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Helsinki’s Moving in November: pasts, pleasures, projections

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Ofelia Jarl Ortega in StM. Photo © Elie_Iziamo
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Anna Kozonina selects from and reflects on the latest edition of Helsinki’s long-standing international festival

As the latest lockdown in Helsinki pushed curators to cancel Zodiak’s Side Step Festival and postpone the much-awaited Ice Hot Nordic Dance platform, Anna Kozonina recalls Moving in November 2021, Helsinki’s long-established annual international dance festival which featured eight performances, two video works and a couple of audience-engagement events.

One more time: revisiting histories

Almost no festival today is complete without performances re-inscribing dance history. And since history is contested territory, historical narratives want to be heard and included in the dominant one. Moving in November presented two shows that critically addressed dance history. Surprisingly, the most successful, in my opinion, turned out to be a performance that is as traditional in form as possible and as far as possible from the aesthetic experiments of the new dance.

Woman in old-fashioned silk blouse and neat dark wig purses her lips in a half-smile, left arm extended sideways with hand raised, right arm bent with fist closed
Boglárka Börcsök channels the spirit of elderly performers of the early modern era in Figuring Age

In Figuring Age, choreographer and performer Boglárka Börcsök embodied three elderly dancers who once were part of the early development of Hungarian modern dance: Irén Preisich, Éva E. Kovács, and Ágnes Roboz. Her solo performance, an extension of a documentary movie The Art of Movement made in collaboration with filmmaker Andreas Bolm, resembled a traditional dramatic show based on interviews and archival materials rather than a dance piece. Börcsök spoke throughout the whole performance ‘on behalf’ of the three women who had already passed away, or rather – invited three ghosts to enter her body.

The scenography played upon the idea of meeting in a ‘close circle’. The performance took place in an intimate cylinder-shaped space which could fit around ten spectators, and a few pieces of furniture depicting three semi-imaginary rooms where the viewers came to visit Börcsök’s heroines, who arrived, stayed in her body for a while, and left one by one. The space and the objects were dazzling white and brightly lit, resembling the design of ‘limbo spaces’ in Hollywood movies – spaces where the main character meets God or a past mentor to gain secret knowledge. Though there was almost no dance in the performance, except for rare movements of arms, sharp and sudden, it was a piece of great bodily work. The way Börcsök channelled the presence of her heroines’ personalities apparently required a lot of attention, and her attempts to maintain two different bodily states – her own and one of the heroines’ – were impressive: it was impossible to take eyes off her.

Though modern dance history is a commonplace topic in European experimental choreography nowadays, it usually touches upon very western and established names (like Martha Graham or Isadora Duncan) thus gaining benefit from their fame and symbolic value. So it was valuable to see a piece addressing modern dance in Eastern Europe which had a much more politically intense story throughout the 20th century. As Börcsök explains in her interview to festival artistic director Kerstin Schroth, in Hungary for instance some modern dance schools were closed before the second world war because of their connections with the workers’ movement, and then, after a short period of revival, ironically, the whole movement was banned by the socialist regime. At the same time, the more Eastern, and especially post-Soviet dance scene is sometimes seen as lagging behind – still ‘too modern’, still ‘not there’ – thus symbolically losing its right to critically reflect on its past (as it has not yet passed!). Börcsök’s attempt to realise this right with seemingly old-fashioned artistic methods feels like treating the hidden narratives with attention and care they deserve.

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Androgynous man in auburn wig, one hand up and the other down in a flamenco style. His voluminous skirt is made of many chiffon layers in pastel colours
François Chaignaud in Un Bolero. Photo © Laurent Paillier

Another revisionist performance – the 18-minute Un Bolero by Dominique Brun and François Chaignaud (performed by the latter), dealt with Maurice Ravel’s famous music, first choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, the sister of Vaslav Nijinsky and the only female choreographer of the Ballets Russes. Wearing a lush multi-layered skirt, long nails, and drag-like makeup, and smeared with white powder, Chaignaud tried to incorporate in his dance several historical figures whose connections are not at all obvious and therefore intriguing. Deriving their Bolero from the original piece signed by Nijinska, Ravel, and artist Alexandre Benois, and borrowing the Spanish dress from the archival materials on Nijinska’s art, the authors also incorporated other figures in the piece: La Argentina, a Spanish flamenco dancer who was part of the Paris art scene in the 1920s; and butoh pioneers Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata who brought La Argentina back on stage in their choreographic tribute in the 60s. Though Ballets Russes, butoh, and flamenco seem to have little in common, the choreographers found impressive archival connections between them, bringing suppressed historical narratives into light and queering Bolero, as both in butoh and flamenco the dancers’ gender is fluid.

