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, and looking for adventure. It is also a story about presence in play, complexity, multitude, diversity, entanglements and stumbling down 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 the potential for meta-level reflection, as the distance in time can shift perspective towards overview and self-reflexivity. Writing can be helpful in such a process, but the act of filmmaking has also proven to be a a useful mode of reflection in my artistic research. The film material from my own childhood allowed me 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. To 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 does 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. Some text fragments of this exposition were originally written as a whole piece of academic text within a scientific genre, as a part of my dissertation. To reconstruct this textual universe and to visualise the project in a web format has been a long and demanding process. Nevertheless, it has also been urgent and necessary to present a selection of the rich visual data material of my research project in a more appropriate format than a written thesis.
This artistic research project was conducted during a four-year period from 2008–2011, and the Ph.D. thesis was finished in 2014. In this exposition, I present the artistic productions from the three research phases of the project on three extra pages. These can be accessed either through the content menu in the upper left corner or through hyperlinks in the text below. Each page presents video and photographs from the artistic events as well as 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 in the first part of the project were:
Is it possible to make a theatre performance for children who are one 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 start 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, participation and interaction were key concepts, and the artistic experiences pointed to the fact that theatre conventions were challenged by these young spect-actors. I focused on the significance of presence, borders, and thresholds by experimenting with different interactive approaches. The differing interests between children, adults, and artists were especially challenging, and the impact of artistic experiences became increasingly important as the project developed into several artistic experiments.
→ Phase 1. The Red Shoes – Performance
Phase 2. Red Shoe Missing — Installation
In the second research phase, a new focus on playing emerged, and the need for a new performance frame was investigated. The research questions were born from the artistic experiences of the theatre space and required a playful experiment:
What happens when we invite small children (0- to 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 an art installation provide a better art experience for young children? How will artistic improvisation 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 multi-perspective and multifocal event, dealing with many different levels of experience.
→ Phase 2. Red Shoe Missing — Installation
Phase 3. Mum’s Dancing — Improvised dance concert & Analyses
In the final research phase, I discovered the performance as an affective event, moving between what was happening in the performance space, how the event was captured with the film camera, how the camera focus affected analysis, and how theory affected 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 and multi-focal experiences in theatre and art for the very young?
How can an artistic research methodology inform this research process?
On an analytical level, these questions also called for new methodology. Starting the research process with a phenomenological hermeneutic approach, and analysing data from film files and interviews, the categories of interaction were identified. My research methodology changed with each research phase, moving towards an 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 my questions about the significance of practical knowledge (Borgdorff, 2012; Hannula et. al., 2005; Nyrnes, 2006), but also the need for artist perspectives.
Henk Borgdorff’s artistic research methodology is divided into interpretative, instrumental and 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 among the research traditions, Even if these perspectives are connected to specific research traditions (humanities, natural sciences, and the arts) I do not believe it is necessary to exclude one perspective in favour of another. A combination of perspectives will provide fuller answers to complex research questions, where the application of each perspective provides 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., see pdf above) points out how this combination of perspectives has been useful in the research process, and how this offers a methodological contribution to further research on/for/in art for Early Years.
→ Phase 3. Mum’s Dancing — Improvised dance concert & Anayses
The Red Shoes Project was founded in the arts educational department at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education, where I have worked as a drama teacher since 1996. The arts education of Early Childhood has had a long tradition of interdisciplinarity, following the Norwegian kindergarten practice of integrating all subjects in the pedagogical curriculum. Child participation has become an important issue and educational goal in kindergartens and nursery schools in Norway. Ideas concerning participation are relevant to art and children in several respects (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, using ideas from performance theatre and the artistic research of Suzanne Osten (1986, 2009). This work broadened our understanding 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, largely through the work of the BIN network (child culture researcher’s network). As a consequence, I became curious about how the youngest children would contribute to theatre performance as active participants.
In 2004, I started my own theatre company Teater Fot, and began producing professional performances for very young children. The age group meant that verbal language would not be our language, and we instead turned to musical, visual, and physical communication in playful modes. 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 of — and developed by — improvisation performers in music, dance, and theatre (Liset, Myrstad, & Sverdrup, 2011; Steinsholt & Sommerro, 2006). I have thus found 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 an acting principle in performance. Interaction and participation soon became a main area of investigation.
Planning my artistic research project, I held workshops and staged performances with students, met young children at interactive events, and began searching for similar works and projects. Even though some Italian and British theatre groups had been doing some performances for ‘under-threes’ since the 1980s, in 2006 I found almost no written references to these works, and certainly no research on participatory theatre for very young audiences, except from the Norwegian Klangfugl and Glitterbird (2003-06) catalogues. The reports from these projects pointed out the ‘art of communicating’ with the babies (Spord Borgen, 2003) as the most powerful element. However, most of the artworks of Klangfugl and Glitterbird focused on the mediation of professional qualitative art to very young audiences, rather than on participation.
Looking back at this history, a lot has changed and since 2012, the field has exploded. Still, I would like to point out that my work has also contributed to this development, and can be seen as a pioneering investigation into the field of participatory art for the very young.
The last ten years has seen an international increase in theatre productions for babies and young children. The reasons for this are complex, and include changes in 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 representative of the development.
There are different reasons for political/economical interest in this field, which impact the possibility of getting funding. Norway has 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 (2003-2006). Most recently, the artistic research project SceSam: Interactive dramaturgies in performing arts for children (2012-2016) also included the youngest age group (Nagel & Hovik, 2016). Since 2005, the network Small Size: Perfoming Arts for Early Years has connected European theatre groups through Creative Europe. After The Red Shoes Project, Teater Fot has contributed further to the development of baby theatre with two extensive artistic research projects: The Birdsong Trilogy (2012), with a focus on interactive dramaturgies, and Neither Fish nor Fowl (2018), which investigates the significance of affect as philosophical, material, and emotional artistic inspiration.
