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Anni Kaila

Poetic Translations: Moving between poetry and dance (2020)

PART I: Writing and Reading Dance – Theory and Practice

Poetry piercing dance

Sormenpäiden silmukat, kyynärpään kerä, lanka jonka purit loppuun asti, iho jonka
avasit saumasta ja irrotit, jonka annoit valua mykkänä yltäsi ja ripustit puun oksalle ja pakenit,
katso, se tanssii sinulle, se tuodaan sisään sateesta ja ripustetaan kahteen kertaan, kuivumaan
ja laulamaan:
polvien taipuessa
jotain valuu lattialle

The loops of your fingertips, the clew of your elbow, the yarn you unspun until its
final fibres, the skin you slit open at the seam and shed, mute as the sky, the skin you
hung on the branch of a tree and fled, look, it dances for you now, it is brought in
from the rain and hung now, hung twice,
out to dry and
to sing:
as the knees bend
something leaks onto the floor

(Kaila 24 October 2019)

You could say that poetry is enjoying a kind of renaissance in the 21st century. Poetry slams, spoken word, rap, auditory text-based performances and digital platforms have reshaped the way poetry is created and consumed in our society. Poetry also seems to be making its mark on dance, though not by far for the first time in history. In the canon of Western dance, the link goes back several centuries. Already the earliest court ballets, similarly to ancient Greek dramas, were fusions of dance, verse and song, and it was only later that text and movement were separated and ballet became an art form in its own right at the initiative of Jean Georges Noverre (Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, 2020). The word choreography, Latinised from Greek, has its origins in the words ‘khoreia’ (dance) and ‘graphein’ (to write) (OED 2019). Dance is also often, so often in fact that it has become a cliché, described as ‘poetry in motion’ or ‘silent poetry’. In the 19th century, French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé famously linked the two in his essays on dance, calling dance “the superlative form of theatrical poetry.” He stated, somewhat controversially, that a dancer does not dance – she writes a corporeal form of writing, “a poem free of all writing apparatus.” (Mallarmé according to Lewis Shaw 1988, 3)

The current rise of poetry across the performing arts could perhaps be seen as a kind of opposite pull to the demands of the neoliberalist marketplace. Most of the writing that happens in and around dance and performance these days has a lot to do with managing the conditions that make art-making possible. We write applications, descriptions of our works and of ourselves, we draw links between our work and the work of theorists and philosophers in order to legitimise our art and its value for society. This is something that dance theorist and dramaturg Bojana Cvejić also observes in her essay “An Unfaithful Return to Poetics <in four arguments>.” She posits that the work of the artist has transformed into praxis, “whereby artistic labor is extended, atomized and dispersed in a variety of activities in which the artist manifests his/her will.” This is largely due to the internalisation of capitalist means of production by both art institutions and artists themselves. (Cvejić 2016)

The result is a stressed, time-pressed artist with an extremely wide array of tasks to fulfill and expectations to meet. In another essay, Cvejić excellently frames the problem facing the praxis-focused artist: with all the things that have to be accomplished, there is little time left for actual poetics, the art of making, forming and composition. Inconveniently, poetics requires time, and the ability to imagine a future, to entertain the curious question “What is the art I would like to see?” It is inconvenient to have to imagine a future in a world which seems to be locked in the present. Presentism is the social mood of the neoliberal market, “No future” its bitter message. (Cvejić 2018a)

To counteract this grim reality, an almost covert operation has to take place: a carving- out of time, of an imaginary space, where the questions of ‘what would I like to see, sense, and experience’ can take place. When it is inconvenient to imagine a future, it is often inconvenient to work with the body, to have a body to begin with, with all its uncomfortable messages of pain, decay and time. There is so much that the body has to take on, that it can get stuck in. To be able to dance, one must find ways to free up at least some of the pressure. Here, ironically, I also find a way to answer at least partially to the expectations of usefulness that we as artists set for ourselves and that the society also has laid out for us. Could the artist, as an expert on maintaining a capacity for imagination and a connection to the body, help guide the way in a society that seems to be in urgent need of both? I would like to think so.

What poetry can do, perhaps, is unlock an imaginary future for the body to inhabit. “The poetic means –– that it might happen” (Rassel according to Cvejić 2016). To practice poetics is to practice having hope. To return for a moment to the history of dance, Cvejić draws an interesting link between the emergence of dance and the way that poetry seems to now be “piercing contemporary dance.” Referring to the history of experimental art practices often punctuated with “offbeat manifestations of poetic writing,” she disputes the contentious claim that modern dance was the legacy of the twentieth-century democracy, born in America, and instead suggests that dance was “present all along, emerging in those sites of Neo-avantgarde experiments (visual arts, happenings and performance art, experimental music) that allowed it” (Cvejić 2016).

And now that writing has become more important than ever before to all artists as a daily practice of managing expectations and surviving in the market, it is vital to claim writing also for ourselves, to use it for pleasure and poetics, to let it pierce our existence with urgency. It can be an emancipating process to write with the body and with the dance, not only about dance in the form of funding applications and marketing announcements. At least, this has been my experience.

Next, I will write about the way that poetry has pierced my personal practice as a dancer and as a performer. I will also explore the ways in which imagination, perception and poetry are linked to each other and to dance performance.

