The Red Shoes Project Revisited

The Red Shoes Project Revisited is a story about a research project on theatre for Early Years. It is a story of looking back, becoming small, childhood memories about walking on my own feet, looking for adventure. It is also a story about presence in play, complexity, multitude, diversity, entanglements and stumbling on the road towards affective research. 

Looking back is to reflect in a new and different way, with new experiences and concepts. This act of looking back can provide a potential meta-level of reflection, because the distance in time can make a shift towards overview and self reflexivity. Writing can be helpful in such a process, but the act of film making has also proven to be a kind of reflection in my artistic research. The film material from my own childhood gave me a possibility to watch myself being watched in play. This again gave me a feeling, an affective connection to the non-telic activity of the small children in my research material.


Looking back is not to rewrite the story, but to accept and deepen my conception of the actual material, let it be, expose what it was, and present the documents with a date, a place and a body of texts, photos and videos.


I hope this exposition will do justice to the whole artistic research project, not only to the academic research of my Ph.D (2014), which was the focus of my dissertation. The text fragments of this exposition, was originally written as a whole piece of academic text within a scientific genre, as a part of my dissertation. To reconstruct this text universe and to visualize the project in a web format has been a long and demanding process. Never the less it has also been an urgent and necessary move; to present a selection of the rich visual data material of my research project in a more appropriate format than the written thesis.



This artistic research project was conducted during a 4 year period from 2008-2011, and the Ph.D thesis was finished in 2014. In this exposition I will present the artistic productions in three research phases. In the content menu in the upper left corner of this page, a link to a page for each of the three research phases will be available. Each page presents video and photo from the artistic events, and you will find links to further readings and documentation.


Phase 1. The Red Shoes - performance

The performance The Red Shoes (2008) was based on the idea of free and voluntary participation of the children during the performance. The research questions examined through the first part of the project was: 

Is it possible to make a theatre performance for children 1 year of age, allowing them to participate by moving freely in, around and about the performance space during performance?

If it is possible, how will this interaction work, what is required and what happens to the actors and children in this kind of communication?


It was no surprise that these participatory events appeared to happen when the one and two year olds wanted to explore or play, and the actors often inspired them:

The tempo rises, the musician runs the drumsticks in teasing rhythms and whirls and the actors starts to run fast from wall to wall. This is play! A small body rises from the sitting mat and starts jumping and laughing out loud. In a short time a little gang of jumpers join in. One of them dares to jump into the performance space, he runs to the drummer, and very soon gets a small stick to play with. The actors start dancing a choreographic part. A few small children are crawling between the legs of the dancers.
They want to take part. 
(Log from the performance period in March 2008) 

In the first performance work participation and interaction was key concepts, and the artistic experiences pointed to the fact that theatre conventions was challenged by the young children spect-actors. I focused on the significance of presence, borders and thresholds, through experimenting with different interactive approaches. The differing interests between children, adults and artists was most challenging, and he impact of artistic experiences became more important as the project developed into several artistic experiments.

Phase 2. Red Shoe Missing - Installation.

In the second research phase a new focus on playing came up, and the need for a new performance framing was investigated. The research questions emerged from the artistic experiences of the theatre space, and required a playing experiment:


What happens when we invite small children (0-3 year-olds) to play in an art installation of red shoes, films and old children´s toys and furniture?

What is the function and role of playing in children´s relation to art?

Will installation art provide a better art experience for young children? How will improvising artists affect the children´s playing?


Red Shoe Missing became a theatrical installation of red shoes, which focused on the performative aspects of improvisation and playing, both for the performers and the children together. Through open, improvised and participatory dramaturgical strategies, the performance developed into a multiperspective and multifocal event, dealing with many different levels of experience. 


Phase 3. Mum´s Dancing - musical dance theatre installation.

In the final research phase I discovered the performance as an affectiv event, moving between what was happening in the performance space, how the event was captured with the film camera, how the camera focus affected the analysis and how theory affect my methodology in general. The affect perspective questioned my research perspectives and focus both as artist and researcher:


What is involved in providing a space for decentred multi-focus experiences in theatre and art for the very young?

How can artistic research methodology inform this research process?


On an analytic level these questions also called for new methodology. Starting the research process with a phenomenological hermeneutic approach, analysing data from film files and interviews, the categories of interaction was identified. My research methodology changed with each research phase, moving towards artistic research methododology. In the end my own affective participation, as artistic director and researcher, had to be significantly included in the analyses. Artistic research methodology not only answered to my questions on the significance of practical knowledge (Borgdorff, 2012; Hannula et. al., 2005; Nyrnes, 2006), but also to the need for artist perspectives.

