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Spill the T: MA Choreography Cross-Pollinating Interviews (#1)

In “Spill the T,” student ambassador Estrellx conducts an experimental interview between two alumni of the MA in Choreography program who graduated in different years, Karoliina Loimaala and Satu Herrala, in order to create a wide and layered temporal topography for prospective applicants to dig into…

Estrellx (they/them, MA Choreo, Intake Fall 2023): This interview is a choreographic experiment. I have curated nine questions in advance. Can one of you pick a number from 1-9? That number will correspond to one of the questions I have drafted and will be our departure point for this interview. 

Satu Herrala (she/her, MA Choreo, 2014): I pick 2. 2 for February. 

Estrellx: Why TeaK (Theatre Academy)? Were there other schools you applied to? What about this institutional environment called to each of you?

Satu: In 2011 (the same year I applied to the MA in Choreography), I was living and working in Vienna and had a strong desire to return to Finland. I thought that the MA program could be a bridge for me to return. I had been living in Vienna for 5.5 years already, working mostly as a dancer. I didn’t apply to any other schools. I wanted to go back to Helsinki for personal reasons and the program felt like it could be a solid landing pad for me alongside feeling that it would be useful for me to do an MA. 

Karoliina Loimaala (she/her, MA Choreo, 2020): I applied to the MA in 2017 and the year prior to submitting my application I had graduated from P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels. I was traveling and working in Europe and India that year, which created a desire to return to Helsinki. During this time, I ended up having a conversation with a previous graduate from the MA and he recommended the program to me. In the end, the program interested me because I wanted to focus on the development of my choreographic work and the MA felt like a great way to do this. I did, however, apply to another MA program in Brussels at P.A.R.T.S. There were different pilot research programs going on at P.A.R.T.S. at that time, but I decided to go for TeaK because I had been studying in Brussels for 3 years and needed something new. There were also other personal reasons that informed my decision. 

Satu: For me, the program started in Aug. or Sept. of 2011 and earlier that year I was already engaged in a laboratory related to the curating of festivals. This was one of those European Union projects where a cohort of young or aspiring curators traveled to different festivals throughout Europe, learned about how the festivals were curated, and then at the end of that year the cohort could apply to curate our own programs within some of the festival contexts we had visited. I took advantage of this opportunity and co-curated a program in Munich as part of the Spielart Festival. So when I started the MA program, I was already engaged in a curatorial practice and as the program progressed these fields overlapped. When I graduated in 2014, I ended up working on a project at the Baltic Circle Festival as a co-curator and then at the end of that year I began a post as the Artistic Director of the festival. 

I did not work much as a choreographer post-graduation. I did two pieces after my thesis premiere in 2014 and 2015 and that was it for me. In retrospect, I felt like I should have done a curatorial program instead. My practice is really centered on curating and researching and currently I am working on a PhD in curation at Aalto University. 

When I was studying at TeaK, my time coincided with the combining of the three major academies (SibA, KuvA, TeaK) so that was great because it became possible for us as students to propose our own courses together, which allowed for cross-pollination between the academy lines. So I was organizing courses with Max Hannus, Miina Hujala and Jussi Koitela who were studying at the Praxis program at KuvA then, which made me question why I didn’t go to study at Praxis instead. I didn’t have a background in curating, visual arts or contemporary art. I came from a dance and performing arts background so it might not have been possible for me to get accepted into Praxis. The MA in Choreography was a study that I did, but it did not necessarily become my profession in the end. 

Karoliina: Do you feel like what you studied at the time impacted or informed your curatorial practice? Are any elements from choreography present or have they arisen within your curatorial practices?

Satu: Yes, I do feel that my background in dance impacted and continues to inform my current curatorial practice. Or really my somatic movement practices do the informing more than my choreographic studies per se. Of course, it is impossible to fully delineate where one thing begins and another ends. Everything affects everything. I think a lot about embodiment within my curatorial work, meaning I am working with bodies rather than particular choreographic practices or concepts.

How about for you Karoliina? What did you learn during your studies that stays with you? What do you keep from there?

Karoliina: Many things. Many small parts. One of these arose from the solo project I did during the first semester at TeaK, which came from my mentor, Anna Maria Häkkinen. I don’t remember if it was in our first rehearsal, but she said, “I wonder how the body is affected by these things that are here, happening around it.” This notion of how the body is affected by xyz or how something is affected by xyz is an articulation that has stayed within my work and it interests me immensely.

