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Spill the T: MA Choreography Cross-Pollinating Interviews (#2)

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, Laura Jantunen and Maya Oliva, in order to create a wide and layered temporal topography of graduate experience for prospective applicants to dig into…

Estrellx (they/them): So the first question is a bit silly: What is your favorite ice cream flavor or dessert?

Laura Jantunen (she/her, MA Choreo, 2023): My favorite ice cream, which can also function as my favorite dessert is very good vanilla ice cream or old school vanilla ice cream or yogurt vanilla ice cream.

Maya Oliva (they/she, MA Choreo, 2022): For me, very good pistachio ice cream or this pine nut ice cream that I cannot find here in Helsinki. 

Estrellx: 🙂

Second question: can you each describe your artistic practice or whatever you are busy with, choreographically, in (5) words?

Maya: Expanded movement, sound, textiles, nomadism. 

Laura: Somatic phenomenological movement practice. Disorientation. 

Estrellx: I forgot to mention at the beginning of the interview that you are always allowed to break the rules throughout this interview. 

Laura: In that case, I will add a sixth word: textiles. I did not know that Maya also worked with textiles.

Maya: I will update my fourth word to performative textiles. And specify that I approach sound conceptually and scientifically, considering it as changes in air pressure, which consequently implies movement.

Estrellx: I love that! Since textiles seem to be a common theme for both of you, can you each elaborate on how textiles are showing up within your choreographic work? 

Maya: In my case, I have a practice of creating my own costumes and I use textiles as a means to blur. I enjoy playing with extending my movement and blurring the shape of my body through textiles, through the use of an item of clothing or a garment but also any kind of fabric that might cover certain parts of my body. I am interested in the monstrous and textiles allow me to become monstrous.

Laura: I am a textile lover. I have been knitting for as long as I have been dancing and I have been making everything from textiles. I have always been interested in style and fabrics. I adore natural fibers and quality garments. These have been interests of mine for a long time and not always in relation to dance making. But surely, I have been my own costume designer for quite some time. Not with every piece, but in some of them. My biggest textile interest has been working with ryijy. I like to use the word “ryijy” because it is the Finnish word and in Swedish they call it rya, which is more commonly used. The translation in English would be something along the lines of tufted rya rug. I have been working with ryijy for 6 years now and started to integrate them within my performances soon after that. 

Maya: This is interesting for me to hear and it is so cool that you are also interested in textiles. I do see that we have different approaches though. I have less knowledge or grasp of the technique behind working with textiles, but I am often thinking about how choreography or movement can be generated from the relationship between a body, sound, and textiles; how does the choreography enter deeply into these places? Often when I work with textiles, I am using a beginner’s mindset and become curious about how this specific fabric influences the movement of my arm, for example, which makes me more invested in what I am researching corporeally. With you Laura, there seems to be a more robust knowledge base when it comes to working with textiles.

Laura: Yeah, textiles are kind of an obsession of mine. It is interesting though because sometimes having a knowledge base creates a cognitive limitation with respect to how far the notion of textiles will take me; the limitation for me enters when I consider the afterlife of the textile works I make. For example, ryijy making is really time consuming so if I make something for a performance I do keep in mind where the work will exist afterwards. I do not want them to end up in my storage so I often sell my works. If they are a bit on the odd side, like a pair of ryijy pants, selling them or using them somewhere else later might not be possible. On the other hand, the performance might need these odd ryijy pants, and the pants might expand the boundaries of what ryijy can be and what it can do. For me, making textiles for my dance performances is always a delicate balance between “selling them later” or “filling my storage” with them. I would like to find a spot where these two could meet. 

Estrellx: This aspect of thinking about the afterlife of the work we are making as choreographers is critical, ecologically and otherwise. It has been great to witness more and more venues include content descriptions within their brochures because this allows audiences to remain in choice about the kind of choreographic experiences they are consenting to participating within. I remember the first time I saw this kind of design was in 2020 via Montréal, arts interculturels’ programming and inclusion of soft performances. I was initially meant to perform a solo work there, but then the pandemic hit and we all know how that story goes. I share all of this to say that I find it personally important for artists to consider how care can be embedded within the process and afterlife of any given choreographic work, which leads me to my next question. 

What was happening for each of you, research-wise, before you entered TeaK and once you were moving through the program were there things that you researched that you feel only emerged as a consequence of moving through the MA? I would love to hear from each of you how the structure of the program shifted what you were researching before you entered the program. For example, I know Maya mentioned the notion of the monstrous as a choreographic concept that emerged, but was this concept already running in your mind before you started the MA or did it arise during your studies?

