Jonas Schnor from Denmark visited Finland in November. The critics residency was at Moving in November contemporary dance festival.
I have arrived in Helsinki, into a pool of greyness. It is November. It seems that all colours have left this part of the world at this time of year, even the people look grey as they scurry around the half empty streets. I tell myself that this is probably just the first-hand impression of an outsider. Nevertheless, I cannot seem to shake the sensation of being surrounded by a grey nothingness. As I make my way to the hotel, get checked in and hurry off to see the first performance of my stay here, Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods’ Solos and Duets, I try to ignore this eery feeling. To trust that I will meet people, be included in community, that there will be kindness, that we will sense and feel and think in relation.
At the same time, I cannot help to think about the month of November as precisely the onset of darkness that defines life on the Northern hemisphere at this time of year. Artistic director of Moving in November Kerstin Schroth draws attention to the fact that in Finnish, the word for November, marraskuu, is in the old tongue also the word for death. This reminds me of the ancient Celtic holiday Samhain (the origin of Halloween), in which darkness is celebrated as the necessary foundation for the light. Hence, the year starts in November with the descent into darkness, a time of death and compost, of dealing with the stagnant, before the light arises in spring and regenerates life. Liikeellä marraskuussa (Moving in November) could therefore, as Kerstin Schroth suggests, also mean: Moving with death. Approaching nothingness as something that, somewhere in the grey and the dark, carries life? At least these thoughts help me take the greyness more lightly.
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At first glance, Moving in November 2022 seems a fragmented landscape. What connects, for example, Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods’ fiercely well-composed glimpses into a lifetime of work (Solos and Duets) with the participatory event of Calixto Neto’s decolonial sharing of the African-Brazilian dish Feijoada? I remind myself that we live in a fragmented world, one where neoliberal capitalist societies force us to be okay with the fragmentation of our lives. Why should this experience be any different? Still, in the first days of my stay, I cannot help to absorb everything I see and hear in an attempt at finding possible lines of connection, in search of an ecology that traverses apparent chaos.
In a talk on dramaturg Jeroen Peters’ new book: And then it got legs. Notes on dance dramaturgy, one of Peters’ discussion partners, dancer Maria F. Scaroni, explains a primary principle of her approach to creation: to search for what is (more) alive. Being alone in this November-bleak Northern city, I grab hold of that statement, I pocket it, I make it a promise. For if we, the participants of this festival – this conglomerate of artists, spectators, critics, curators, moderators, technicians, producers, chefs, and bartenders – are not only moving in November but moving with death, what is it that makes death move? What shakes up the stagnant?
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As the days progress, I am exposed to shake-ups, to moments of aliveness. A particularly vivid one is Filipino choreographer Eisa Jocson’s Macho Dancer. Jocson appeared in Moving in November 2018 with the piece Princess (2017) and for the 2022 edition of the festival Kerstin Schroth decided to invite Jocson to present an earlier work of hers – as part of Schroth’s ambition to extend the lifespan of performance artworks. Macho Dancer (2013) was part of a ‘solo-triptych’ of Jocson’s which dealt with the eroticisation of the body in different parts of the sex-working industry in the Philippines. In this region, macho dancing is a highly sexualised masculine showdance performed by male bodies for all genders in specific Filipino clubs. Jocson, a dancer trained in the feminine expressions of ballet and pole dancing, challenged herself to learn this masculine style of dancing, and to do so in a cultural environment where such an expression is entirely reserved cis-male performers.
So much for context. I’m seated on one side of an elevated catwalk stage. As spectators, we are visible to each other on either side and in front of the catwalk where the seats extend up the proscenium. Feeling equally awkward and joyful by this de-anonymised situation, my senses are already heightened to start with. The chatter dies down.
In the ensuing silence I hear the firm clicking of boots drawing nearer. Jocson appears on one side, wearing tall cowboy boots. She stops right before the catwalk and leans on the backwall with a sort of indifferent, cool guy attitude. A Metallica ballad starts playing, as she ascends the stairs, and the macho dancing begins. Although I have never experienced macho dancing before, all the movements seem familiar, as tropes of a masculine gait, a masculine showing off of muscle, of stamina and virility. Jocson stomps her foot and then stands firmly still with a disaffected gaze, peering into the horizon. She makes knee-turns on the floor, and then performs a few exaggerated hip-thrusting movements towards the ground. I am amazed by the simultaneity of her feminine body and the masculinity of her gestures, her stance, and her facial expression. I am undoubtedly witnessing ‘Man’ up there on the catwalk. More 90’s ballads follow, both Western and Filipino, as the macho dancing continues. Jocson strips to small shorts containing a fake penis at the same time as she takes of her shirt revealing her breasts. In this queering of her body as well as of the male sex-working body, the gender performativity of the macho dancer becomes more perceptible, more exposed as precisely that, a certain performance of gender.