Queering or challenging a historical canon has recently become a solid strategy in dance. Recall Trajal Harrell’s idea of merging white Judson Dance Theater aesthetics with that of the queer scene of vogue balls; or Richard Move’s famous attempts to ‘drag Martha Graham back from the dead’ by re-enacting her style and choreography in drag-like performances; or Frederique Gies’ Queen of the Fauns that reimagines gender and power relations between Nijinsky’s Faun and the flock of nymphs; and dozens of other examples. But being based on interesting archival findings, Un Bolero doesn’t fully correspond to the beauty of the conceptual idea. Intended to be intense, it tends to be heavy and sloppy, though still attractive in its vulnerability. A pleasant contrast to the dancing was made by two pianists from Sibelius Academy, playing Ravel’s music while a young female assistant turned the score’s pages – an old-fashioned, concert-like element which brought simple charm to a piece that was serious in its conceptual background but fell short of its ambitions in performance.

Occasional pleasures, familiar confusions

The variety of aesthetics, show types, and approaches to movement are some of the best things about Moving in November. Take Occasions by Isabel Lewis, an experience very different from that of a traditional black-box piece. ‘Hosted occasions’, a performance format elaborated by Lewis since 2014, refers at the same time to the 17th-century French salons, held to entertain guests and exchange knowledge through conversations; to Plato’s ‘symposium’ (or, as Lewis calls it, ancient Greek ‘party’); and to the heterotopic space of the gardens. In other words, the viewers were invited to rest on couches in the foyer of Stoa Cultural Centre, decorated with pot plants and pink lights. While Lewis, together with a couple of performer-hosts, manoeuvred between us, dancing, telling stories, trying to make conversation with the visitors and offering to smell exotic perfumes prepared in the laboratory by a star perfume maker Sissel Tolaas, their assistants served unusual treats and drinks. Though the experience left a trace of pleasure and relaxation in my memory, I realised I had a love-confusion (not love-hate though) relationship with it.

Mixed race black woman with tips of hair dyed blond, stands with one arm up, her eyes looking down to the microphone she holds. Behind her are various potted shrubs, between which onlookers sit on benches, including two blond women looking up, and a man looking to the side.
One of Isabel Lewis’s Occasions – here seen at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017

Lewis, a charming performer, has obviously reached mastery in creating a space of expanded sensuality, immersing the audience in the semi-erotic experience of ‘aesthesis’ (an ancient Greek concept, which broadly describes the senses and today is sometimes opposed to Kantian aesthetics which appeared as a result of the 17th-century rationalisation and colonisation of aesthesis) in which music, smells, tastes, and visuals provide great engagement. However, there was something suspicious and slightly confusing in the storyline she took for her spoken performance. She told us three stories: the first retold ideas from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter – a book on posthuman philosophy which recently became a theoretical trend in visual arts and experimental dance; the third, ideas from Donna Haraway’s famous writings on cyborgs and ‘companion species’ that became almost a special lingo, without incorporating which it’s become nigh impossible to make art that is labelled ‘socially and environmentally-aware’ any more. Thank god, between them were Socrates and Alcibiades, two guys from Plato’s Symposium!

Why does it sometimes feel improper to stuff performances decorated with pink lights and plants with references to posthumanism, friendship with objects, and interspecies connections? Because though they may look politically correct, such performances depoliticise highly critical and political writings. Here, the somewhat didactic and theoretical tone looked like an excuse for the hedonism and privilege of a bourgeois 21st-century salon, dominated by humans. Yes, coupling theory with embodied experiences and performative acts is by no means straightforward, but sometimes companion species and vibrant matter are more tokens of political-theoretical intentions that active agents in the work of art.