Laura: I find this question difficult to answer, but I have some kind of answer. Every performance we had to make during my studies had a very quick turnaround, usually like a month or so to craft it, which always felt too quick to research something specific. At first, the one month window meant that I had to put things that I knew would work well together and make a piece rather than starting completely from scratch. But then I started to experiment with new methods of creating movement and directing movers as well as a new way of making performances. 

The short time to craft a piece always felt a bit too short for me, which often meant that the end result “suffered”. What I mean by this is that I could have made the work more precise with more time. Over a decade ago, a teacher of mine, Ria Higgler, mentioned to my classmate that “in school you need to make shit” and that statement really stuck with me. For me this translated into school as a safe environment to experiment and try ideas out that you might not otherwise dare to try. Plus I think this way of thinking will keep you away from the safe zone and maybe something new will emerge. Making shit means that what you are creating excites you, makes your belly tingle. This is a place I am interested in: the not yet known. I think as artists we should always walk on this line between shit and diamonds (as Sonya Lindfors would put it).

Personally, I would have really loved to experience what exists now within the updated curriculum where there are a few weeks included throughout the academic year where students are free to pursue their own interests. My cohort and I did not have this. When I entered the school, I was interested in researching authentic movement, phenomenology, and how textiles interact with my work and all of this is very time consuming. During the studies, I began to gently scratch the surface of this research. It was Jana Unmüssig who recommended Sarah Ahmed for me, Queer Phenomenology (2006), which really offered nourishment. I still read and study this book today.

I feel that the studies gave me a lot to work with and simultaneously required me to put something else on hold. And now that I have graduated, I have the tools to continue deepening my interests that I had to press pause on. After graduation, I did not need to start from the beginning since I had initiated my own movement practice called Somagics at TeaK. The research period for the development of Somagics did not really begin until post-graduation.

Regardless, researching and developing my own practice will be a lifelong process so I am grateful that I was able to spark something unique during the MA program. 

Maya: I was traveling a lot before starting the MA. I grew up in Italy, but I also lived in the U.S. and Brussels. In Brussels, I studied at a very dance-oriented school and even then I always had this very strong desire to make things with my hands. I have always created choreography by creating my own scenography (e.g. making and painting objects) and by always relating my body to something tangible and concrete. Perhaps this is where I draw in the connection to textiles: I need to manually make something in order to think about choreography or more succinctly conceiving of choreography as a kind of manual practice.  

I also love thinking about choreography and its connection to sound. When I consider performing solely with my body on stage with no additional elements, these are generally not the conditions that I find personally interesting although I absolutely love witnessing other artists engaging with this minimalism. I prefer to move between multiple mediums that feed directly into my practice. What interests me is finding the choreography and the dance that emerges between these various elements. 

Before coming to TeaK, I was playing with objects and the bodily movements these objects induced. I remember having conversations with Kirsi where I was coming in from the perspective of the bigger picture, zooming in and out of light, scenography, costume, music design, and Kirsi was often asking me the question, “So what is the body doing there?” This question has been the subject of friction throughout the entire studies where I responded, “My body is also what I am doing with sound or the movement that I am creating with sound.” 

The questions Kirsi has asked me since the audition process for getting into the MA led me to say yes to enrolling in the program. Since I came from such a technical dance background, I always wondered, “What is the body doing there? How do I want my body to be there?” This questioning generated an interesting friction that actually clarified a lot for me. There were many additional frictions created through my training as a technical dancer and what I ended up being interested in researching choreographically. I sometimes think that I reach towards these other mediums as ways to deflect the body that often desires to fall into recognizable dance technique patterns. Funnily enough, I have been contradicting this thought in my recent work, where I put these deflecting traps within the movement scores I am generating.

I do agree with what you said, Laura, about there not being enough time for a certain mode of research to exist within the structure of the MA when I was a student of the program. One of the elements that most excited me about Uniarts is that I knew that it had all of these different departments and I thought that I would be able to explore them all, but in the end I noticed there was a colossal separation between the various departments and programs. The programs have a very full and packed schedule, which I find great. However, it can be a double-edged sword. As Laura said, I remain grateful that I was able to actively craft performances through the support of the facilities and staff at Uniarts, including the costume department and stage managers who sometimes worked over time. 

I ended up choreographing very dark work during the MA, very much leaning into the monstrous and dark vibes, which is where the notion of the monstrous came in. These elements linger on in my practice as I feel I found something through this entry point. 