Henk Borgdorff’s artistic research methodology are divided into the interpretative, the instrumental and the performative / immanent (Ibid, p. 17) research perspectives. He distinguishes between interpretative (external) research on the arts, instrumental (applied) research for the arts, and performative (immanent) research in the arts. These distinctions give artistic practice a place amongst the research traditions, Even if these perspectives are connected to specific research traditions (humanities, natural science and art) I do not believe it is necessary to exclude one perspective for another. A combination of perspectives will provide fuller answers to complex research questions. All of them can be applied to provide a more comprehensive picture of the research process involved in creating art for the very young. The Ph.D article this text is based on (Hovik 2014, p. 188 in printed ed.) points out how the combination of perspectives have been useful in the research process, and how this can be a methodological contribution to further developments in research on / for / in art for Early Years.

The Red Shoes Project

The Red Shoes Project offspring was founded in the arts educational area in which I had been working as a drama teacher since 1996. The transdisciplinarity of arts education at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education have had a long tradition, following the Norwegian kindergarten practice of integrating all subjects in the pedagogic curriculum. Child participation has become an important issue and educational goal in kindergartens and nursery schools in Norway. Ideas concerning participation are relevant in several respects to the field of art and children (Bae, 2012; Bakken & Hommersand, 2013; Johannesen & Sandvik, 2008; Lehmann & Reich, 2007).


When the Red Shoes Project was initiated in 2007, I had been working for many years with students investigating children´s theatre through new ideas from performance theatre and the artistic research of Suzanne Osten (1986, 2009). This work heightened our conception of child perspectives and of the relations between adult and child. A new view on children as competent human beings was also emerging after the millenium through the BIN network (child culture researcher´s network).  As a consequence I became curious about how the youngest children would contribute to the theatre performance as active participants.

In 2004 I started my own theatre company Teater Fot, focusing on the youngest children, and producing professional performances for this age group. Taking the small children´s perspective it became evident that verbal language would not be our language. Rather musical, visual and physical communication in a playful mode would be our common language. Adult performers who wish to communicate with the very young must assume an open, listening and less directed or telic attitude, embracing playfulness and the present moment. This open, listening attitude is characteristic for and well developed with improvising performers in music, dance and theatre (Liset, Myrstad, & Sverdrup, 2011; Steinsholt & Sommerro, 2006). I have thus assumed and experienced that improvising artists possess prerequisites for creating good artistic contact with very young children.

Playing and improvising became our main working method, both in production rehearsals and as acting principle in performance. Interaction and participation soon became a main area of investigation.


Planning my artistic research project, I did workshops and performances with students meeting young children in interactive events, and I started to search for similar works and projects. Even if some Italian and British theatre groups had been doing some performances for “under-threes” already in the 80`s, I found almost no written references to this works, and certainly no research on participatory theater for the youngest audiences in 2006, except from the Glitterbird catalogues. The reports pointed out the “art of communicating” (Spord Borgen, 2003) with the babies as the most powerful element , but most of the artworks were focusing on the mediation of professional qualitative art to the youngest, not on participation.


Looking back at this history a lot have changed, and the development in the field since 2012 has been explosive. Still I would like to point out that my work also has contributed to the same development, and can be seen as a pioneering investigation into the field of participatory art for the very young.


Recent Developments

There has been an increasing amount of theatre productions internationally for babies and young children during the last 10 years, and the reasons are very complex. The interest can be seen as a result of big changes in the fields of culture (children´s culture research), aesthetics (relational, participatory art), politics (kindergarten and social policy) and science (infant child psychology, pedagogics, neuroscience). The Red Shoes Project has been a part of this, and is quite representative of the development.

There are different drives and reasons for political/economical interest in this field, affecting the possibility of getting funding. Norwegian have been in a privileged economical position in Europe and in the world during the last decades, and art projects for the very young like Klangfugl (1998-2002) have been initiated and supported by Arts Council Norway. This was followed up by the EU project Glitterbird - Art for the very young (2003-2006). Most recently the artistic research project SceSamInteractive dramaturgies in performing arts for children (2012-2016) also included the younges agegroup (Nagel & Hovik, 2016). Since 2005 the network Small Size - Perfoming Arts for Early Years, have connected European theatre groups through Creative Europe, until 2018. Teater Fot have after The Red Shoes Project contributed further to the baby theatre development with two extensive artistic research projects: The Birdsong Trilogy (2012), with focus on interactive dramaturgies and Neither Fish nor Fowl (2018) investigating the significance of affect as philosophic, material and emotional artistic inspiration.