Poetry of the performer

Jotain on kivettynyt. Lapaluun louhos tutkitaan liian kirkkain lampuin.
Niiden valossa nimeämättömät mineraalit erotellaan
muovihanskoin ja metallipihdein. Kaikki ei ole kovaa,
jotain hajoaa saman tien tomuksi.

Louhostoiminta lopetetaan. Pitkin selkää edelleen nimeämättömien mineraalien lapset kierivät,
valuvat, rapisevat ja pysähtyvät
lantion maljaan täynnä marmorikuulia, pallomeri, kaukainen ranta.

Something petrified. They search the quarry of the shoulder blade with blazing lamps.
In the light of them, unnamed minerals are arranged
with plastic gloves and metal pincers. Not everything is hard,
something at once turns to dust.

The quarry is shut down. Across the back, the children of still unnamed minerals roll, drip, rustle and stop
in the bowl of the pelvis full of marbles, a ball pit, a distant beach.

(Kaila 5 November 2019)

As a dance performer, I often work in a kind of non-verbal space, with materials and materialities that have other affordances than those offered by language. The potential of writing in this space is an interesting one: when there are fewer words than usual, the words that do exist become somehow heavier. Of course, language is always present in artistic processes at least in the form of communication between the members of the working group. Even in a solitary process, the inner monologue can sometimes be almost constant. Poetry is language, but it is language distilled into a concentrated form, even when that form is a dense and rich tissue, overflowing with a multitude of expressions. Writing can help condense thought and silence chatter and in this way actually make it easier to access those states of non-verbal clarity and specificity that make movement and the performing of movement possible.

Poetry, like dance, is largely about the experience it creates, the effect it has on the reader/writer/dancer/spectator. This set of words related to different agencies is perhaps how I would best describe my own professional position, or the position I often gravitate towards as an artist. Approaching writing and poetry through dance, and vice versa, I allow myself to inhabit the in-betweens, the places where translations and transformations occur from one medium and one position into another.

On perceiving and imagining

The link between perception and imagination is one significant area where a profound connection between poetic writing and dance can be found. As dance deals with the body, both seen and experienced, and performance is always an event that we witness by being with it in the entirety of our being, questions of sensing and perception are always present in some way when talking about dance. Perception is also central to the performer’s experience of and their contribution to the performance. The ability to deepen, shift, even manipulate the way we sense and perceive starts from the performer’s own body and practice, as the performer is simultaneously the creator and inhabitant of any performance.

Another crucial ability for the performer is the capacity to imagine something that does not exist yet. Historically, imagination was seen as something contingent on but essentially less than perception, a kind of recalling and rearranging of something already previously perceived. Immanuel Kant was the first one to talk about poetic or productive imagination, meaning imagination as the capacity to create wholly original representations. (Cvejić 2018b, 39–40) French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, whose work is permeated by poetry and poetic writing, saw imagination as something fully other than perception, equally antithetical as presence and absence (Bachelard according to Cvejić 2018b, 43). On the other hand, he also wrote about imagination not as the capacity to form images, but rather as a “faculty of deforming images provided by perception” (Bachelard according to Kaplan 1972, 2). This would seem to point towards an understanding of imagination and perception being more intimately connected.

For my own purposes, I tend not to see perception and imagination as two opposing pulls, one grounded in reality, the other in fantasy – they are interconnected in a more complex way. The present and the perceived are always here, and so is the possibility of imagination. As a dancer, the co-existence of the real and the unreal holds a great potential for me. The performer’s imaginary is always tied to the material reality and immediacy of their body, and so there is a constant movement between the presently perceived and the potentially imagined. Through writing poetry and dancing, I practice my capacity to “unceasingly reimagine”{38} the world while inhabiting the world at the same time, in a very real way.

Bojana Cvejić links the dancer’s imaginary to an act of ‘feigning’, a kind of pretending to know. Somatic practices which promote and are contingent upon idiosyncratic, bodily knowledge could also be seen as a matter of this kind of imagination. That a somatic technique becomes a question of imagination rather than a question of knowledge does not mean that its value is in any way diminished, on the contrary. Cvejić argues that instead of seeing this kind of imaginary knowledge as inadequate, we could regard it as “a surrogate knowledge, which takes confusion and contradictoriness as part of our engagement with the things that we don’t know.” (Cvejić 2018b, 46–47)

Feigning can be a way of accessing poetic ideas and images through the body. Working with poetic texts as a dancer, it can become the primary mode of knowledge that the performer has. Accessing this knowledge in a way that can also be transmitted outside of the immediately personal sphere of the performer, for instance in a process with others, can sometimes be difficult, since so much of imagination and feigning has to do with intuition. Writing can help us tap into this area of ‘surrogate knowledge’ and turn private information into shared communication.

Writing with the whole body

Writing as a dancer, I write with my whole body. In the process, something can become shifted from its place, I can transform my perception of something in or outside myself or become more accurate in it. The idea of deforming images provided by perception is an appealing one, as it is something that I recognise in my own writing. “The quarry of the shoulder blade searched with blazing lamps” is an image that arises from a vague feeling of pain or stiffness, but the words create a particular sensation, they both deepen and transform my experience while also creating a fantasy that is independent from the perceived source.