Weird dances before another apocalypse

In her brilliant solo StM, Swedish choreographer Ofelia Jarl Ortega continues her long-standing research on the choreography of the gaze and relationships between the audience and the performer in the situation of on-stage exposure. Definitely seductive and vulnerably exhibitionist, this piece partly embodies Ortega’s approach to self-objectification which she manifested in her essay for the Post-Dance book as a queer-feminist strategy of resistance to real capitalist objectification. But if previously she has used more sexually explicit body language, StM brings to the series a hilarious and uncanny element: work with facial expressions. The voyeuristic gaze of the viewer, probably skimming over Ortega’s skintight festive attire or lingering on protruding nipples, will inevitably stumble upon weird, ridiculous, even creepy grimaces. Is it pain mixed with surprise or thoughtfulness interrupted by sudden discomfort, or some sort of restless excitement? And how does this pantomime match with ostentatious, circus-like jumps and strolls in circles across the arena which Ortega performs in loops, persistently demonstrating her dance as an explicit spectacle for public pleasure?

Ofelia Jarl Ortega, StM

It’s funny how these awkward facial expressions, broken, exaggerated, turned inside out, not only interrupt the viewers’ desiring vision but also infect their bodies with the same uncanny tension. If kinaesthetic empathy can still be thematised in contemporary dance, let it be muscular empathy to weird facial expressions! It’s almost impossible not to imitate them, catching yourself performing them back, and eventually wondering what kind of emotions it builds inside, purely physically. It seems, in Ortega’s performance, emotions are revealed not as the events of the inner life and not as cultural artifacts, but more as muscular phenomena or loops of pure affects (understood in Spinoza-Deleuze manner as something which targets the body and its ability to act). It makes them disenchanted, empty and meaningless, exposing the purely mechanical, almost inhuman grounds of affects, desires, and other seemingly very human issues.

Trailer for Odd Meters by Mikko Niemistö

Two other infectious pieces of high bodily intensity which dealt with anxiety and restless excitement were Odd Meters, a solo by Mikko Niemistö, and Astral Projections by Niemistö in collaboration with Sanna Blenow, Teo Lanerva, Olli Lautiola, and Justus Kantakoski. Both performances somehow dealt with dreams understood as subconsciousness, as extensions or as effects of highly technologised western culture, permeated with electricity, entertainment, and pop-up notifications that do not respect any natural cycles. Odd Meters, inspired by Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is based on buzzing repetitions of anxious jumps, fast restless shiftings from one foot to the other, moving in circles, and exhaustion. It seems to happen in a bad dream where the person is never left alone, and accompanied with soft underskin technologies even in bed, where the body becomes a tuning fork of endless individual exploitation. Unlike the body’s usual passivity which our connection with technology implies nowadays (as all the actions from money-making to sexting now work through typing and scrolling) here, it becomes a site of affective expression.

woman in loose t-shirt and trousers lies face down on floor. Behind her are two tent-like structures made of tree branches, with tops wrapped in cloth, and a square wooden frame with a gong in it. The whole scene is in neon blue light
Mikko Niemistö’s Astral Projections. Photo © Anna Autio

By contrast, the two-hour performance-installation Astral Projections, which borrowed movement material from video games and other fictitious worlds, allowed for daydreaming and a slow, gradual immersion into the show’s monotony and duration. Though it too dealt with capitalist anxieties through movement loops and repetitions, its space organisation – allowing visitors to sit and lie on the floor – was welcoming, and enabled bodily engagement through slowness and sleepiness rather than shock and exhaustion like in Odd Meters.

It’s ironic that the first version of Astral Projections premiered in March 2020, just before the first lockdown in Helsinki. Recalling those performances, Niemistö calls that experience absurd and at the same time comforting and therapeutic, ‘as if it was the last dance before the apocalypse’. Then as now, the most awaited dance festivals in the Finnish capital were either cancelled or postponed, so Moving in November was lucky to catch the moment and meet its audience. It seems that Astral Projections anticipated another phase of the ongoing apocalypse which now already feels habitual but nevertheless leaves its traces on our imprisoned bodies. 

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Helsinki, Finland
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