Performative Writing

In her article “Writing Performance” (1998) Della Pollock defines performative writing as having 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 something that 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 J. L. Austin’s performative utterances.

Working as a historical context advisor in a dance piece, Jeux, Uudelleen kuviteltu / Re-Imagined, which premiered in Turku on October 19th 2016, I have been thinking how to perform a process of studio work with dancers. How to make visible in writing – or writing in the expanded sense of publication, research exposition, presentation, articulation – the collaborative work in the studio without assuming the authoritative voice of the know-it-all researcher?

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. This was 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: 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 – hence, the flowery summer dresses of the last movement in Liisas danst Rosas.

Our discussion revolved around bodies as archives and as transmitters of memories, interpretations, and signification; it touched 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 impossible not to have danced something. In 2015, Liisa invited me to collaborate on a new piece that would be about the origins of contemporary dance, 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 a drawing by Valentine Gross from 1913 in which the three dancers of Jeux, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Ludmila Schollar, are seen lying on their backs on stage, their heads towards the audience. Liisa asked me how many times had I seen that in ballet, and I had to admit she had a point: ballet tends towards verticality and defiance of gravity rather than this kind of thing (whatever that was in 1913 – we cannot really know). 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. Also, some contemporary critics found that the choreography mixed movements familiar from ballet with a new kind of movement vocabulary that were a source of confusion.

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, Schollar and 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 of the performances, the materials remaining of the 1913 Jeux include musical notations 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, so Nijinsky ended up wearing a version of his rehearsal clothes (again something that recalls the aesthetics of contemporary dance). There are also reminiscences, cartoons and even a satirical poem. For Jeux: Re-Imagined, I shared these materials first with Liisa and the three dancers, Anna Torkkel, Maija Reeta Raumanni and Jouni Järvenpää; later also 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. The 1913 choreography was a framework for movement material to emerge, but we did not want the dancers to imitate the dancers of 1913 or feel constrained by what remains of Nijinsky’s choreographic aesthetic in the materials. The 2016 work comprises seven episodes and lasts about an hour, over three times as long as Nijinsky’s 1913 choreography.

For reasons less to do with copyright and more with how anything to do with Nijinsky has become a collector’s item, I cannot include any of these materials here. However, I can show myself speaking of them.


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). I have also interviewed the dancers for the purposes of my research, and we have plans of writing together with Liisa. But are these collaborative articulations, by themselves, performative writing? To return to Pollock’s definitions, a historian always tries to be evocative, render something long gone present and accessible. Such renderings, however, are rarely this metonymic: the 2016 Jeux is atypical as danced exploration of historical materials because it does not attempt to construct a whole out of fragments or pretend to a reconstruction of a ‘lost original’ in the manner of Kenneth Macmillan’s (1980) or Millicent Hodson’s (1996) versions. Similarly, any attempts I make in articulation of such a collaborative effort will always be tied to my subjective perspective and my experience, and therefore necessitates I accept these perspectives as always-already incomplete and imperfect.

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. It is a hybrid practice and 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. A circular composition would reflect Nijinsky’s narrative. Using the affective responses of the critics of the 1913 Jeux, the text really 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.