Ten Years Since the Last Celebration – Where Are We Now?
This time, we celebrate higher education in dance through work. An important part of our work is constant self-reflection and consideration of the foundations of education, its practices and its relationship to a changing world. And what is the world or worlds in which dance and art operate?
Although the back of the pandemic that stopped the world in its tracks has been turned, there is still a sense of recovery and confusion. Political crises escalated in the Middle East, and we are also witnessing a brutal war in Europe. The effects of the pandemic on individuals, communities and societies are still being processed, while the world is already hurtling ahead into an unknown future, overshadowed by an ecological crisis. The world as we know it is aching on so many levels, and we are not short of crises, of which we are aware 24/7. But instead of sinking into crisis-conscious anxiety, we need action; an analytical look at the past, and the courage to look openly to the future. We need to ask where we can find strength and joy in study and research, faith in the possibilities of art, confidence in the future of the artist’s profession and role, and confidence that life has a future at all.
We want to ask how dance and choreography both reflect the different and diverse worlds we live in and participate in creating, expressing or transforming them. What possibilities does art, artists, dance and performance have in the 2020s? What possibilities are still latent, undiscovered or unrealised?
We invited some of our international partners and guests to reflect on this with us and wanted to share this reflection with the dance field, alumni and students. This afternoon’s seminar format also reflects the transformation of the Theatre Academy into an increasingly international university, where arts education is part of a renewed and research-based artistic activity.
So, the last time we celebrated education was ten years ago, in 2013. Where are we now, in 2023?
40 Years of Education – Two Perspectives on History
The world does not begin and end but is always in progress. We are living in the midst of a historical world, with countless actions and choices made in the past that affect the way the world is now, and the way it appears to different people, animals and the planet. We are forced to reflect on the ways in which we ourselves are part of past actions and choices. Are we part of the historical continuum of the world, or part of the historical continuum of the re-creation of worlds?
These are two different perspectives on history. “To be part of the historical continuum” refers to history as a deterministic and causal narrative; the way forward is marked by historical signposts and practices. The present consists of the repetition of what has been before, for good and ill. Instead, to be part of a historical continuum of the re-creation of worlds suggests a different, creative historical relationship. It sees history as a continuous evolution, transitions and leaps in which worlds are created in each time period, according to the understanding of the moment, over and over again. Both art and research, as creative fields of knowledge, are rather related to the latter historical relationship. Art and research do not deterministically repeat the same, rather they reproduce a creative difference with the former. They operate in relation to the previous, to the previous artworks, practices, methods, historical knowledge, and artistic understanding. That is why the world of art and research is more a creative becoming and a change based on the juxtaposition of differences, operating over different time spans, than a historical continuum of repetition of the same, or a completely history-less, rootless newness.
Over the last ten years, dance’s self-reflection, and the question of its relationship to diverse histories have been central in many ways. In what ways do our choices and practices potentially reproduce problematic structures, who has access to knowledge and art, what kind of knowledge is important and essential? What are the possibilities and roles of art now and in the future, in a world overshadowed by crises? There are many acute questions that we are reflecting on together with teachers, researchers and students. Questions to which we seek both artistic and research answers.
In 2013, the Theatre Academy, the Academy of Fine Arts and the Sibelius Academy merged to form a single University of the Arts Helsinki. The Theatre Academy is now a different institution and educational environment than it was ten years ago. At universities, education is based on research, while at the University of the Arts, it is based on artistic knowledge and experience as well as research. Since the 1990s, the Theatre Academy has been laying the foundations for research-based education in the form of artistic research and doctoral studies. We are well aware that the role of art, and dance in particular, in society is not independent of the discourses and languages in which it is valued, interpreted, bought, sold, supported and enabled. Thus, a particular mission of dance education over the last ten years has been to deepen and diversify our view of dance and its role in society, not only through art but also through language, discourse, research and publications.
Dance’s own publication series Kinesis already has 13 publications ranging from dance studies to master’s thesis compilation. The open-access online publication Community and Art – Themes and Perspectives on the Expanding Field of the 21st Century Artist explores the foundations of community art and describes dozens of community art works. Dance Arts: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Practices published in 2022 is the first compilation in Finnish of the history of dance art in the West. With 18 authors and 34 articles, it also takes a critical look at dance art’s relationship to the world from the perspective of decolonisation in the 21st century. I am also very pleased to announce that an English translation of it has just been completed and is open today to our international students and the arts community. In addition to newsletters and websites, the Theatre Academy’s publications include dozens of written parts of artistic dissertations, open-access online publications of artistic research and learning materials.
A valuable area of reflection on the worldmaking in dance is the portfolios of dance students and the written parts of their master’s theses, which are available online. They tell us what students are interested in now, what they read, watch and think about, about art and the world, about artistry, society and the future. They are often profound, reflective, critical, and exploratory and testify to the courage of the students to set out towards an uncertain future as artists or experts in creative artistic processes.
