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The naked stage of Sanna Kekäläinen

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Riikka Laakso
Riikka Laakso on Finnish choreographer Sanna Kekäläinen, and the subversions and inversions of her 2017 piece Whorescope

A naked woman standing on stage. The blond hair is tied in a messy topknot, and she’s not wearing any make-up. Her lean body is simultaneously alert and relaxed, the strongly grounded feet turn slightly outwards, but without forcing. The woman looks straight to the audience. She doesn’t smile.

Sanna Kekäläinen’s presence contains something eminently recognizable, something she emanates in every performance. The studies in European contemporary dance schools in London and Amsterdam, her beginnings in performance groups like Homo $, and dancing for Finnish choreographers like Ulla Koivisto or Ervi Sirén in the 80s, form a base for this corporeality. But above all, Kekäläinen’s over 70 creations as a dancer-choreographer have enabled an endless expedition into her own body, an immersion to its sediments: into the materiality and movement. This stage presence has been cultivated for over 35 years, and now all thought and motion explored during her entire artistic career flourishes in the body, revealing a remarkably unique poetics of dance.


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Hullut (Insane) – Sanna Kekäläinen’s most recent work, premiered in January 2018. (Kekäläinen, with Janne Marja-aho). Photo © Uupi Tirronen

Kekäläinen belongs to the wide and heterogeneous group of choreographers intrigued by an avant-garde approach to dance: an alternative to the dance of figures constructed by the classical ballet’s techniques, or to the dynamic bodies produced through the methodologies of modern dance. Dance and life started to converge in the 60s, when a variety of Judson Dance Theater choreographers found inspiration in everyday movements (walking, sitting, running) or employed common people in their performances along with professional dancers. This new dance or postmodern dance promoted an existential approach to movement, and the interest in experience and presence led to working through processes, where theatrical representation was substituted by presentation of movement on stage.

When new dance reached Finland, Kekäläinen was clearing the road for this new art form in the 80s and 90s. The established working patterns of dance were questioned, when the independent choreographers interested in this novel dancing didn’t found a traditional dance company, but rather an alliance named Zodiak Presents:1 a community offering networks, structures and peer support to its founder members, as well as a certain artistic and political credibility. Still, Kekäläinen decided to go her own way already in 1996 by founding Ruumiillisen taiteen teatteri (Physical Art Theatre), and the same artistically unconditional work currently continues under the name Kekäläinen & Company.

Kekäläinen divides her artistic career in two periods, where the early-Kekäläinen period develops from the early choreographies until the piece Puna-Red-Rouge (2007). Through this performance, a way of ‘redefining without defining’ and ‘making space for difference and the uncanny’ appeared; a need to challenge familiar and safe social conventions, and to agitate normalised patterns of thinking.2 From this point of inflection onwards, the work of Kekäläinen could be described as a subtle essence, a sort of poetry of undressed movement – usually performed naked – where a multilayered thinking coalesces in a private but extremely political presence.


‘The undressed stage’ of Sanna Kekäläinen, which she was to strip still further in more recent years. (Excerpts from THE BEAST – A book in an orange tent, 2011)

Kekäläinen’s stage is undressed as well: a plain white linoleum. The mise-en-scène may consist of a simple table, or a couple of white chairs, maybe Kekäläinen’s often-used old-fashioned orange tent, or a lonely inflatable boat. Her stage is a laboratory of physicality, where a variety of meanings is explored through movement, words and objects.3 During the last years the work of Kekäläinen has also gone though a visual undressing, when the impressive stage-images elaborated through lightning in Onni-Bonheur-Happiness (2009) or THE BEAST – A Book in an Orange Tent (2011) have been replaced by a Dogme-like technical solution, where the choreographer herself partly manipulates the lights and sound on stage. By revealing these theatrical resources, and integrating them as actions on stage, the technique fuses with Kekäläinen’s artistic manifesto of rejecting the spectacular and the artificial.