As I am enraptured by this queering and its multitude of signals, another thing is happening as well. In Jocson’s macho dancing, pauses start to appear. Moments where she just stands there, doing nothing, while the ballad keeps playing. As the show progresses, these pauses grow longer, and each time something in me reacts with curiosity, perplexity, or eeriness. What is going on in this embodied dramaturgy? Why is she stopping?
Eventually, she stops completely and jumps down from the stage. She slides along the catwalk, simply staring at the spectators. She makes it all the way to my side of the walk before she continues up towards the proscenium. Along the way, she stops walking, and just stands there, looking, doing nothing. Audience members sitting next to her seem not to know which facial expression to put on. Social performativity is scrambled; the contract between performer and audience is on its hinges. After a number of these long moments of standing still next to seated audience, Jocson returns to the stage, performs a final, less intense macho dance. Smoke enters heavily on the stage. I see her walking backwards, then disappearing in the cloud. When it disperses, she is gone.
During a talk with her the following day, I ask about the pauses. First, Jocson replies that she simply needed pauses because the dances were so demanding. But then she continues: ‘I wanted to show the actual doing of the sex-working body that has laboured.’ Not just a choreographic image of the sex-workers’ body, but the sweaty, fleshy, thoroughly laboured body, standing before us and besides us in all its intensity, for a moment outside of its fantasy-space, but still with the effects of its labour lingering in the body and the shared space.
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Another moment is of the more subtle kind. I sit in The Hut outside of Stoa, created by Jared Gradinger, Angela Schubot, Stefan Rusconi, Alm Gnista and Shelley Etkin. In the hut, I’m surrounded by logs, dirt, a few other people, all of us silent. A few candles are burning, that is the only light in here. An old and weary looking piano stands in the corner. As my eyes grow accustomed to the dark, I start to notice more and more of what Jared Gradinger calls ‘the real stars of this show:’ the fungi. On and along the logs, different species of them (Turkey Tail, Reishi, Birch Polypore, Hoof Fungus, Coral Tooth Fungus, Bitter Oyster) are living and growing. In a temporality and sensuousness different from my own. The artistic team brought this original Finnish hut from a nearby forest back in July, rebuilt it on Stoa square, created within it an optimal environment of soil and logs which they then inoculated with mycelia. The Hut is an experiment at co-creating an artistic space in collaboration with non-human life.
Besides being open to visits during the festival, the artists also staged performances in the hut. Worth mentioning is the music experiment by Stefan Rusconi. By placing electrodes on the mushrooms which measure the micro-fluctuations in the electric conductivity running through them, Rusconi passes this data through a computer program, which turns them into sound waves. He also connects these impulses directly to small hammers of his own construction, which then – literally – play the piano. In this way, Rusconi stages an improvisatory concert by the fungi, the piano, and himself.
As I sat there during the concert, I was painfully aware that I did not understand how the technological translation from the fungi into sound and movement actually took place. I was aware of the players but not how they were playing together. During a talk, Rusconi explained his relation to the fungi as one of tapping into something that has been running for a long time and that will keep on going long after. Perhaps this temporal gap reflects the gap of translation I experienced during the concert, between the electric currents of the mushrooms and the soundscape filling the hut. And so, by way of the incomprehensible, The Hut makes me aware of the difference between fungi and human time, between different modes of existence carefully brought into the shelter of the hut where we briefly co-exist.
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Through these moments and others, I start to notice lines that connect. In works such as Macho Dancer, DAWN by Sheena McGrandles, and JEZEBEL by Cherish Menzo, I witness a queering of cultural expressions (queering the Filipino male/female sex-working body, queering the family, queering the sexualised black female body in MTV music video culture). Another line runs through works such as The Hut, Nature Untitled by Veli Lehtovaara, Eija-Liisa Ahtila and Jani Hietanen, and Sammal/Moss by Angela Schubot and Suvi Kemppainen, as they are all attempts at incorporating and co-creating with nonhuman life in the artistic experience. Obviously, I cannot reduce these works to either of these ‘lines,’ nor am I here doing justice to the full programme of the festival. Still, by becoming aware of these two strands, I start to pay attention to a gesture that is shared by both. It could be formulated in this way: a gesture of regenerating and multiplying agential connections. In all these works, I sense a desire to create more intersections between alternate life forms, between different ways of being in the world – be it to regenerate the agential connections between fungi and humans or to multiply the potentials of gender performativity within a single human body.
In DAWN – a musical on reproduction, Sheena McGrandles has brought together a diverse team to stay with the trouble of starting, sustaining, and relating to family as artists in the 21st century. The team all have different positions towards family and having kids, both in terms of their identities, desires, and the actual struggles they are facing. What brings the project together is their personal investment. During the process, McGrandles asked each of the dance artists to write a song for the project. And so, the musical consists of songs written by McGrandles, Moss Beynon Juckes, Claire Vivianne Sobottke, Colin Self, and Emeka Ene (who has replaced Self) themselves. They are on stage with their own stories and experiences. You get a sense that McGrandles and co. (which also includes the musicians, the choir, the costume and set designers, the dramaturg) work by creating a world together, a performative space where they can contemplate and queer the family together.
