One: An Introduction

In 2015, the Finnish choreographer Liisa Pentti invited me to work with her in a contemporary dance production – what became Jeux: re-imagined, performed in October–November 2016 in Turku (five performances) and in Helsinki (three performances). The invitation stemmed from earlier discussions we had had of how bodies remember and archive dances, and what are the words we use for these processes. The timing of the project was more than serendipitous for me: usually, production schedules work at a pace quite unsuitable for historical research, but this collaboration utilised existing research in a fashion that allowed me to script it into a research project then also in planning, How to Do Things with Performance, 2016–2020. Rather exceptionally, Liisa was also interested in continuing the process by writing together to expand some of the questions raised in the studio in a format more suited to the kind of academic output expected of research (see Pakes 2003). We have now collaborated in two texts written as dialogues (Järvinen & Pentti 2017; Järvinen & Pentti 2019).

Having said that, none of the artists in the project are academic researchers or were interested in collaboration in artistic research, and I have no theatrical or dance training. From the first, this created a kind of tension between my academic role and what Liisa and the three dance makers that she had invited, Maija-Reeta Raumanni, Anna Torkkel, and Jouni Järvenpää, were expecting. I had to place my untrained body in the same exercises as the trained dancers, and they found it confusing I was distressed by this. In turn, my note-taking during our discussions made them uncomfortable, as they did not know what I wrote and to which end. We solved these tensions through agreed-upon limits of sharing: I participated in the studio and anything I documented was shared with the group via a cloud service, which I also used to share my historical research materials.

Yet, this transparency could not solve the larger issue of what academic research (including this exposition) does to art: academia as an institution imposes an imbalance of power into art contexts, as centuries of academic research lend authority over definitions of art to anyone claiming an academic status. For the collaboration to work, I as an academic had to emphasise the different expertise of artists and withdraw from decision-making. Nevertheless, when the time came to finish the programme notes, the assumption was that I would be called a ‘dramaturg’. Since the 1990s, ‘dramaturg’ has become a label for researchers or theorists participating in the making of dance productions they then promote in their research. I felt uncomfortable claiming a theatrical profession for which my colleagues at Uniarts train actual professionals. We finally agreed on historical context advisor. (Here, I wish to thank Thomas F. DeFrantz for his advice.)

The issue here is more than a name for a profession. In contemporary dance and performance art, academic research has become a means for canonization. Artists are increasingly interested in art-as-research approaches, including collaborations with theorists, in part because those theorists then promote their artistic practice within academia. Historians (in the sense of professional historiography), however, are usually consulted only for ‘facts’, not theoretical insight into representational practices as was the possibility inherent in Jeux: re-imagined.

Much of what follows is my personal analysis on the potential in such collaboration, only some of which could be realised in a small-scale production never intended for the international festival circuit. In a sense, my affective reaction in making this exposition parallels that of participating in the studio practice: discomfort. At the (often unstated) disciplinary boundaries of artistic research as ‘research by artists on their own practice’. At how art research too often pretends to neutrality in claims it makes of past (no matter how recent) events, obscuring its use of power – the impetus to canonize. At my inability as a historian to state with adequate emphasis history or remembering do not preserve anything but rather change that which is being recalled to suit present interests.

In the process of making Jeux: re-imagined, and in writing with Liisa, I had to come to terms with these disciplinary boundaries as audiences and peer reviewers alike staked their own claims. For this exposition, I chose to focus on what my position as a researcher and as a historian could perhaps contribute beyond the obvious providing of a critical historiographical perspective. I outline some of the strategies that emerged in the studio practice as responses to the kinds of concerns a historian’s presence perhaps accentuated or focused attention to – in particular, the question of the relationship a performance practice has to past works of which perhaps only a few anecdotes and still images remain.

When Liisa first came to see me about this collaboration, she said she had a vague recollection of a piece called Jeux, which was a 1913 production by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company. She remembered something with three dancers in white tennis costumes moving to a score composed by Claude Debussy, with no clear idea where she might have encountered this image.

I had written of the future imagined in this past work (Järvinen 2009; 2013a), but Liisa’s insight as a choreographer also allowed me to rethink some of the more troublesome aspects of a historian’s practice, such as why write of works no-one alive has experienced or participated in, or more specifically, what such writing does or performs in the present and for the future. These questions are at the heart of the present text, but not its overt focus. After a brief introduction to the context of the work, I discuss some of the exercises we used to re-imagine a past dance. The emphasis is not, as usually is the case in re-performance, on what can be known of a past work but rather how historians do and performers should deal with gaps and absences, a not-knowing that is not a not-yet-knowing. I elaborate on these in the section articulating the strategies developed to distinguish what was staged from any preconceived notions of reconstruction or re-performance, as well as some of the issues that emerged in shifting performance space.