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Beast by-Sari-Tervaniemi
Still for Sanna Kekäläinen’ THE BEAST. Photo © Sari Tervaniemi

The political tension inherent to a female body, its position as the ‘other’ of our patriarchal society, has been at the core of Kekäläinen’s art for some time. Since the beginning of her career she has been inspired both by feminist writing and by insurgent and subversive female figures. The mythic and erotic Lilith taking over her own body and sexuality by abandoning Eden, Santa Teresa de Ávila’s ecstatic encounter with God as an allegory of a female orgasm or the experiential being of the hysterical women are present in several Kekäläinen’s performances. These self-determining and independent women reveal a strong contact with their own corporeality and sexuality, confronting the traditional understanding of beauty of their times: the female bodies are not pleasant images, but impudent flesh composed of ecstasy, lust, obscenity, exaltation and destruction, of grotesque and hysterical essence. In a society habitually placing a female body to feed a (masculine) sexual desire, to nourish it at the cost of the woman’s own desire, the experiential stage-images of Kekäläinen are immersed in this subversive corporeality; in a presence of flesh that penetrates the existence of these women.

Kekäläinen’s stage is loaded with wounding intellectual dynamite. Its power of explosion is directed towards the cruelty of capitalism, the perversions of the society of spectacle, towards gender as a disciplinary action or relations to otherness and the other – particularly when that ‘other’ is oneself. Kekäläinen is guilty of cutting the mainstream’s spectacular images into pieces, of exploding them, so that the silent and innocent knowledge residing under the image – in the body itself – can be revealed.

A second skin: Whorescope

Whorescope, whorescope
I never knew how to sell myself,
and I never wanted to.
I hope you love me.
– Sanna Kekäläinen: Whorescope

 

Yet if Kekäläinen’s research on the body’s materiality is often based on nakedness – on a vulnerable and honest approach – in the performance Whorescope (2017) her way to reveal the body changes radically. Her breasts are covered with bandage, and she’s wearing light brown underpants. When the performance proceeds, Kekäläinen scrawls with a marker pen two black spots at the height of her nipples and a couple of trembling lines over her pubic area, concretely drawing new and caricatured signs of gender for her own body. And this simulated body is offered to the audience, placed in front of the spectator, as the etymology of the word ‘prostitute’ reveals: its origin in Latin is pro-statuere, something set ‘before’ the eyes, to expose something – for selling. The offered body is re-imagined and re-described, now a spectacle-body shown to the audience. Thus, in Whorescope Kekäläinen no longer is a naked and honest ‘herself’. Her biological body is protected from injuring gazes, but also from thoughtful, observing and open contemplation. To offer and sell her body, Kekäläinen places a second skin in front of it to protect her privacy.


Skin and second skin: Sanna Kekäläinen’s Whorescope (2017).

Whoroscope is Samuel Beckett’s first poem (published in Paris in 1930), where the understanding and interpreting of time through a horoscope is described as an absurd and multi-layered perversion of time. Kekäläinen’s version, Whorescope, centres on the female body and the way a woman is gazed upon: on the scope as an instrument of looking. Being under a gazing eye creates a paradoxical need, an awkward necessity, to turn everything visible into spectacle, including the transformation of a multifaceted female body into a limited object – and a dancing woman into a beautifully moving figure.

The last scene of Whorescope develops along with Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Kekäläinen takes two buckets, one of them filled with water, and calmly pours the water several times from one to the other. Putting the buckets on the floor, she then places herself in a crawling position, with her right hand in an empty bucket, and the left inside the one filled with water (‘the beginning of life’). She puts a tomato (‘a fruit of the earth’) in her mouth, and an electric fan placed in front of her blows air (‘oxygen’) on her face. Simultaneously a solitary spotlight (‘the sun’) slowly lights up to illuminate the composition. With the eyes closed, Kekäläinen’s body brings together all these symbols of life, turning itself into an instrument of nature, where all life circulates.

But the image also hides an acid sarcasm: the wind caressing Kekäläinen’s face turns out to be ‘the kiss of all foul and sweet air’ of Beckett’s poem. The composition resembles an elaborated banquet, whose centre is a corpse holding a fruit of the earth in the mouth. The main course of this dinner is Kekäläinen, prepared to be served to the guests; to the spectators of the performance. Her body is once more pro-statuere, set and exposed for enjoyment, and in this ritual the audience is invited to devour her with their gazes. Her body is the wine and bread of The Last Supper, a Eucharistic body, also the symbol of an eternal life, and ‘So we drink Him and eat Him’ as Beckett describes in his poem. But Kekäläinen’s simulated body, transformed into a spectacle with a re-drawn caricatured gender, turns out to be ‘watery Beaune and the stale cubes of Hovis’; a ruined and low-priced product, emptied from all sacred and beauty.