Suzanne Osten did important artistic research on baby theatre with her performance Babydrama (2009) at Unga Klara theatre in Stockholm, Sweden. This theatre performance was a pioneering work for babies, by engaging all art professions of the institutional theatre, even the dramatist. Osten wrote an extensive report on Babydrama for the Dramatiska Institutet (Osten 2009). Her emphasis on children as a competent theatre audience have been a long lasting inspiration, and her works have had great influence in the Nordic countries.

Artists and researchers from the UK have had big influence on the development in recent years, for example through creative community projects like Starcatchers (Dunlope,2011) and Imaginate. Children´s theatre in general has been described as the ”Cinderella sector” of culture (Fletcher Watson, 2016b), but countries like Scotland have seen social benefits from baby theater. And this is not only a question of politics, but also of aesthetics. Relational aesthetics embraces the social aspects of baby theatre, and gives artistic credibility to new forms of immersive and participatory performances with the young audiences, far away from old fashioned pedagogic theatre. An interesting side to the social aspect, is the rise in accessible performances for very young children with disabilities and for children with special needs. For these groups the aesthetics of baby theatre, activating all senses at once, is both enjoyable and a health perspective.

Aesthetically baby theatre has been a place for artistic renewal. It has become an experimental field outside the traditional theatre space, and artists from different art-forms and performance genres have discovered new possibilities. Especially interesting contributions have come from dancers, choreographers and composers, and Dalija Acin Thelanders works would be the best example. Her latest performance Myriads of Worlds (2017) is a full size performance with opera, dance and scenographic installation within a mythical theme at Kungliga Operan in Stockholm.

Another interesting development is the crossover between technology and theatre in different forms of interactive installations for young children: The Enchanted Forest would be a recent example (Paltel, 2018). Interactivity is now almost a prerequisite in art for the very young, reinforced by the extensive use of digital technologies in children´s culture today.

Academic research in this field is rare. In Norway we have Siemke Böhnischs doctorate about feedback loops between actors and baby audience, which is grounded in performative aesthetic theory (2010). As far as I know, Ben Fletcher Watsons More like a poem than a play: Towards a dramaturgy of performing arts for Early Years (2016a), would be the most recent (if not the only) academic Ph.D on baby theatre in English language. His research interrogates a series of artistic practices (traditional, postdramatic and participatory) with the aim of proposing a possible dramaturgy of arts for the very young, using Grounded Theory methods.
There are of course examples of closely related research and a number of MA thesis internationally within the field of theatre for Early Years, but a survey of this is not included in this presentation.

Ethical considerations

Ethical considerations in research with very young children, is first of all a question about respect, and to regard the children as equal human beings, both as individuals and as a group. When art opens up towards the social life, as in this project, ethical issues become more emergent. The questions on how we relate to small children as an audience become questions of ethics: How the young childrens indiscrete behavior disturb or contribute inside the frames of the artwork, which dilemmas parents and caregivers experience encountering an unknown and experimental artform, or how they are expected to react on their children´s unexpected or transgressive actions, all these questions have been reflected on during the research process.

For an artist working with performative events, the documentation is crucial, not only for the sake of the records, but also for the opportunity to reflect on the process and the artwork. In this artistic research project documenting the theatrical event and the bodily communication through photo and video recordings has been pivotal. The questions of taking pictures of and filming children have been difficult and a field of ethical considerations. Strict rules are governing the privacy of children. Publishing pictures and films without permission from the parents is forbidden. However, acts of discretion concerning the degree of recognition on the picture or film is recommended, and I have often chosen to use pictures with children who are not recognizable. Parts of the visual material where children are recognizable are approved by the parents, following the routines from the Norwegian Centre for Research Data. Some documentation made during official performances are made anonymous by avoiding or blurring the children´s faces.

This research project do not deal with sensitive data, and the most important ethics is the researchers and artists aims of meeting the children audience as equal actors on stage and listen carefully to their bodily, visual and audible expressions (Hovik, 2014 p.106-113).

On documentation

External, internal and performative acts.

A theatre performance is in principle not a material object, but a production or event that is repeated a certain number of times. The events differ slightly from one occasion to the next, and as such form a kind of “floating object” which is difficult to document as an entity, but possible to describe both through text, pictures and video. As a means of framing a floating research object, visual documentation is very significant. Video film is more of a concrete research object than the production itself, which is live, ephemeral, relational and multifocused. It can be difficult to nail down a floating research object in the research process. It thus rapidly becomes the case that research is carried out on the documentation, which is a representation of the object rather than on the live work of art (Latour, 1999). This, however, is a premise for performance research and almost impossible to avoid if one takes an interpretative perspective. The filmed performance would be a good start for making an interpretation of The Red Shoes performance. In 2008 I engaged a film photographer to make a documentary on the project and also to edit three performances into split-screen research material (Sannes, 2008).

