IMAGEs in this text refer to this powerpoint presentation (without video)
IMAGE 1 Jeux 1913 and 2016
I am Hanna Järvinen, Senior Researcher in this Academy of Finland research project. By training, I am a historian, and writing is my principal form of practice. My job in the How to Do Things with Performance? project is to ask questions about the history of performance and of performing history. This project, I hope, will allow for exploration of collective, collaborative practices and performative writing.
IMAGE 2 According to Della Pollock, performative writing has six qualities. It is evocative, rendering the absent present. It is metonymic, meaning that it is self-consciously incomplete. It is subjective, not autobiographical but rather it subjects the reader to the writer’s reflexivity. It is nervous in its crossings of theories, contexts, and practices. It is citational – in other words repetitive and reiterative. It is consequential, that is, it does something, produces something, as with Austin’s performative utterances.
Let’s keep these qualities in mind and discuss practice. IMAGE 3 I am currently working as a historical context advisor in a dance piece, Jeux, Uudelleen kuviteltu / Re-Imagined, which will premiere in Turku in a fortnight, on October 19th. There will also be performances in Helsinki from November 4th to November 6th at the National Gallery Ateneum.
This project started in the spring of 2014, when the choreographer Liisa Pentti and I had a discussion about the term “reconstruction” which Liisa had used for her collaboration with the choreographer Liisa Risu in their piece Liisas danst Rosas IMAGE 3. This is a work on their shared but different relationship to Anna Theresa de Keersmaeker’s choreographies, especially Rosas danst Rosas of 1983. In Liisas danst Rosas, which I saw on 28 May 2014, the two Liisas dance excerpts of the Rosas style works that were significant or meaningful for them in the 1980s and now. Through factual and fictional stories, video recordings, and dance they ponder on what remains in their bodies of those dances three decades later, their current relationship to those works and that time, the 1980s, more generally, and they do so with a great deal of humour.
For me as a historian, this work was not re-constructing anything. Rather, it was about the corporeal history of dance: how dance practitioners interpret, develop, and recall the techniques, choreographies, performances, and aesthetics they encounter both professionally (here, in the work of the ROSAS company) and as amateurs – as lovers of – dance (here, the choreographies of Bob Fosse). Obviously, this work was about aging IMAGE 4: these particular kinds of virtuosic choreographies are hard on the bodies performing them, physical exhaustion being almost a requirement of the fourth movement of Rosas danst Rosas, where also the dress of the dancers emphasises their youth: school skirts, as Liisa and Liisa point out, not really being the kind of thing women in their fifties perform in IMAGE 5 – hence, the flowery summer dresses of the last movement in Liisas danst Rosas.
So Liisa Pentti and I talked about bodies as archives and as transmitters of memories, interpretations, and signification, of histories that are not linear but circular as the dancing bodies return and reinterpret past dances. Every dance irrevocably changes the body dancing. It is, after all, impossible not to have danced something: the body is, in a sense, an archive or a repository. As a consequence of our talks, Liisa invited me to collaborate on a new piece that would be about the origins of contemporary dance, IMAGE 6 by which she meant Nijinsky’s 1913 choreography for Jeux to the music of Claude Debussy. After I sputtered a bit about my objections to the claim that Nijinsky’s choreographies influenced modern dance, Liisa interrupted me and said she was not speaking of modern dance but of contemporary dance. Jeux, she claimed, was the first instance of contemporary dance, which is a term usually associated with European post-Second-World-War dance, including the effects of American postmodern dance in Europe since the 1970s.
I asked her to explicate and she pointed to an image by Valentine Gross and asked me how many times had I seen that in ballet. IMAGE 7. Well. Um. Okay, she had a point. The virtuosity of small gestures and everyday movements in Jeux, the dancers standing and sitting and lying on the floor – all this resonates with American postmodern dance, the so-called New Dance in Britain and France – or in Finland – and even with certain European dance theatre forms such as Pina Bausch. On the other hand, Nijinsky’s manner of choreographing to the musical score – even if, for Jeux, this meant asking the composer to change certain parts of the music to fit the intended action – is far closer to many forms of modern dance and the kind of choreography where the choreographer sets steps on the dancers than it is to postmodern dance techniques. IMAGE 8 Also, as the critic of The Times found, the choreography mixed movements familiar from ballet with a new kind of movement vocabulary that did not, in his opinion, quite match up.