When I attune myself to the site of writing that is my body, I realise how much is already there. ‘Writing in the site of writing’ is an exercise I encountered in a writing workshop held by Ana Teo Ala-Ruona called Words Make Worlds. The site of writing refers to all the material elements already present in the moment of writing – the writer’s body, the space, the pen, the paper etc. As a distinction, ‘the world of writing’ could be thought of as encompassing everything involved in the act of writing, both material and immaterial. (Ala-Ruona 2018) The writer’s own imaginary, their thoughts, feelings and sensations in the process, exist in a way both as part of the site and part of the world of writing. They are the bridge that carries over from the material into the immaterial.

The process of writing can sometimes be a lot like dancing: I begin by writing a stream of consciousness, akin to improvising dance, and a world begins to emerge. In stream-of-consciousness writing, the writer writes continuously without pauses, attempting not to inhibit or edit themselves. Despite this free flow of expression, the texts that arise are never completely random or unintentional – instead, they start to resemble Kant’s original representations of poetic imagination. Quickly, they begin to follow some internal, often broken logic, simultaneously “inventing and applying laws as in aesthetic judgment.” (Cvejić 2018b, 40) Sometimes I stutter on a word for longer, writing and rewriting it. I taste it. I write the rhythms I taste in my mouth. At the end, sometimes days later, I might come back to the text, revise and rearrange, creating a composition.

Sometimes I write differently. A sentence settles into me and follows me around, I write it down and start looking at it. I feel it and I hear it, I say it out loud and it sounds different than I thought it might. I dance my way towards it. Slowly, the sentence calls other sentences to itself, it becomes a magnet for words. No matter how I write, however, I always find myself moving while writing. I might suddenly realise that I have shifted positions or moved in space to a new location. This is what I mean by ‘writing with the whole body’. I could also say ‘with the whole being’, since there is no use in separating the body from the mind. With the entire system in motion, who is to say where the actual words originate from?

Writing as a dancer, I practice a multitude of things: my ability to translate, to contain many things at once, to not know, to question, to perceive and perceive differently, to imagine and re-imagine, to form and deform. These things and many others. Unlike Stéphane Mallarmé, I don’t see dancing as analogous to writing. Dancing-as-writing could perhaps be understood as a kind of technical mastery of movement, the precision of the body in space functioning as a system of signifiers. There are certainly dance techniques and styles that could be seen as fitting this description, and this is perhaps also the way that dance read through dance notation has been historically understood. With poetic writing and the movement produced by it, however, there is a constant uncertainty and deforming that happens. Instead of mastery, strangeness appears. Language is destabilised, the body steps to the forefront.

I would argue that, in poetry, there is always a body. ‘Runoilla’, the Finnish word for writing poetry, is a word entirely free from ‘writing apparatus’. The roots of the word are in a tradition where poems were spoken and sung and thus transmitted to future generations. These were poems contained by the bodies of those who knew them intimately, not by written text. These are the roots that I recall when I write with my whole body.

There are many people who have inspired my ways of writing and approaching the body through writing. I am drawn to the idea of ‘écriture feminine’, a term coined by the French writer Hélène Cixous in her seminal work ”The Laugh of the Medusa” (1976 [1975]). Hers is a way of writing that reclaims the body and bridges the gap between physicality and authorship. There is an urgency to the writing of Cixous that I find relatable, a quality of something almost piercing through the body. Her work reaches through writing to the realm of psychoanalysis, a field of study that has always been strongly affected by poetry, and vice versa. Gaston Bachelard inhabits a very different space than Cixous in my mental landscape, but there is also a strong connection to psychoanalysis in his oeuvre.

I have also been inspired by the work of Janne-Camilla Lyster, Norwegian choreographer, poet and author, whose choreographic score LOVE IIII I will explore later in this thesis. In other masterclasses and workshops of writing lead by different authors, poets and artists I have received tools, feedback, and the sense of the vastness of possibilities that writing can have. All of this is present in my writing, in the same way as all of the different dance teachers, colleagues and choreographers that I have come in contact with over the years are present in some way in my body.

Image and rhythm

Through writing for and with dance I have become more aware of my own habits as a writer, and also my habits as a dancer. I have realised that I have a tendency to use similes, describing how things are ‘like’ other things: Your fingers are like lichen. Writing as a dancer, the urgency of a metaphor can often feel stronger than the simile: Your fingers are lichen. The strength of the image can become more immediate, more felt. The poetic image can also move beyond the simile and the metaphor, it can be a chain of images or a torrent of words which together create a wholly new representation: Fingers, lichen, licking, sticking to the wet underside of the rock, pricking them with the needlepoint of the grass. Language can be used to confuse and fuse together things that otherwise would be kept apart, creating deformed images and original representations.

Through poetic language and imagery, the performer can broaden and find specificity in their bodily imagination and expression. At the point where image turns into movement, a kind of somatic fiction is created through the feigning and physicality of the performer. Breaking down perception through both physical practice and poetic use of language has taught me a lot about the nuance and sensitivity of being a performer. So often performance deals not with the ‘what’ but with the ‘how’ – an arm can drop down, or it can decay, becoming soil for a flower to be planted in. Language can feed the body, it can increase the performer’s sensitivity to affects and, through this, expand their capacity for perceiving and imagining.