Baz Kershaw distinguishes between extrinsic and integral documentation, in which the integral documentation is internal and accumulated around the artistic process whilst the extrinsic documentation comes as external result of the public event (Kershaw, 2006, p. 145). In this project there was both internal and external documentation. The external documentation was helpful in terms of remembering, but it was not so interesting as material for analysing. As my research interest focused on specific significant events, the external documentation did not emphasize anything particular, and thus missed out on this aspect. As Mette Valle Sannes made the documentary film as a part of her MA in film production at NTNU in 2008 (Sannes, 2008) additional external documents, the Norwegian television corporation NRK broadcast reports from all three productions.

Internal documentation, such as video made by myself during rehearsals and performances, became the most important research material. While working with Red Shoe Missing, I also engaged a film photographer, Mari Lunden Nilsen, to document the installation, the playing and one improvised event, but this time I involved myself in the making of the documentary, both during film shooting and in discussing and reflecting on the material together with the photographer in the editing process. In this process I also reflected on the significance of video making as performative research, activating the documentation in dialogue both with external viewers and with theory (Osten, 2009; Parekh-Gaihede, 2010).

The internal documentation material that I created myself along the road was even more useful for the purpose of analysing. Even when I did not focus on particular events, my own films assumed a greater significance than I had predicted. The documentation of data on the video clips highlighted individual events, children and situations as being of significance on the basis of obvious visual signs of communication. My own research dialogue with the camera lens became a methodological tool for analytical work in the process. With this material it was evident that the camera lens worked as a more focused observer than I did myself (Mohn, 2006). Throughout the research project I had filmed and photographed actively during the productions. There were many serendipitous occurrences; and interesting events took place whilst I was filming. Going on a treasure hunt through this material was like re-discovering moments and events that I had overlooked in the stream of events in the performance context. In the course of my work with The Red Shoes Project I have regularly conducted research interviews with performers about their experiences of interaction with the young children (Hovik, 2011a; Kershaw, 2006; Ledger, Ellis, & Wright, 2011; Mohn, 2006; Parekh-Gaihede, 2010). Methodologically these clips were an excellent springboard for a dialogue with the performers about how they experienced and interpreted their actual interaction with the children. I collected these dialogues as sound recordings and by allowing the performers to comment on the documentation, it was possible to bring to life some of the effect of the live performance.

Integral documentation

The videoclip under was taken spontaneously during a performance, and this one minute clip became a case study and one of the central articles in my article based Ph.D. thesis.
(Hovik, 2014. In Liset et al., 2011, p. 119-141)

Extrinsic documentation:

NRK broadcast reports from all three productions:

De Røde Skoene

Rød Sko Savnet 

Mamma Danser


In terms of research methodology, this study has shown that it is not only possible, but also interesting to use a combination of different research perspectives. The applied instrumental approach was useful in the development of an improvisational, interactive theatre form for small children, the traditional interpretative approach was useful in the analysis of data material, and the performative approach was a necessary step to take to be able to highlight the creative and practical artistic experiences and knowledge in making theatre for the very young. 

From the broader perspective of art and theatre history, interest in an open, multi-focused form may be related both to the historical avant-garde experiments with live installations, performance and happenings and to post dramatic theatre which today often implement a relational or interactive dramaturgical strategies. When these artistic strategies are applied to children’s theatre they are confronted both by a more educationally shaped tradition in which the interests of child learning and development are important, and on the other side by an entertainment tradition in which it is expected that the children will have fun and enjoy themselves (Helander, 1998).

The open and decentred art-form that has been explored in this project does not fit well into either the educational or the entertainment tradition, but has contributed to the historically new field of art for the very young, and the knowledge production in this field. The project demonstrates and reflects on the possibility of creating common artistic experiences between adults and children, in which both can take part in reciprocal interaction and improvisation.

In hindsight it is also evident that this artistic research project has inspired a lot of students and practitioners in the field. The theoretical approach have further provided a springboard for my own artistic research combined with critical and affective pedagogics in a more complex intertwining of artistic and scientific disciplines.

The Red Shoes Project Revisited reaches out from its Norwegian context with this exposition, and will hopefully continue to contribute to the international field of art for the very young.


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