Besides being known as a ‘failure’, Jeux is also a work no-one alive has any direct experience of: despite some plans for revival, it was only performed in Paris and London during the summer of 1913 and all the three dancers who ever danced it have passed away – Nijinsky died in 1950, Ludmila Schollar and Tamara Karsavina both in 1978. In addition to the six photographs posed for publicity purposes, a few drawings made by artists who saw the performances, notably Valentine Gross and Dorothy Mullock, and reviews, IMAGE 9 the materials remaining of the 1913 Jeux include musical notation of Claude Debussy’s score, hand-written notes by the choreographer on a four-hand piano rendering of the score into which Debussy has also scribbled his changes as per the choreographer’s request, and some designs by Léon Bakst, whose set was used but costumes seemed to mix up tennis with football. IMAGE 10
There are also reminiscences, cartoons and even a satirical poem. IMAGE 11 For Jeux: Re-Imagined, I shared these materials first with the choreographer and the dancers, Anna Torkkel, Maija Reeta Raumanni and Jouni Järvenpää, later with the set and costume designer Graziella Tomasi, the sound designer Jouni Tauriainen, and the lighting designer Vespa Laine.
Liisa and I devised various exercises that aimed at not just re-embodying the visual images but the words used of the choreography, its setting and affective content. From these exercises and others, movement material began to emerge. The work as it currently is comprises seven episodes and lasts about an hour, over three times as long as Nijinsky’s 1913 choreography.
IMAGE 12 The video I will now share with you shows a short section from the first full run-through last Friday, 30 September. This is part of the episode utilising the dancers’ exploration of the drawings by Gross and Mullock, seen here. So, these are the drawings we have used, and as the choreographic sequences repeat, I will point to some of the poses.
IMAGE 13 VIDEO during which I hold up pictures of the 1913 production as the poses occur in the 2016 choreography.
Each of the dancers also has an episode in which they speak, semi-improvised, on a theme related to the choreographic process (by Jouni), devising movement from still images (by Maija) and time (by Anna).
IMAGE 14 What, then, of this presentation as performative writing? A historian always tries to be evocative, render something long gone present and accessible. Such renderings, however, are rarely this metonymic: for my part in How to Do Things with Performance? any attempt at discussing a collaborative effort will always be tied to my subjective perspective and my experience, and therefore necessitates I accept it as always-already incomplete and imperfect. I have little use for the passive voice that pretends to omniscience.
As an exploration in practice of what emerges in the studio from historical materials, this 2016 Jeux is also atypical because it does not attempt to construct a whole out of fragments or pretend to a reconstruction. Working with dance makers like this, in the studio, crosses the contexts of history, writing, theory, devising movement, improvisational practices, and performance – practices that do not often come together in quite this fashion. I have no idea where this will take me.
In terms of citationality, the two Jeux, the two games, repeat themselves also in my writing. What will become a challenge, I presume, is to write the minute, concrete materiality into a text that would itself perform: a text in seven episodes would reflect the structure of Liisa’s choreography. But using the affective responses of the critics of the 1913 Jeux, however, the text should be about nothing, nothing happening, a very boring text that just goes on and on, ending nowhere, meaningless, with Debussy’s beautiful score just playing quietly in the background.
To end with an ironic remark, the sixth clause from Pollock’s list is actually the easiest: anything I produce is reported, measured, calculated in terms of impact in today’s academia. Whether that is actually consequential, however, whether that matters, always remains to be seen. For me as a historian, the studio practice offers insights not simply on dance and its particular relationship with the past and memory but on the aims of historiography and the role of the researcher working in and with art. I hope that my writing will not become reporting or explaining practice but an expressive register parallel to studio work and performance.
IMAGE 15 Thank you.