The poetic image with its expansiveness of affect is with me even when I don’t write, even when my observations and sensations cannot be articulated into words and sentences. But poetry is not limited to the image – poems also have a rhythm and a weight to them, and the extraordinary capacity to contain almost anything. Poems can consist of mistakes, single syllables and endless repetitions, they can cannibalise and metabolise any other text, they can sound or it can be mute. Poetry is quick to transform and also slow – like a painting, a poem requires time from its reader.

Through its use of rhythm, poetry has made me more aware of my dynamics and approach to time as a dancer, and my tendency to keep moving, keep going, as if afraid of the stillness that might set in otherwise. In a poem, the empty spaces are often at least as important and meaningful as the words that surround them. Their emptiness frames and fills the writing. The stillness which can never be fully realised, the pauses, the slowings down – these are the ‘empty spaces’ of movement, the points of condensation that slow down our sense of time. These stillnesses can make our perception sharper and at the same time shake the very idea of what it is to perceive.

It is in these moments where language and dance turn toward an apparent emptiness, that perception and imagination can start to almost bleed into each other. We become unsure of our senses, start colouring in the present quite unconsciously. In dance, I have had this experience for example when I have either physically done or watched others doing very slow, butoh-like movement or something seemingly repetitive for a long time. In these extremes of physicality, a kind of paradox emerges. Within stillness, there is an infinite amount of movement, within repetition, nothing is ever the same. A similar experience can occur while visually sinking into a texture or colour, like watching a work of art or staring into a natural surface such as water or fire, or stone. The field of vision starts to come alive, tremble and shift. Certain poems can have the same effect as well. The rhythm of language becomes an echo that transcends sensorial limits, allowing a kind of naturally synesthetic experience to emerge – the poem is heard, felt and seen at the same time.

This excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s ”Burnt Norton” has always stuck with me because of its uncanny description of the strange nature of dance, stillness and movement:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time. (Eliot 1943 [1936], 5)

The dance described in the poem is both in motion and still, of the body and somehow incorporeal at the same time. Eliot chose dance as the site of his transcendental experience, something that could not quite be reached through language. Since its initial publication in the era of Ballets Russes, Eliot’s poem has inspired many dancers and dance makers and become material for dance theorists as a reflection of the beginnings of modernism in dance. For me, it comes close to describing the paradoxical experience I spoke of earlier. Reading and re-reading it, I understand less but somehow know more.

Poetry in a process

This opaqueness, a kind of inexplicability that poetry has, can be both exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. With its lack of transparency, poetic writing stands in such clear opposition to the requirements of communication that we mostly face in our daily lives, both as artists and in the society in general. This, however, makes poetry the perfect place to practice a kind of personal artistry that is not limited to any specific project or production. For me, poetic writing can be a way of reflecting on the artistic processes that I engage with and also a way of checking in on my personal fantasies that exist outside of them. Often, questions such as ‘what excites me?’, ‘what kind of art would I like to see?’ or ‘what do I dream of?’ feel too general, navel-gazing and difficult to answer. When I write, I don’t think of these things, but often end up inadvertently answering them. So, besides being a way of practicing skills of perceiving and imagining, writing can also be a tool for reflection.

As a counterpoint to the ephemeral nature of dance, writing can also act as a way of leaving behind traces of a process that otherwise might leave very little ‘evidence’ behind. Poetic writing has often been for me as much a way of documenting, of re-calling and remembering, as it has been an act of producing language around the imaginary spaces of dance. Yet, a poetic document will always remain somewhat opaque, it will resist perfect transparency – it cannot be, nor does it attempt to be, a straightforward transcription of a process.

In several artistic processes, I have practiced a kind of ‘poetry of the performer’ by keeping a diary during the performance process. I think of it as a poetic dialogue with the artistic process, where I metabolise the elements of the performance into poems and reflect on my experience from within the piece. This is a way of creating a personal relationship with the piece, and also a means of getting a sense of personal dramaturgy and agency within it already from the beginning. This approach has been especially helpful in processes with large working groups and when the artistic content of the piece has felt difficult to approach as a performer. Through writing it is sometimes possible to grasp something intuitively interesting within the process, something that might have been impossible to come by or explain otherwise.

I kept this type of poetic diary during the process of the artistic part of my master’s thesis, the performance Their Limbs Their Lungs Their Legs (2019), and found the writing process especially helpful during the performance period and while touring the piece. The poems stemmed from different bodily states, experiences and intuitive imaginings that felt almost obvious at the time of writing, but returning to them later allowed me to recall the process and what had felt interesting to me as a performer during it. The experience of formulating the process into language that felt personal to me also helped with having a sense of meaning and purpose within the piece, which sometimes felt difficult during the rehearsals. I may not have had an artistic overview of the whole work, but I had a sense of individual agency, which allowed me to access the world of the piece and make proposals within it.