About the lack of time, COVID-19 absolutely impacted my experience of the MA meaning my cohort and I were not able to do everything in person. Finally, if I understood correctly, my year was the year that marked the beginning and a transitional moment of receiving external pressure from the institution of graduating within a two-year timeframe. In my year, we still had the older curriculum, but with this added pressure. In the end, I was the one who graduated last from my cohort.  

Laura: My cohort experienced the same pressure to graduate in two years and I totally recognize this pressure you are describing, Maya. I also wanted to take textile courses at Aalto University, for example, but in the end it felt too complicated to figure out how to fit it into the MA curriculum. In retrospect, I find it rather ok that I just worked with choreography for two years. As a multidisciplinary artist, I constantly think and work with many mediums and it was great to stick with thinking about choreography for two years. 

Maya: I completely agree with that. I find these frictions and desires also a positive thing sometimes. Kirsi often reminded me that there are courses one can take during the holidays. These breaks are also meant to be the times when you can interact and meet other people, but the issue, as an international student, was that I often had to go back home during those periods for work or other personal reasons. Laura, were you ever able to engage with any of those optional studies courses?

Laura: Yeah, I did! I completed all of my optional studies courses in my first year. In my second year, there was no time because of the ACO project and then in the spring we graduated. It is tricky because the timing of these optional studies courses also impacts who can and cannot take them. 

I had never studied as a degree student in a university before coming to the MA and the university system felt super unknown to me. I did not understand how it functioned. In the beginning, I would have definitely needed much more support to figure out how to find and enroll in a course at Aalto, for example. I often wished that I would have had a classmate who was from TeaK who could have helped. But little by little I learned and I think if I would have studied longer it would have been easier to milk more courses and resources from the university system.

Maya: Plus one. 

During my studies, Jana had joined as part of the choreography teaching staff and I felt she was a solid addition to the program since she brought in an approach towards expanded notions of choreography. There is certainly generally a question regarding how choreography is defined within an MA choreography department. It is important to keep a certain line and a clear direction; every school I have been in had to choose a direction. One cannot do everything. 

I think I would have needed more support regarding my initial interest in sound, but being so new to the country, field, and university context, I did not have the tools to know how and who to ask nor who to invite to my rehearsals or as a mentor within my creative processes. Now, after 5 years of living here, I know who I could have contacted and have finally gathered texts that speak to sound as movement such as Salomé Voegelin’s “Sonic Possible Worlds”

Laura: Sound is a very choreographic element so approaching choreography or dancing through sound seems relatable and like a strong throughline for me. Two years is such a short time and to even get an inkling of what you are interested in during those years can be a gift. Now we have the rest of our lives to dig deeper. 

Maya: Exactly. And maybe I did not know how to fully formulate how I was understanding certain needs within my choreographic interests through words. I was looking for something that did not have words at the time. I was in the midst of searching for my specific way of articulating my mode of being. 

Laura: I entered the MA thinking this would kind of be like a two-year residency, which probably was not the best mindset to have. This mindset gave me some power to define for myself what I wanted to research even if it did not fully align with the expectations or aesthetic proclivities of the instructors. Within my written thesis, for example, when I was writing down the foundations of my movement practice, Somagics, I found myself talking about the movement practice more than the choreographic underpinnings. Then Kirsi began to nudge and ask why I was not writing about my choreographic thinking. I let her know that, unfortunately, there was no time to excavate my emergent movement practice into the level of how it functions choreographically. I would need more time for this. But what is great about time passing is that if Kirsi would ask me now (one year later) about Somagics in relation to choreography, I would already have some kind of an answer! Now I would love to rewrite my MA thesis because in the past year I have learned so much. 

Estrellx: I am going back to some statements that I heard you both share earlier. Laura, you mentioned something stopped and something else started when you started the program. I would love to hear a bit more about what stopped as this would be useful information for prospective students to know, especially with respect to understanding what they are receiving and what they might need to place on the backburner when they say yes to enrolling in the MA. 

Maya – since we both share the perspective of being international students, I wanted to share that some of the factors you struggled with during your time in the MA have been taken into consideration and have created shifts in the curriculum and program experience. I feel like my cohort is receiving the benefits of what you and Laura and previous cohorts have given feedback on, which I am very grateful for. 

That being said, when it comes to time and the schedule of the MA being fully loaded; this aspect persists and remains a reality. I wish there was more space to design our own courses or to have more autonomy to design our own schedule structure, which would fit my needs more specifically as those needs relate to generating income. 

Any insight, Maya, that you have and would like to share around being an international student, acclimating to the Finnish context, and how you feel now after graduating would be lovely to hear. 