Another thing that stays with me is the practice of witnessing and analyzing composition, especially in the moments when things get blurry or fall out of the compositional map. Waiting for what the work will suggest and not trying to make hasty decisions before observing what is already there is fascinating to me. I enjoy witnessing more now than before I started the program for some reason. 

What stayed with you from your time in the program?

Satu: For sure collaborations and relations with other artists where we created a trustworthy community.

Another thing related to what you shared about what the work needs is the idea of an artwork as an entity; as having its own way of emerging or becoming. How do I listen to that and not say “I am making this work” but more “What is this work? What does it want to be or do? And how does it make me become?” Or also thinking about the conditions that produce a work. It isn’t just the choreographer or the artist, but rather a whole ecosystem that births the work. Listening to this emergence gives life to something even when I don’t necessarily know what that something is. How can I listen and support the work in becoming what the work desires to become? An entity with its own becoming. I don’t know if I can say its own will, but its emergence. This I take from my choreography studies at TeaK. 

Estrellx: I definitely resonate with this. I often conceive of my role as a choreographer as a transition doula who is holding space for the work to emerge or that I am channeling or holding space for the work to flow through me. This has to do with my Pentecostal Christian upbringing, alongside death doula training that I have completed. I find the act of holding space for the emergence of anything to be quite profound. In my opinion, this is what we are busy with as choreographers or curators; we are busy with setting the conditions for people to orient around a specific theme or question or whatever the thing in the middle might be. 

Satu: It’s really interesting this idea of doula practice. Curation is so much about organizing conditions for something to emerge and I think this is what the curator can do, specifically about setting the conditions for emergence. The curator as having the agency to act upon the conditions. 

Estrellx: You mention organizing the conditions for something to emerge. I am curious for the both of you: what happens when you set the conditions and things fail or collapse? I would love to hear about tools that you’ve cultivated within and outside of TeaK that support you with grappling with things going wrong or pivoting away from your initial intention. How do you deal with failure? What are strategies for adapting to something slippery? We are in a moment, globally, when things are fractured so what do we do or how are you each responding to those fractures, if at all, within your work? 

Karoliina: Since graduating, I’ve been working mostly through the support of grants. As I produce my work, I continue to witness how its emergence is a slow process that usually happens in different fragments and bits in time, and different places. The work of rephrasing, rethinking, observing occurs in cycles. Sometimes, I get a sense of unease when I am observing that the work is changing away from my initial desire, but mostly this sensation arises when it is not moving in any specific direction. Right now, I am in a process where I have been waiting for a long time for the work to emerge and I have been getting impatient. I usually get faster intuitive insights or the feeling that I am in sync with the work and can pinpoint what the work needs. Now, the work has been more in a state of refusal or perhaps I have been in a state of refusal and there has been some difficulty with understanding where the work is going. I try to balance this refusal with pausing and giving the process even more time to become. 

Sometimes I try writing out different outcomes. Out of the one potential, I write three different potentials and I see which one to throw out, which one to keep, or I write them all down and look at them later and then see which one resonates. Redoing. I rewrite a lot. I write a lot of text and then I rewrite; I am often in a process of constant rewriting. Stopping and giving time when something is not working is kind of like an act of trust or faith in the reality that at some point the work will come. It might come in small steps or portions, but it will arrive eventually. Of course making and writing need a lot of active work; I don’t consider waiting as a passive activity.

Satu: Failures are really fundamental because this is how we learn something. How we cope with failures collectively when something goes or deviates away from what the initial expectations or hopes or wishes were is research in and of itself, whether it is choreographic or curatorial work we are talking about. In relation to a more global scale, I can’t really talk about all the failures in the same day because the scale is so vast, but I will say that every intra-action matters (quoting Karen Barad here). Every encounter and how those encounters are solved make a world. Maybe when things go wrong or differently than expected, those moments become opportunities to invite in more awareness. When things go smoothly, it might be easier to fall into autopilot mode so these ruptures or failures become invitations to consider the otherwise not considered or give time to listen to the subtle changes or reorientations that are occuring. How do we negotiate reorienting together, collectively? Who or what is getting directly impacted by the decisions we are making?