Artistic processes often start to create a kind of idiosyncratic language and way of communicating as the piece develops. This process of language creation is an organically emergent one: scenes, movement qualities, characters, pieces of scenography all acquire names and descriptions and, after a while, the shorthand is so fluent that no one can quite remember anymore where it all originated from. In processes where have kept a process diary quite consistently, there has been a sense of poetic recall, as I have been able to trace the language used in the present back to its roots. This has allowed me to regain something that had been there previously that might have gotten lost on the way, as the language of the rehearsals became more settled. The poetic scores that I explore in the second part of this thesis also had somewhat similar functions for me during the solo processes – they were texts that I could return to whenever I felt lost in the forest of all possible meanings. The actual words written down served almost as anchors for the dance that otherwise could have gone almost anywhere.

In some processes I have also experimented with different kinds of collective writing with the working group. When the act of writing moves from the personal sphere into a shared space, it transforms into a tool of collective imagination and world-making. Collective writing can be a great tool for mining the imaginative potential of the working group, even if the texts are not meant to be used in the artistic end product.

During the Words Make Worlds workshop already referenced earlier in this chapter, we wrote together in small groups on large pieces of paper. In silence, everyone could contribute as much or as little as they wanted, and soon each paper became a microcosm of words with its own internal logic and language. Later, during the performance of Nowhere in Particular (2018), Ana Teo Ala-Ruona’s artistic thesis work, that was created based on the texts written during the workshop, I still had a sense of being part of a collective that writes together, even though now we were speaking the words instead of writing them. The solidarity of sharing the space felt similar, the act of listening to others and speaking reminded me of carefully reading the traces left by different pens and pencils and writing in the gaps.

After describing my personal relationship with poetry as a performer, I will look at poetic texts more specifically through the lens of choreography, first shedding light on the topic of choreographic poetry, then exploring the idea of poetic translation as a method and mindset. I will touch on a few different ideas of dance and translation along the way and also bring up some choreographers working with poetic texts today.

Choreographic poetry

Asioita jotka kaatuvat: valo, vinosti huoneeseen.
Sääriluu, nilkan päältä hienona hiekkana.
Metallilla kiillotetut äänet jotka vihlovat ikenissä,
tuovat säätä sisään avoimesta ikkunasta,
satavat sylkeä.
Kerään kaiken syliin ja ripottelen itseeni,
revin hiuksenpäitä reitille mennessäni.
Palatessa: maa palaa.

These are the things that fall: light, diagonally into the room.
The shinbone, off the ankle in a fine powdery sand.
Metal-polished sounds that grate on the gums,
bringing the weather in through the open window,
raining spit.
I collect it all in my lap and sprinkle it inside,
pulling and scattering ends of my hair as I go.
Upon return: the ground burns.

(Kaila 4 December 2019)

When I speak of choreographic poetry, I refer to written scores for dance that are poetic in form and content, or poetic texts that become part of a dance performance in some way. Choreographic poetry, simply put, is poetry written to be translated into dance. It is a term I have used since 2015 to describe my own writings. Oxford Reference (2019) places the term in a music context: “An [orchestral] work designed for ballet but also self‐ sufficient because it has something of the quality and form of a tone‐poem, e.g. Ravel’s La Valse (1920), described on the score as poème choréographique.” Music is of course an art form which, much more than dance, has historically been connected to scores and notation systems. Against this backdrop, it is only natural that also the more experimental ways of working with scores emerged within music first, whereas “the very notion of notation is experimental to a contemporary dancer” (Lyster 2016).

Choreographer and poet Janne-Camilla Lyster proposes a subdivision of text-based scores for dance into two main categories: instructional scores and allusive scores{39} (Lyster 2016). Choreographic poems fit mainly into the latter category, as they do not use language explicitly to bring about a certain expression or execution, but instead utilise the poetic potential of language, allowing for heterogeneous readings and interpretations. Already at its conception, choreographic poetry presumes that an embodied translation will take place. While the translation creates a link between the poem and the performance, both can also exist separately, the poem there to be read and re-imagined separate from the dance, the dance becoming an entity of its own. As a performer, my interest lies especially in what takes place in the space between the two, the poetic translation that I will expand upon in the next chapter.

As scores written directly for the dancer, choreographic poems can act as a kind of clearing in a dense forest of all possible meanings and materialities, “framing a specific potential for the performer-reader to engage with” (Lyster 2016). The frame is important, but so is the emergent, imaginary potential within it, the gap between what is written and what it will evoke, what has already been imagined and what will be imagined next. There can be great autonomy in this kind of reading as performing, since every performer-reader has their own way of engaging with a text. The allusive score encourages this personal approach rather than attempts to achieve a consistent, uniform expression.

As a dancer, I have come into contact with a multitude of bodily techniques during my studies, in workshops and in my professional engagements, and these techniques all bring with them a certain history and a certain aesthetic tied to that history. Whenever I dance or place myself in a performance situation, all of these references are present, whether I acknowledge that they are or not. So as I speak of autonomy of interpretation, I don’t mean to suggest that through choreographic poetry (or through any other set of tools or techniques) we can somehow become completely ‘free’ of aesthetic references and histories or find an entirely ‘new’ expression, something that exists separate from the limitations of other practices. Choreographic poetry can, however, be one way of accessing the vast potential of different expressions already in our bodies. To quote Bojana Cvejić (2016):

…there is something to be learned from the situation in which artists seek out poetry to divorce their work from the aesthetic norms and economic contracts linked to their specific mediums. The upshot is an increase of uncertain, speculative, non-necessary (“abductive”) thought, as well as opaque and heteronomous expressions.