It would also be great to hear any celebrations and/or tensions that emerged for both of you during your MA studies to further widen the frame for our readers. 

Maya: I am grateful that I had the chance to be in this program.  

I was the first official international student in the MA Choreography program even though there had been exchange students before I arrived. From the point of view of an international student, my cohort was a predominantly Finnish and Finnish-speaking cohort. In general, everyone in my class made a lot of effort to make me feel included and there was never a time where they spoke in Finnish, leaving me out. However, the inescapable dynamic became one where my Finnish classmates supported me with understanding things all the time. I like to be able to help people as well and because of this, I felt that there was always this lingering sensation of feeling a bit behind. Even the schedule was transitioning and remained mostly in Finnish, which meant I had to do the additional labor of  Google translating it week to week. Kirsi and I tried to change this, but it was not possible to accomplish during the time I was studying there. 

Being new to Finland, to a university setting, and dealing with my neurodivergence (which I did not know about at the time) simultaneously made my experience more nuanced. I felt very isolated and alone because I needed help all the time. When you are from outside of the respective national context, you become a person that you are usually not. I felt like a person that I was usually not and was perceived in ways that I was usually not. I mean, I tend to have confusions and am able to manage them. I have my own systems and can be very precise in the way that I function as a choreographer. However, since I was the only one from an international context, the feelings of being an outsider became disproportionately heightened. 

I had definitely been a foreigner elsewhere with other foreigners, or also a foreigner in my own country. Communities in such situations are essential. When there are more foreigners together, as per example in LAPS, there is a unique and necessary support in daily life to navigate the challenges that arise in such contexts. When I was studying, LAPS had more non-Finnish born artists and therefore I felt this diversity provided them with more tools to navigate and integrate into the Finnish system and professional field upon graduation. I found myself gravitating towards the LAPS group often.

Throughout my time in Finland, I kept realizing how much the country is not so used to having non-Finnish born individuals. This is something that I underestimated when I first moved here. I have lived before in cities that have people from all over the world flowing in and out. One of the reasons why I stayed to live here was that I felt there could be a potential of growth in that way. 

After graduating and missing a few grants and applications that I feel like other graduates did not miss because of the language barrier, I found myself frequently in situations with foreign artists discussing the difficulties of integration. I observed that I predominantly secured dance opportunities within events featuring marginalized non-Finnish born artists, and being booked to work or perform alongside Finnish-born artists proved to be quite challenging.

This made me wonder if Helsinki is actually ready to have international artists and choreographers inside of its ecosystem. Because of this lack of support, I perceive a chance for artists to come together to create projects and realities that could radically improve this. As I mentioned before, COVID-19 definitely impacted my experience in the MA and time in Helsinki. COVID-19 made it way more difficult to network and make connections within the field while I was moving through the program. 

What helped me get my work out there, among the artists in the dance scene post-graduation, was the underground scene. Additionally, some students from Aalto’s ViCCA curators program noticed my work in those contexts and gave me opportunities to perform at their school events. One of my classmates from the MA program has been a huge support, as well as a previous student from the MA before my cohort. In the end, we continue to manage together. It seems like I am now slowly integrating into the field thanks to all of these people who have helped me. I received help from different people, and I pushed myself to make things happen in spite of all the opposition. I am definitely celebrating the importance of a network of artists and peers supporting one another. Additionally, what is wild to me is that even Finnish-born artists are also struggling to secure performance opportunities. I am looking forward to the moments when I will be in a position to help other emerging artists as well. 

In closing, the MA program gave me a lot, and I would do it again if I had the chance to go back in time. I came to Finland and joined this program because I needed the time, context, and opportunity to dive deeper into my practice. My practice became more specific, the friction and the struggle also made it more specific. At this point, I know what my direction is, and I know what interests me or not. I feel things always come at a price. This has been the case every time I decided to move to a new country. I have always gained and lost something in the same moment. 

Laura:  With respect to the dance field in Helsinki at-large, I know that things are changing, but concrete changes take time. This has to do with the cycles of production houses, in general. It is changing little by little though. For example, Zodiak takes such few performance proposals each year and the percentage of intake is quite low. There seem to be too many makers for the opportunities and funding that we have in this field. At least in my eyes, the future of the Finnish art scene looks rather bleak because of the ongoing governmental funding cuts.