Of course, you might ask, who reads all this, does anyone? The space of academic knowledge, long sentences and difficult concepts may seem alien and contradictory in a digital media reality of short sentences, memes and images. Yet I argue that this is not the case. Today’s dance professionals are familiar with decolonial, queer and feminist thinking, they are concerned with ecology and social inequality. They are familiar not only with the thought and art of Cunningham and Keersmaeker, but also with Jerome Bel, Dana Michel, Sara Ahmed, Deleuze, Bel Hooks, Barad and Braidotti, and they know how to navigate and operate in different channels of social media. They speak many different languages: dance, choreography, performance, meme, video, photography, music, philosophy, society, Finnish, English, Swedish, German, Hebrew, Greek, etc. One of the requirements of the modern professional artist is therefore discursive awareness and transversality, combining erudition with active citizenship and a world relation that transcends binary categories. And, as we can see, active citizenship is happening here and now in the Theatre Academy student’s occupation and in the slogans of public demonstrations: “We want bread, not cuts”. The university fully supports the students’ demands.
International, contextual, sensitive, digital
Finnish is a beautiful and beloved language, rich in onomatopoeia, genderless, but spoken and understood by few. The field of contemporary art and research is international and dominated by English, which is often the second or third language of the speakers, as is the case in Finland, where the second official language is not English but Swedish. For a long time, we were only a Finnish-language education, but in 2019 the Master’s degrees in Dance Performance and Choreography were opened to English-speaking students. Now international partnerships are starting to become established strategic networks, as is for example the Nordic Choreographic Platform among the MA in choreography programmes in Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki, and the student pool is becoming more and more international. This is a common trend in all Finnish universities, and the government has already expressed concerns about the status of the Finnish language in research and education.
But instead of being too concerned about the status of the Finnish language, especially the impact of such a small educational sector, we can reflect on what internationalism in our time means, enables and opens up. And we can’t really think of internationalism without the digital world, the internet, smartphones and artificial intelligence. Rather than a flattening and homogenisation of everything, with ‘everyone’ reading the same books, quoting the same philosophers and researchers, and using the same artistic means of expression, internationalism can also be seen from another perspective. It is important to recognise how a multicultural working environment requires, promotes and develops cultural sensitivity and an understanding of the many layers of art across time and place. We are now a little better at encouraging students to explore their own local backgrounds, diverse cultural histories and social contexts, rather than one single, universal canon of dance art.
Languages, cultures, geopolitical environments are already diverging within Europe, let alone globally. But digital technology is the same everywhere, the new universal. What is the role of embodied dance and performance in this digital world? I think it is appropriate to ask critically, in the midst of an ecological crisis and a digital world, where is creativity, relevance, meaning and innovation now located and taking place? Is it in technological research seeking solutions to the ecological crisis, is it in coding and the development of artificial intelligence, or in the creative economy, or, for example, in innovative pop music, which has the resources to take full advantage of the possibilities of the digital world and to achieve a meaningful connection with a global audience. Is it in non-academic dance that draws on street dance and social dance cultures, is it in social activism or community art? I believe in all of these, but also in the many forms of dance art, if it remembers that it is part of a continuum of the re-creation of worlds and finds the things that make it special and meaningful.
What then is special about creative artistic processes and human made art compared to purely computational processes in physical systems? Professor Xin Wei Sha (School for Arts, Media, Engineering and Future of Innovation in Society at the Arizona University) says that
the characteristic of living systems (for example artistic creative processes) is that we cannot ever specify in advance all the possible future states of the living system. This is what makes a living system radically different from computational systems, based on physics. And that gives us a sense of indeterminacy, that is unpredictable.
And what, then, is meaningful in embodiment that computation cannot produce? At least our bodily capacity to recognise the suffering of others, our capacity for empathy and ethical reflection, our capacity through movement to understand and connect with all living things. Also relevant is the capacity for political and moral reflection and the ability to consciously transcend and transform historically constructed patterns of thought, such as the categorical division between nature and culture, technology and art, genders, sexualities, the separation of matter and meaning, content and form. And when we combine these with the ability to interact creatively in unpredictable processes, perhaps we can suggest some perspectives for the debate on the possible futures of dance, performance and artist education.
Dance programme websites
Nordic Choreographic Platform
Kinesis publications series: https://kinesis.teak.fi/
Yhteisö ja taide – teemoja ja näkökulmia 2000-luvun taiteilijan laajentuneeseen toimintakenttään
Dance Arts: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Practices
Worldmaking and Contemporaneity – 40 years of higher education in Dance and Choreography
This bilingual publication (Finnish/English) collects and extends traces of a seminar that took place October 23rd at the Theatre Academy (Teak) University of the Arts Helsinki. The seminar was held on the occasion of Teak´s 40th anniversary of higher art education in dance and choreography. Seminar focus was on worldmaking and contemporaneity in dance and choreography in higher art education.
The publication aims at opening the potential for dialogue and conversation about dance and choreography pedagogy in higher art education with a local and international body of readers. Hence the publication may be seen as an opportunity for conversation about dance and choreography training in higher art education beyond the day of the festivity of the 40th anniversary.