I am here reminded of another comment by Maria F. Scaroni where she stresses the importance in the dance world of recognising that dance-bodies are not simply malleable servants but living biographies: ‘We all carry a forest of lived life.’ In dance and performance making, we work with and from the messiness of our living bodies with all their affective histories and imaginaries. Dance works are not (or, at least, should not) be created by manipulating bodies, but by co-creating with them, by co-existing as different bodies experimenting towards a shared expression, giving audiences the opportunity to exist – for a moment – alongside or within their intersecting forests.
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A thing Moving in November 2022 does well is to reinforce this awareness of the artists as biographical beings. Almost every day of the festival, at noon, a soup talk takes place. In each talk, one of the artists or artistic teams are invited to talk about their work. A local artist is invited, in each case, to moderate the discussion which anyone can participate in. And, as the name implies, there’s delicious soup, free of charge.
The talks are an attempt at establishing a communal dialogue space between the artists, the audiences, and the festival staff, between locals and visitors. Some of the talks stay close to the interview format of ‘the artist talk,’ whilst others expand into a more shared situation, in which the attendees also share their experiences, and even, in some cases, for the artists to ask questions back to the attendees. In this, it was a good choice to invite a local artist who was very invested in the specific work, to moderate the discussion. This provided an atmosphere of community, of feeling mutually implicated in the artistic questioning. In doing so, the talks brought out the life-worlds and thought-worlds of the artists and made it possible to discuss and reflect together on the themes their works addressed.
As the reader may have noticed, in this text I have often referred to a statement made during one of these talks. What I see as the value of the soup talks – and how I have used them to dive into the artistic works – is not so much the opportunity to ‘peek behind the curtain’ and decipher the intention of the author. What the soup talks did for the temporary community of Moving in November was to make visible the condition of life and condition of production of the working artists. They made it possible to contemplate the works, not only in their immediate aesthetic expression, but in the way they have emerged as responses to socio-political conditions, to ‘the stuff of life’ – as, for example, the difficulties queer persons face when creating a family, as problematised in DAWN. But the talks also helped to shatter the illusion that works are created by artist-geniuses who shape the material according to ideas they have come up with in isolation. As, for example, when the talk with Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods reveals how much the personal agency and investment of the dancers are shaping and changing the choreographic material. Or when the talk with the team behind The Hut reveals how much the artists pay attention to the life conditions of the fungi and allow the work to be influenced by them, both practically and imaginatively.
As I sit there each day, enjoying a bowl of soup (and attempting not to make slurping noises), the conversations make me aware of agential connections I weren’t beforehand: connections between diverse artists, between human and nonhuman life, between various gender expressions of a single body – and, perhaps even most importantly, between artists, audiences, and festival staff.
Becoming aware of such connections is also to catch glimpses of the ecosystems that shape us – both the ones that are intact and thriving as well as the ones that are broken and in need of repair – and to reinforce a sense of companionship. In the future, perhaps such talks can include even more companions, for example the light and sound artists, the production assistants, the dramaturgs, the vocal coaches, the science educators etc. And to be fair, The Hut team did bring their esteemed collaborators to the space. At the end of their soup talk, we were all invited to spend a moment in darkness and witness the bioluminescent mushrooms and their silent mycelia.
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Speaking of companionship, it is also during the first talk I attend (with Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods) that I start to get to know others during the festival. Before and after the talk, I have informal conversations with Kerstin Schroth, with artist and translator Simo Vassinen, as well as the dancers of Damaged Goods. Because of these encounters, that same night after the showing of Solos and Duets at Stoa, we all end up going to a local pub together, a generic British-style place called the Black Bird. One of the locals in our group tells me that he grew up close by but has never been inside. At the pub, the crowd is very local, we don’t quite fit in, but there is not a sense of exclusion, and I enjoy this mixing of cultures, and the fact that the art festival suddenly becomes less disconnected from its surroundings. And to be honest, it is also through this informal hanging-out that I start feeling a sense of community with others during the festival. As I get to know these people better, as we dance and goof around on the dance floor, my initial feeling of isolation dissipates. Suddenly, there is a baseline to being here together, to the showing and receiving of dance pieces, a sense of belonging to a temporary community, one in which we are invested together in the affective and political spaces that the art making is shaping and shaped by. It is such shared atmospheres that festivals are all about.
As I, one week later, make my way to the airport, I cannot help to think that the festival could have benefited from more informal spaces such as the one we created for ourselves in the Black Bird. The formal talks were great to bring ‘the surroundings’ of the artworks into our shared experience. But it is in the informal spheres, at parties or dinners, that we bring in the surroundings of the festival, the local environments and the actual people attending – these and no other biographical beings, gathered at the same time and place, communally exposing and exposed to the intensities of life and art.
In the plane, I overhear a youngster telling his friend: ‘it’s chronically grey in Finland.’ But a few hours earlier, as I arrived in the airport, the clouds parted. Outside, on the runway, the blue sky rushed into vision, a soft illumination.