Estrellx: I want to hear more about this pivoting. As an international student, I wish to have some clarity around what this program is preparing artists for. Is it for people who want to work in academia or solely for performance makers? How did the program prepare you for what you are doing now in 2024? Is the person that you started the program as, the person that you graduated with or were they different people? Did you have a dream going in that changed as you were going out? I ask because I want to give prospective students permission to pivot even if they are coming to study choreography at TeaK; that one doesn’t have to remain attached to who you are at the beginning of the program. Were there any deviations for the both of you, then and now? Do you feel the program prepared you for what you are doing now? 

Satu: It’s so hard to know what I would have become if I hadn’t done the MA program because it did influence me a lot, but in a way that shifted me in a different direction. I stopped working as an artist or as a choreographer and moved towards creating conditions for others. I feel like after my graduation my thinking shifted quickly towards the curatorial and more specifically towards how I organize conditions to support other artists with the process of making their own work. This came partly from the experience of working with and leading collaborations at TeaK. Working with dancers and different designers (e.g. sound, costume, stage) as well as with dramaturgs was great. It was amazing to have these big groups to work with. I found the process of negotiating how we work together within the emergence of a particular piece to be one of the things that influenced me a lot from the program.

That being said, I thought that the structure of the MA would be run in a more peer-to-peer fashion or that I would be able to design my own collaborative environments, but the program was very much school-like with a 9-5 schedule, which was a bit unexpected. I remember I had a conversation with a colleague who also started an MA programme at the same time that I had, at the Sandberg Institute, and as we were exchanging I said, “I have a time table from 9-5 and a locker next to a sauna.” And they said, “I have a studio and internet access.” They started organizing student meetings there.  

How about you Karoliina?

Karoliina: Well, I did want to make my own choreographic work when I entered TeaK and I wanted to continue dancing. I was also hoping to meet new people since I had been away from Finland for some time so TeaK ended up being a great place to expand my network. There are collaborations that started during the MA that I am continuing to this day and this is great!

I do feel like the program prepared me to work in the field as an artist with respect to how to set structures and conditions for my freelance and choreographic lives. On the other hand, I am not sure if it is possible to fully prepare students to engage with a freelance field as a condition, as the condition itself is very specific. I feel like there are things you simply learn as you go. There are a lot of lonely working hours that I did not expect, but I doubt it would have changed anything for me even if I would have understood this beforehand. 

The program did guide me towards what I am doing now. Then again the reality before you initiate something and the reality of actually doing it may be radically different, on top of considering new desires and needs that inevitably arise and must be attended to. We are in a process of constantly changing so how do we stay attuned to those changes? I now have some different needs than when I entered the program or when I graduated. But then, singular things like stopping, organizing my thinking, slowing down when I get stuck in not knowing what I want to do or what I need to do, in addition to tools from the MA still help me when I have to solve both interpersonal or professional issues. 

I would say definitively that the program prepared me to work in Helsinki, which has been useful now that I am busy with living and working between Helsinki and Turin. New cities or countries  present a whole series of new dynamics (e.g. understanding how the field is structured, social conventions and relations, the funding) to be in dialogue with and the conditions in Helsinki, other parts of the EU, or anywhere else for that matter are always site specific. 

Satu: This is a great point you bring up with respect to the MA preparing you to work in Helsinki! I agree that it definitely sets you up to work in Finland. The artistic directors and curators who work within Helsinki-based institutions tend to follow the artists who graduate from TeaK (already during their studies), which of course is a potential benefit. Also, the size of the cohorts are quite small, ours was 4, which allowed for gaining intimate attention from within the artistic field.

It is very interesting now that the current cohort is fully international. You all come from different places and it’s exciting to see what this will do for the scene. I actually came to the panel that you and your cohort were curated into that was a part of the 40th Anniversary of the Dance Department. It was refreshing in the context of the institution that was for many years solely accepting Finland-based and/or Finnish-speaking people.

Estrellx: I am sad to say that our time has run out. Thank you both so much for your time. I hope we can keep this dialogue going in the future!

Life of an art student

In this blog, Uniarts Helsinki students share their experiences as art students from different academies and perspectives, in their own words. If you want to learn even more regarding studying and student life in Uniarts and Helsinki, you can ask directly from our student ambassadors.

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