While scores for dance can take many forms, there are certain dance artists whose work with writing and dance I would see through the frame of choreographic poetry. Deborah Hay, American choreographer active in the Judson church and still today, is perhaps the most influential example of a choreographer working with poetic, text-based scores. For Hay, “editing language is editing choreography” (Lyster 2016). My own experience with dancing Hay’s choreographic poetry is from a workshop led by Vera Nevanlinna, Finnish dance artist who took part in Hay’s Solo Performance Commissioning Project in 2007. Performing the score, the dancer follows Hay’s intricately crafted ‘performance directives’, translating them through her own bodily imagination and curiosity. Questions of space, time and movement quality rise to the surface, and no answers are ever found. Humorous and absurdist at times, the text allows the performer to enter very specific physical and performative states through the use of poetic language alone.

Norwegian choreographer, author and poet Janne-Camilla Lyster has in her own work expanded the notions of choreographic poetry, formulating her way of writing and approaching literary scores for dance in her artistic research project at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. In 2014, Lyster also took part in Deborah Hay’s solo commissioning project, and she considers Hay’s work as informative to her own (Lyster 2016). Her book of choreographic poems titled Choreographic poetry was published in 2019 as part of her artistic research. I will elaborate further on her choreographic poetry and my performer’s approach to it in the chapter on LOVE I–III. Other artists that could be mentioned in relation to choreographic poetry are Eleanor Bauer, whose current project focuses on choreography as the melting of the words ‘dance together’ and ‘write’, and Mette Edvardsen, whose work is often entirely crafted with words yet still inhabits a distinctly choreographic space.

In 2008, choreographers Mette Ingvartsen and Alice Chauchat edited a collection of performance scores titled everybodys performance scores, which is free for anyone to download as a PDF online. The collection addresses “questions of notation, reproduction/interpretation, documentation, history and score independance [sic]” and “seeks to reveal different models and approaches to work.” (Ingvartsen 2008) By making the scores accessible to any and every body, the editors practice a politics of transparency and openness that is not always the most typical attribute of the field of performing arts. The questions of originality and source independence brought about through these kinds of open source platforms is an interesting one. In the next chapter, I will address the idea of translation as a tool for the performer and as a way of understanding the very nature of dance – a topic surrounded by similar questions about authorship, ownership and agency.

Poetic translations

Tulet tilaan toinen jalka toisen takana, toisenlaisena,
toinen maisema tiivistymässä tässä.
Tähän tilaan mahtuisi myös toisenlainen sana
kantaluun paksuinen, värisevä
vääränvärinen vääräsäärinen väreilevä

You step into the space sole after sole, singular,a separate scenery, solidifying here.
In this space another kind of word might fitheel bone thick, oscillatingoff-colour off-centre ondulating

(Kaila 18 November 2019)

Philosopher Jacques Rancière (2017, 126–127) writes in his book Modern Times, in the chapter titled ”The Moment of Dance”: “–– the performance of dance cannot be reduced solely to the performance of a moving body. Dance is not the origin of art. Instead, it is an art of translation”. In this chapter I will approach the work of the dancer as that of a translator, and explore what it might mean to view dance through this lens. Alongside Rancière’s complex theoretical writing and one example of a choreographer’s approach to translation as a method, I will bring up a work of fiction, written by speculative fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, as it deals with the idea of translation from a more poetic perspective.

What happens in a translation, when one thing turns into another? This has been a growing curiosity of mine since I began working with choreographic poetry and become more observant of the ways in which texts and embodied expressions relate to each other, and sometimes flow into each other. I have also worked as a translator of language between English and Finnish, and this work has undoubtedly imprinted upon the way I perceive artistic processes. Translation as moving between two spoken and written languages is quite different from translation as moving between two distinctly separate media – movement and text. However, as a method and as a mindset, there are perhaps some similarities as well.

To carry across, turn over, redirect – translation as a method

The word translate means literally to carry something across{40}. In Finnish and many other languages the word{41} can be literally translated into turning something over, or redirecting it. The translator embarks upon a contemplation on what contents, properties and qualities one chooses to bring with them when moving from one language to another, or from one medium to the next. It is not only representation and reproduction, not only mechanical matching that takes place in a translation. The translation creates a fold, and something new is created in that fold. In my experience this is true even when, for example, translating fairly technical texts from one language into another. In the previous chapter I spoke of a gap “between what is written and what it will evoke,” and this is precisely the site of translation, the place where the fold is created.

Why I find the word translate so poignant has to do with both the etymology of the word as explained above and also the immediate practical implications of it in terms of working with textual sources and choreographic poetry. To be able to translate, we must first grasp our source, it has to become known to us, even if this knowing is an intuition or a feeling of knowing. Then there needs to be a recognition in us, a sense of a way of carrying this source across into another form of expression of which we have intimate knowledge. In the process, some distance is bridged between the translator and what I have here called the source. The source, the ‘original’, becomes ours also in some way and never quite remains the same after it has been translated and transformed into something else.