Shifting now to the budget cuts Uniarts is experiencing, this has impacted the rigidity we experienced of having to finish the studies in two years. These cuts are impacting the organic timing of determining what students desire to research and do. Because the government in Finland is cutting funding in the arts, this will inevitably impact the possibility of working in the field as a freelancer right now and in the future both for Finnish citizens and international artists. All arts institutions seem to be in the process of figuring out how to navigate this shifting economic terrain. Some venues I have reached out confirm that they are interested in working with me, but their funding capacity is not able to support making this interest a reality. So even finding a venue to present your work is becoming tricky, especially for collaborative and ensemble performance works.

What stopped for me during the studies = I did not have time for my self-imposed endeavors. Everything I did was in relation to the school and completing the studies (probably also the point of the studies) and I am so used to having my little projects. Maybe things were replaced versus stopped. The things that I was choreographically interested in did not stop, but the places where the interest could continue changed. For example, I did not have time to read books, but I did discuss different topics during classes or productions every day. So, I would say that the flood of knowledge to my brain was constant but the format changed. Now I am back to my books and I miss the classes. 

Estrellx: With the time we have left, do either of you have a question for one another? Anything related or unrelated? 

Maya: I am thinking. 

Laura: I am also thinking. 

Maya: How are you, Laura, in relation to integrating yourself as an artist? How are you doing now emotionally after your studies?

Laura: If you would have asked me this question three weeks ago, I would have cried, broken down and been like fuck this shit because I received many grant rejections within the same week. Working in Finland, when you make a proposal to a venue or foundation and then receive a no, it means that your next chance in getting something produced within a dance context in Helsinki is one to two years from receiving the no. That is a long pause to not be circulating your work. 

Before coming to the MA, I had been working in the dance scene for 10 years. I already had my tentacles in many places and it took a lot of work to get them there. This meant that when I graduated I had some spaces to enter again and then I re-entered the scene with more bravery to approach different presenters or venues with my choreographic proposals. This is a new skill I developed during the MA and since graduating I have been writing aggressively to different dance venues if I find them interesting.

Now I am feeling better. I feel like I have continuous things going on for me, meaning that I can continue to work on my practice and on some textiles.

I would actually like to pose the same question to you Maya. How are you doing, professionally and emotionally?

Maya: It has been hard. I also received 6-7 work rejections within the same week and that was brutal. There is more competition and more people applying. 

That being said, there are a few things happening for me at the end of 2024 and 2025 so I am trying to keep myself up meaning I am figuring out what to do in the in-between moments and am being gentle with myself while I cave in my room. I have been busy sending out a bunch of applications almost violently. The more NOs I received, the more I applied. This is also not the way of making art. I know that I need to go into the studio and work / be with my practice. This feels better than being stuck in a writing form that is not mine. 

It continues to be many ups and downs. When I hear you speak, Laura, I feel we are in a similar boat. I asked you this question because I have been sometimes wondering if I am experiencing what I am experiencing because I am a foreigner or because of the situation in Finland at large. 

I definitely wish that I could work more as a dancer in other choreographic projects. I used to before the MA and am grateful to have secured a very nice opportunity for 2025, and hope there will be more.

Laura: I can definitely relate to getting a rejection and using the anger from that to write three more applications. My favorite thing is to use that energy to do the tasks that I am most scared to do like contact venues or people for a meeting. At the moment I am so motivated to make performances, I wish there were more opportunities for that. Currently, my “work” is mostly writing applications and looking for future opportunities. 

Maya: Yeah, I do not know about you, but I absolutely need to dance in order to remain mentally strong. It is good to remind ourselves to keep our practice going and not be too coerced by capitalism. 

Laura: I hold a weekly class where I share Somagics and it has and continues to be my grounding place. The people attending the classes are helping me flesh Somagics out, which nourishes me for the following week and generates more food for thought. 

Estrellx: Wow… first of all, thank you both so much for sharing so generously! Much of what you shared from your specific perspectives makes me wonder whether international students have a future in this Helsinki-Finnish context so your words have truly been fundamentally helpful. 

My final question: If you could pick one performance, your own or another, to leave behind in a time capsule for future generations of artists to encounter, which one would you pick and why?

Laura: I would leave my final thesis work Outoliini (Oddling) or solo work, The Idiot Gardener. They both present a world that I hope we would live in, in a way that reflects on our current times.

Maya: I would leave my first group performance for six dancers made in 2015 called SMILE. SMILE sparked the beginning of wanting to make art experiencing an extreme joy while composing and performing it live; it feels almost like a piece on channeling radical joy at this point. I am coming back to this feeling lately and creating more and more through cultivating the strength of this desire. I, therefore, would also leave my latest solo “In perpetual blooming, despite the gods”.

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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