Suzanne Osten has completed 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, and engaged all arts professions from 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 has been a long lasting inspiration, and her works have had great influence in the Nordic countries.
Artists and researchers from the UK have also been influential 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 theatre. This is not only a question of politics, but also of aesthetics. Postdramatic theatre allows for a more interdisciplinary approach, without the supremacy of literature and verbal text (Lehmann, 2006). Relational aesthetics (Bourriaud, 1998) embraces the social aspects of baby theatre and gives artistic credibility to new forms of immersive and participatory performances with young audiences, a far cry from old fashioned pedagogical theatre. The rise of accessible performances for very young children with disabilities and for children with special needs, via the aesthetics of baby theatre which activates all senses at once, is both enjoyable and healthy.
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 backgrounds and performance genres have discovered new possibilities. Especially interesting contributions have come from dancers, choreographers, and composers, of which Dalija Acin Thelander’s works would be the best example. Her latest performance, Myriads of Worlds (2017), is a full performance with opera, dance, and scenographic installation with 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 is a good, 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 Böhnisch’s doctorate about feedback loops between actors and baby audiences, 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 the 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.
There are also examples of closely related research and a number of MA theses within the field of theatre for Early Years, but a survey of this is not included in this presentation.
Ethical considerations in research with very young children is first of all a question of respect. One must regard the children as equal human beings, both as individuals and as a group. When art opens up towards social life, as in this project, ethical issues inevitably emerge. Questions of how we relate to small children as an audience become questions of ethics: How a young child’s indiscrete behavior may disturb or contribute to the frames of the artwork; which dilemmas parents and caregivers are likely to experience encountering an unknown and experimental artform; or how they are expected to react to 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, 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 photography and video recordings has been pivotal. The questions of taking pictures of and filming children have been difficult and posed many ethical considerations. There are 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 recognisable. Parts of the visual material where children are recognisable are approved by the parents, following guidelines 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 does not deal with sensitive data, and the most important ethical concerns here are that the researchers and artists meet their audience of children as equal actors on stage, and that they listen carefully to their bodily, visual, and audible expressions (Hovik, 2014 p.106–113).
External, internal and performative acts.
A theatre performance is inherently not a material object, but a production or event that is repeated a certain number of times. These events differ slightly from one occasion to the next, and as such they form a floating object — one that 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 is a concrete research object — more so 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 its documentation, a representation of the object, rather than on the live work of art (Latour, 1999). Such representation, however, is integral to performance documentation and research, and almost impossible to avoid if one adopts an interpretative perspective.
Baz Kershaw distinguishes between extrinsic and integral documentation, in which the integral documentation is internal and accumulated around the artistic process while the extrinsic documentation comes as external result of the public event (Kershaw, 2006, p. 145). This project was both internally and externally documented.
The film of the performance enables its interpretation. In 2008, I engaged the filmmaker Mette Valle Sannes, to make a documentary on the project and to edit three performances into split-screen research material. Sannes made the documentary film as a part of her MA in Film Production at NTNU in 2008 (Sannes, 2008).
In addition, the Norwegian television corporation NRK, made broadcast reports from all three productions of The Red Shoes Project, which also can be regarded as valuable additional external documents.
The external documentation was helpful in terms of remembering, but it was not so interesting as material for analysis. As my research interest focused on specific significant events of musical communication, the external documentation did not emphasise anything particular, and thus missed out on this aspect.
Internal documentation, including video made by myself during rehearsals and performances, became the most important research material. The videoclip below was taken spontaneously during a performance, and this one minute clip became a case study in one of the central articles in my Ph.D. thesis. (Hovik, 2014. In Liset et al., 2011, p. 119–141)
While working with Red Shoe Missing, I made a film sketch investigating the relation between a baby, one year of age, and his dancing mother. I also engaged another filmmaker, Mari Lunden Nilsen, to document the installation, acts of play, and one improvised event, but this time I involved myself in the making of the documentary, both during shooting and in discussions and reflections during the editing process. In this process, I also reflected on the significance of filmmaking as performative research, activating the documentation in dialogue 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 analysis. Even when I did not focus on particular events, my own films assumed greater significance than I had predicted. The documentation of data on the video clips highlighted individual events, children, and situations as being significant 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, during production I had filmed and photographed extensively. There were many serendipitous occurrences, and interesting events took place whilst I was filming. Going on a treasure hunt through this material was like rediscovering 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 young children (Hovik, 2011a; Kershaw, 2006; Ledger, Ellis, & Wright, 2011; Mohn, 2006; Parekh-Gaihede, 2010). Methodologically these clips were an excellent springboard for dialogue with the performers about how they experienced and interpreted their actual interaction with the children. I collected these dialogues as sound recordings and, in allowing the performers to comment on the documentation, it was possible to bring to life some of the live performance’s effects.
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 and interactive form of theatre for small children, while the traditional interpretative approach was useful in the analysis of data. The performative approach, meanwhile, was necessary for highlighting the creative and practical artistic experiences and knowledges in making theatre for the very young.
From the broader perspective of art and theatre history, interest in an open and multi-focused form may be related both to historical avant-garde experiments with live installations, performance, and happenings and to post-dramatic theatre, which today often implements relational or interactive dramaturgical strategies. When these artistic strategies are applied to children’s theatre, they are confronted by a tradition shaped by education, in which the interests of child learning and development are important, and, on the other hand, 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 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 has further provided a springboard for my own artistic research combined with critical and affective pedagogies 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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