Choreographer Jenni-Elina von Bagh describes the process of translation between philosophy and art in her written thesis, in the chapter “Translation freely interpreted as an artistic method.” Referencing the writings of Victoria Perez Royo, von Bagh describes the artistic process of translation as “a mixture of both respect and non-respect for the original” (von Bagh 2018, 16). Perez Royo uses the term ‘perversion’ – a term that plays with the words ‘version’ and ’per-version’ – to highlight the subjectivity and individuality of each reading and, by extension, each translation (Perez Royo according to von Bagh 2018, 15). Earlier I spoke of a fold between the source and the translation, the site where something new is created, and perhaps this could be thought of as the place of perversion.

Translation as a way of working has an inherent affinity for a kind of decentralised agency – “a rigorous consciousness of a play between ownership and not ownership” (von Bagh 2018, 16). This is something I have often experienced in practice as a performer, especially when working with texts written by others, or when I have brought my own texts, thoughts or choreographic ideas into a process, and then seen them transform into something else entirely. “The act of translation is something that clearly changes and shakes the stability of a concept of original overall” (von Bagh 2018, 16). Through translation, the work of the artist becomes a series of transformations, a paradoxical process of seeking connection to the source/original and perverting that source/original at the same time.

Speaking of paradoxes, I recognise that it is also somewhat paradoxical to speak of translation when addressing the fold between language and dance. The two media are so inherently different and so specific, and to lose this specificity would not serve either one. There will always be uncertainty in a translation between text and movement, and to allow it, to rejoice in the complexity of this fold that has appeared, is part of what draws me to work with writing as a dancer. The untranslatability of the translation creates a friction, and friction is often what is intriguing in art. It is embedded in the nature of dance that there is not really a point where the dance is ready, and so the translation takes on a quality of continuous reshaping and reconfiguration. The fold between what is written and what is danced keeps shifting, revealing to us the inconstancy that is inherent in all communication.

Translation in “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”

This thinking about translation is what brings me to the fiction of author Ursula Le Guin. In her short piece of fiction writing “’The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics”{42} we are introduced to the fascinating world of therolinguistics, of researchers deciphering and attempting to translate the kinetic texts of ants, dolphins and penguins. At the end of the text, the president of the ‘Therolinguistic Association’ imagines the broadening of the linguistic sphere even further, to the phytolinguists able to read Eggplant and to the first geolinguist, who

ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space (Le Guin 1974).

In the short span of a few pages, Le Guin masterfully, and with great humor, expands our notion of language and brings to the forefront both the immense difficulty and the importance of translation. Her researchers are fully invested, investigative and empathetic – they want to understand, with their limited human capabilities, the words spoken by bodies so different from their own. A parallel to dance is also drawn, with the ballet translation of the Adélie penguins’ kinetic text garnering much admiration from one therolinguist researcher:

No verbal rendering can approach the felicity of Miss Serebryakova’s version. For, quite simply, there is no way to reproduce in writing the all-important multiplicity of the original text, so beautifully rendered by the full chorus of the Leningrad Ballet company. (Le Guin 1974)

It is interesting, and perhaps significant, that one of the most nuanced understandings of translation that I have come across comes in the form of a piece of speculative fiction writing. There is something fascinating also in the idea of a text that is impossible to reproduce in writing, a text containing multiplicity in a way that only a ‘chorus’ of bodies can translate and embody – a choreographic poem if there ever was one.

The word interpretation could perhaps be inserted in the place of translation, but I would argue that there is a subtle difference between the two, even though sometimes they are used almost interchangeably. Interpretation is literally ‘the action of explaining the meaning of something,’ whereas translation leaves more open the meaning of what is being communicated. Interpretation sets itself immediately at a distance from what is being interpreted, and reduces the complexity of possible meanings to something more straightforward, an explanation.

Dance as translation

For Jacques Rancière, the idea of dance-as-translation expands into a larger philosophical frame – the very nature of dance as an art of translation gives, to Rancière, its paradigmatic function. He writes, in the book Modern Times (2017) already quoted at the beginning of this chapter, about the double movement of translation happening in dance. Rancière argues that this is what gives dance its paradigmatic nature, challenging the idea (of Jean-Luc Nancy and Alain Badiou for example) that dance is “the origin of art,” a kind of pure movement capable of returning us to a root of some kind. He describes the modernist film A Man with a Movie Camera (1929), by Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, in which three ballerinas come in towards the end, superimposed on a montage of images (factory workers, machinery) and with their dance provide a kind of translation of the film, spinning in circles. Rancière writes about dance as the art of translation:

… a translation is not a transmission of movement. Mallarmé reminds us of the difference. Between the performance of the artist and the translation of the spectator there is a gap. Dance is not the movement which produces another movement. It is a singular synthesis of sensible states which requires, from the part of the spectator, another synthesis. This relation has no proper language. It is expressed in the form of a chiasm: there is the movement of the body and there is the reverie which tries to bridge the gap by inventing an equivalent of this movement. It has to do so because the movement itself is divided. This is what is meant by the provocative Mallarmean statement that the dancer “does not dance”. Instead, she writes. (Rancière 2017, 120–121)