This final composition of Whorescope crystallises several central elements of Kekäläinen’s work. Her body is simultaneously terrestrial and naked, but also penetrated by an abstract and sacred way of being: visible and hidden, under the gaze but intensively connected to an intimate and private corporeality. It is sublime but at the same time shoddy, a work of art but also deformed by the spirit of consumerism. In Whorescope Kekäläinen balances between a sacred ritual and a capitalistic prostitution of the body, identical to Beckett’s poem’s paradoxical ‘Porca Madonna’, materialised in the last scene. She gives an ironic wink of the eye at the entire tradition of representation, particularly at the field of dance, whose relationship to the female body is especially vulnerable to (visual) prostitution.

The knot of paradoxes constructed in Whorescope’s last scene swirls around itself once more when the Goldberg Variations continue with a recording of Glenn Gould rehearsing Bach’s demanding composition. The music is constantly interrupted by mistakes, wrong notes and the pianist’s comments on his own playing. Still, the sounds transmit an extreme sensitivity and tenderness, a special dedication when touching the keyboard. Gould ceased giving concerts when at the peak of his career, wanting instead of a virtuous musical spectacle to offer an intimate sonorous experience to the listeners: music recorded at his home, something The Goldberg Variations are part of as well. When the imperfect but remarkably sensitive music fills the space, Kekäläinen opens her eyes, washes her hands in the bucket, and eats the tomato she has been holding in her mouth. In a fraction of a second, the commodity becomes a consumer, a practical and slightly confused human being, who bathetically picks up her clothes and abandons the stage.


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Photo of Sanna Kekäläinen’s Hafed Collage of Differences and Fragility (2016), with Maija Karhunen
“An organic, unfinished and vulnerable body” – Sanna Kekäläinen’s Hafed Collage of Differences and Fragility (2016), with Maija Karhunen. Photo © Lilja Lehmuskallio

An open body, penetrated by thought and being, is Kekäläinen’s device to construct a world of her own on stage. Although her thinking ironically criticises the patriarchal and capitalistic society, her body also radiates a humble beauty. The emanating fragility and sensitivity on stage isn’t always created through visible dancing: ‘That’s not moving, that’s moving’, Beckett reminds us in Whoroscope, and this poetry of minimalistic motion is itself a manifesto in a (dance) world that commonly worships virtuosity, endurance and extreme situations.

Materiality turns political in a society whose mainstream imaginary consists of these transparent and ‘perfect’ bodies, constantly becoming thinner up to a complete disappearance. The presence of an organic, unfinished and vulnerable body in Kekäläinen’s art is a statement against the polished bodies in media and advertisements, whose Teflon surfaces resist the impact of time and space. When her body escapes from a univocal understanding, it allows the present to coexist with the past and future, with dreams and fears. By opening this singular, extremely personal but simultaneously universal and shared place in society, art can contemplate what humanity in general, and femininity in particular, signify to us.


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This is an edited extract from Riikka Laakso’s ‘The Routes of a Nymph: a shaping body in the poetics of Sanna Kekäläinen’, published in Body, Meat and Spirit – Perspectives to the Work of Sanna Kekäläinen (2018), a bilingual (English/Finnish) 96-page anthology of six chapters by different authors, available from:

Printed version (€23.99):  https://www.bod.fi/kirja/–kekaelaeinen-ja-company/sielu–ruumis-ja-liha—naekoekulmia-sanna-kekaelaeisen-tyoehoen/9789515689573.html

Ebook (€11.99): https://kirja.elisa.fi/ekirja/sielu-ruumis-ja-liha-nakokulmia-sanna-kekalaisen-tyohon-body-meat-and-spirit-perspectives-wor

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Theme: Exposures
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