space has also been present in the project Meteor, in which outer space was present via the use of a mobile phone and its satellite networks. What draws me to working with outer space is that the limits of it are unknown, its movements choreographs my body, and it is in movements in many ways; asteroids, meteors, stellar and planetary systems are moving in it and through it in a scale that goes beyond my understanding. The history between art and universe is long, and cultural astronomy is one field that examines how the celestial has been written into different cultures (see, i.e., Beery in Dickens and Ormrod 2016, pp. 52-68). I have been interested in approaching outer space as site, and think the political, economic, and ethical complexity of producing imaginaries about outer space, without the pitfall of romanticizing it as the final frontier or colonizing it without asking who is allowed or who has the economical power to go to there.
The poetics of failure is present in Seasons as Choreographers through my anti-heroic terrestrial astronaut who walks around Theatre Academy, but at the same time this character carries a potential alternative embodiment of the cosmochoreographic, which amplifies my previous practice. In the project, the choreographic is an agglomeration of the alien, extraterrestrial, imaginary, and queer. The project has unfolded for me a pathway, or should I say a wormhole, towards the queer science-fictional cosmographies. During the doctoral process, this direction has been fortified with the project pompom, which continues and complements my studies of science fiction with the tentative studies of the history of Japanese manga, anime, and cyberpunk. To approach these fields with choreography seems to be quite untouched terrain, and I think that the science-fictional realms are worth examining via choreographic questions in order to examine the extra-terrestrial potential of the choreographic.
In other words, to choose to work with movement scales beyond my lifetime and space has questioned my previous choreographic practice in many ways. To move through a massive, ungraspable cosmography, I have developed another kind of understanding of the operative skills and sensitivities in my practice while studying choreography as a continuous open question on the scale never before observed in my artistic history.
Choreography as an artistic outcome
From the three operative viewpoints, choreography as an artistic outcome sounds at first glance quite absurdist, because that is what I do, art, and I understand artistic research being done through art and artistic practice. It is thus important to emphasize that this viewpoint is specifically contextualized in the field of artistic research. I follow the understanding that artistic research is something that an artist does through artistic practice.
In this research project, choreography as an artistic outcome refers to the contextual experimentation within the artistic process, namely to the instant and immediate sense of choreographic and its materialization and to the spatial exploration of extending the choreographic scale towards the galactic and beyond. This includes building awareness about the institutional relations and ways of documenting choreographic acts within various contextual frameworks through which these gestures become experienced as art.
In my early years, the choreographic process meant to spend weeks in the dance studio, rehearsing a work to be performed on a proscenium. After experimenting with various ideas and certain themes, motifs, and topics, some were chosen and processed further. Then, during the rehearsal process, an artistic outcome was formed and rehearsed so that it could be shared as art with the public.
I think this is also the prevailing mode of doing staged dance pieces today. During my research project I have destabilized this mode of making in various ways. One of them is to play with the temporality of the choreographic. Instead of spending weeks in the studio, in one of the projects, A Guest, I chose to work with the immediate sense and experience of the choreographic and find a way to make choreography through materializing the immediate in a way other than by rehearsing for weeks in the studio. From this viewpoint, this research project studies the skills and sensitivities that are at stake when the choreographic turns to an artistic proposal through various mediums.
According to Susan L. Foster, ‘Choreography has come to refer to a plan or orchestration of bodies in motion. And in this refined definition, the plan is distinguished from its implementation and from the skills necessary for its execution’ (Foster 2011, p. 15). In this research project, choreography as a plan means an artistic practice and mode of inquiry not distinguished from its implementation but unfolding continuously through and with the choreographic thinking and materialization, which entails developing certain embodied kinesthetic skills and sensitivities. This means that choreography is not something repeated or rehearsed but trained, sensitive, bodily method and usage of a choreographic practice to be processed and shared as choreographic art. This in turn articulates the understanding of the choreographies that move my human body. Playing with the notion of ‘scale’ in the artistic practice has been a way for me to have various perspectives of the research phenomena of choreography.
These artistic viewpoints are of course only fragments of a broad field of choreography and choreographic practices, and my aim has been to avoid generalizations and instead develop contributions to the ongoing, contemporary, choreographic discourses about the relations between materiality, corporeality, movement, and embodiment, and further on develop sensitivities toward choreographic practices yet to come. In terms of concrete viewpoints in artistic processes, this has meant, for example, to travel from the planetary perspective of a failed astronaut to the grounded wanderer in a random natural environment and think how these choreographic inquiries could be documented and shared as artistic proposals, as well as how these acts constitute my artistic practice. To contextualize these acts and inquiries in the history of choreographic art as artistic works has thus become one choreographic mode of inquiry.