From a layperson’s point of view, Kekäläinen’s artistic practice approaches romantic and sublime ideals: she is one of the greats.
From Kekäläinen’s own point of view, the work of an artist is much more banal and profane: “I don’t mystify the life of the artist and I don’t consider it to be eccentric compared to other modes of existence. I made the decision to pursue this path in life so early on that it has been carved deep in my identity”, she explains. But even if she understands art as one vocation among others, it is apparently possible only through extraordinary effort. “It’s a difficult line of work, in which you have to bear a great deal of uncertainty,” she says. “But I don’t feel that it amounts to a threat or a gamble, not really.”
And yet my respect for Kekäläinen’s work has a lot to do with this courage. In her view, “it also depends what world a person has been born into. You have to be crazy enough and rational enough. You have to be vulnerable, and also to have had enough positive experiences. There kind of has to be this damned psychological contradiction in a human being before art can happen.” In the 1980s Kekälälinen studied at the London School of Contemporary Dance. In 1986 she helped to found Zodiak Presents, now the Zodiak-Center for New Dance in Helsinki. In 1996 she founded K&C Kekäläinen & Company, which she still directs.
Belonging as she did to the early pioneers of contemporary dance and performance, Kekäläinen hasn’t had it easy. From her “Studies on Hysteria” (1991) into the 2000s Sanna Kekäläinen’s works met with consternation and were rejected, for instance, by a Helsinki newspaper claiming to be the largest daily in northern Europe. In the last few years, this has changed. No one doubts Kekäläinen’s work or her significance any longer. “I emphasise meanings and the construction of meanings, that which can be shown or furthered through art. It’s a way of taking a position on the course of the world”, she explains. “Ever since my youth I’ve been asking myself how I could say something, share something. I’ve witnessed wrongs and injustices. And I want to intervene. ‘No compromises’ is not something that I think, it’s inborn.”
A life devoted to art needs courage, including on the part of Maija Karhunen, who dances in “Hafed Collage Of Differences and Fragility”. Even today, there is a prevailing (even if only latent) idea of how a dancer’s body should look. Throughout her career, Karhunen has worked against this normativity – or simply ignored it. “As far as disability is concerned, what’s important to me is that I can be quiet or loud, interested or disinterested, depending on how I feel,” she says. “What’s important, then, is to trust yourself, to be stubborn in the face of norms and expectations. Doing something differently can open up new paths. When you return, when you appear again and again on the stage, the observation of a body that doesn’t correspond to the norms can have a less disconcerting effect. Every artwork creates its own universe, and the fact that as a dancer I lack the ability to walk is mostly completely unimportant,” says Karhunen.
The question to what extent a body is political is an important component of her artistic work. “For the spectator, the body of a disabled woman is of course a screen onto which an unbelievable multitude of things can be projected. My own body can become a stand-in for other disabled women’s bodies. In my view, the political character is linked to how a dancer presents herself, instead of simply becoming the ‘material’ of the choreography.”