Synthesis following synthesis, translation following translation, per-version following version. If I try to relate as a dancer to what Rancière is laying out here as a theorist (and very much as a writer), I start to recognise the multilayered quality of performing dance, the impossibility of distilling its happening into a single sentence. The site of dance, like the site of translation, is in many places at once – in the body of the dancer, in the space and in the relations between the bodies on stage and the bodies off-stage. It is in the past and it is in the present, and in the future, in the “text still to be written, in another language, by those who look at it” (Rancière 2017, 122). The concrete actions of a dancer, an arm lifting and a leg twisting, are part of the dance, but it would be essentialist to say that they are the dance. Instead, dance is the whole web of relations, syntheses, perversions and translations, occurring at once. The “movement itself is divided” – it does and does not belong to the dancer, is and is not of the dancer. Here, the decentralised nature of translation comes into play again.

So what of the concrete implications of thinking about the whole art of dance as an art of translation? For me the thought feels like an intuitive extension of what I have already tentatively been exploring before. The idea of something so inextricably linked to my physical body being also inherently in a state of constant transformation and not entirely belonging to me is oddly intriguing. Whereas von Bagh spoke of the choreographer’s translation between theoretical discourse and a work of art, and Rancière refers to the spectator’s translation of the dancer’s writing, I am, by virtue of my professional position, interested also in the ‘microlevel’ translations occurring on the scale of an individual performer. Besides happening between a poetic text and the body, this can also happen in many different ways during a rehearsal process. Translation deals with the ‘how’ of taking part in an artistic process. How do I take something, whether it be an instruction, a prompt, a text, an object or a piece of music, and translate, turn it into a performative act?


(38) For Gaston Bachelard, “the poetic function is to give a new form to the world which poetically exists only if it is unceasingly reimagined” (Bachelard according to Kaplan 1972, 3).

(39) This concept also originates within the field of music. Writing about allusive scores, Virginia Anderson quotes Mirjana Veselinović-Hofman “on that such scores can attain intrinsic value and become independent artworks through their philosophical, literary or poetic content/form; thereby become free of their possible and expected musical fulfilment/realization.” (Anderson according to Lyster 2016)

(40) Trans: across, beyond; Latus: carried, borne (OED 25 October 2019).

(41) In Finnish: kääntää, in Swedish: översätta.

(42) I encountered this text in the process of the performance Their Limbs Their Lungs Their Legs, where it was introduced early on by our dramaturg.


Ala-Ruona, Ana Teo. 2018. “Words Make Worlds” workshop. Personal notes. Helsinki: Theatre Academy.

Cixous, Hélène. 1976 [1975]. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Translated by Paula Cohen and Keith Cohen. Signs 1(4): 875–893. The University of Chicago Press.

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Cvejić, Bojana. 2018a. “Towards a Poetics of Imagination: On Mette Edvardsen’s poetry and its penchant to imagine a clandestine side to things.” Published online by Etcetera. Accessed 30 November 2019.

Cvejić, Bojana. 2018b. “Imagining and Feigning.” Movement Research Performance Journal 51(1): 36–47.

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Ingvartsen, Mette. 2008. In everybodys performance scores. Editors Alice Chauchat and Mette Ingvartsen. Accessed 25 January 2020.

Kaila, Anni. 2019. Poems. “Kirjoitusasento”, “Writing position” 22 October. “Louhos”, “The Quarry” 5 November. “Asioita jotka kaatuvat”, “Things that fall” 4 December. “Käännös”, “Translation.” 18 November.

Kaplan, Edward K. 1972. ”Gaston Bachelard’s Philosophy of Imagination: An Introduction.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 33(1): 1–24.

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Ranciére, Jacques. 2017. “The Moment of Dance.” In Modern Times. Multimedijalni institut: Zagreb, 100–127.

von Bagh, Jenni-Elina. 2018. “Translation freely interpreted as an artistic method.” In Choreographing in nomadic traces. Written thesis, MA in Choreography. Helsinki: Theatre Academy at Uniarts Helsinki, 15–19.

Anni Kaila

Anni Kaila on helsinkiläinen tanssitaiteilija, joka työskentelee usein tekstin ja runouden kanssa ja nauttii poikkitaiteellisesta yhteistyöstä. Hän on työskennellyt tanssijana useissa eri kokoonpanoissa esimerkiksi Itävallassa, Tanskassa, Hollannissa ja Saksassa. Tällä hetkellä Anni asuu ja työskentelee Helsingissä ja on kiinnostunut monipuolisesta esiintyjäntyöstä sekä kirjoittamisen ja kielen mahdollisuuksien tutkimisesta ruumiillisissa prosesseissa. Esiintyjänä ja kirjoittajana häntä kiehtovat ruumiin ja tilan poetiikka, erilaisten ympäristöjen ja materioiden kanssa toimiminen sekä mytologisen ja arkisen aineksen törmäyskohdat. Ennen tanssijantaiteen maisteriopintojaan Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulussa Anni suoritti tanssitaiteen kandidaatin opintonsa Amsterdam School of the Artsissa. Hän työskentelee myös kielenkääntäjänä.