We are here today to discuss and evaluate the doctoral research that I have conducted and titled Living Transformative Lives: Finnish Freelance Dance Artists Brought into Dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology. The dissertation presents a phenomenological exposition of the nature of being a contemporary freelance dance artist. It approaches this task by interpreting interview material, which was created in collaboration with four Finnish contemporary freelance dance artists, mainly through the thinking of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In addition, the dissertation enters into conversation with previous phenomenological research on dance while considering it an additional source of interpretation. In addressing the interview material through this phenomenological framework, Living Transformative Lives illuminates experiential issues related to being a freelance dance artist, the artistic practices freelance dance artists in their everyday lives engage in, as well as delineates some of the constitutive structures of their life-worlds. Hence, the dissertation both depicts the concrete nature of the life of a freelance dance artist and provides an analysis of some of the conditions that frame the manner in which being a freelance dance artist has recently been realized.
This research was spurred by my own experiences of being a freelance dance artist. Before beginning my doctoral studies, I was very committed to working as a performing dancer. I investigated bodily motion and dance expression rather intensely. But I also found that being a freelance dance artist was a complex and taxing occupation not only because of physical work. In my view, the versatile nature of contemporary dance and the manner in which the freelance field of dance in Helsinki functioned were something that influenced the lives of freelance dance artists in important ways. However, according to my observations, in addition to their relation to bodily work, each dance artist addressed these issues in somewhat different ways. I believed that looking into these questions more profoundly, while benefiting my own understanding of my profession, might bring forth some issues that the general discussion concerning dance artists and the field of freelance dance in Finland had not focused upon.
Even if the course and purpose of the research is in this manner influenced by my personal experience and curiosity, I was not merely interested with my subjective experience and own perspective of being a freelance dance artist. As this dissertation argues, freelance dance artists approach their profession in quite a reflective and reflexive way. Through their professional activities they are involved in a practice of self-examination and intensely question their relation to their shifting life-circumstances and the environment in which they live. This is something I believe that I engaged in with my actual dance work, too. Thus in my doctoral work, instead of directly looking into my own experiences and views, I wanted to broaden my understanding of what being a freelance dance artist means by discussing it with other such dance artists. Like Susan Stinson and Karen Anijar, I believed that by talking with other dance artists I would have a chance to view “the world through someone else’s eyes” and thus to possibly see a different world, expanding the cognitive structures or lenses of my perception (Stinson & Anijar 1993, 57). Through my experience I had also come to know dance artists as communicative beings, who attempt to illuminate and understand their lives as dance artists not only through the concrete practices of dance but also through describing and contemplating them while conversing with each other. Thus I became interested in understanding what it means to be a contemporary freelance dance artist and elucidating those issues that come to structure the lives of such dance artists through analyzing and interpreting the meanings they themselves give to their experiences as artists.
With this purpose in mind, during the initial phases of the investigation I conducted semistructured, thematically-directed but still open-ended, interviews addressing the life-worlds of a few Finnish freelance dance artists. What is implied with the term ‘life-world’ in this research are the concrete experiences, meanings, values, and practices an individual’s everyday life is formed out of. At the time when the interviews were conducted, during the fall of 1995 and spring of 1996, the interviewed dance artists, in turn, mainly worked with contemporary dance in the area of Helsinki. They were in their early or mid careers and had established themselves as known and respected artists at least inside the field itself. The semistructured interviews were face-to-face verbal interchanges with individual artists. They aimed to gain descriptions and interpretations of the life-worlds the interviewed dance artists lived in through given themes of discussion that I, with my experience of being a freelance dance artist, thought to be germane to the conversation. But they were open-ended in the sense that the interviewees could discuss these themes from their own perspective and take the conversation into areas that I had not anticipated. I found these kinds of interviews to be an efficient means of initiating and facilitating conversation with the dance artists interviewed.
As mentioned earlier, to interpret the interview material I chose as the study’s theoretical framework the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and those phenomenological dance studies, which I found to be concerned with phenomenology in a clearly philosophical sense. In general, phenomenology could be determined as a philosophical style of thinking that attempts to clarify how different phenomena become evident to us through our consciousness or, in other words, experiences of them. Through this task it attempts to scrutinize the constitution of our reality. In his philosophical work, Merleau-Ponty explored perception, embodiment and the intertwining of the subject with others and the world in detail. He was especially interested in how the dimension of pre-reflective or lived experience influences our perception and understanding. And for example, Elizabeth Grosz praises the applicability of Merleau-Ponty’s theories to research connected with the body and experience by arguing that he presents lived experiences as something to be taken seriously. In this sense, unlike much of western philosophy, his philosophy has immediate relevance to everyday life. He also shows that experience is both active and passive: it plays a role in both instilling and subverting sociopolitical values. And finally she points to the fact that Merleau-Ponty demonstrates experience to always be embodied. It is located in the incarnation of the subject and is still entwined with the socio-cultural world. (Grosz 1999, 148–150.) In addition to these points, which emphasize the experiential, embodied and cultural features of a subject, in my view, the descriptions Merleau-Ponty gives to the motility of the body and its significance for human life are central to the issues discussed by the interviewed freelance dance artists. He also clarifies intersubjectivity, ethical communication and the historical evolvement of the socio-cultural dimensions of our world in a manner that was helpful in interpreting the interview material.
In fact, while familiarizing myself with dance research when doing my doctoral study, it became evident to me that the utilization of phenomenology in general, and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology in particular in dance studies, has so far proven to be the most consistent perspective through which the dancers’ or dance artists’ experiences and life-worlds have been investigated. The studies belonging to this domain mostly attempt take as the starting point of their discussion the concrete experiences dancers have of dancing and being dance artists. Hence, in addition to Merleau-Ponty’s theory I found them to be an appropriate theoretical source with which to address the meanings the interviewees gave to their experiences as freelance dance artists and to gain understanding of their life-worlds.
The first phenomenological study of dance was completed in 1963 by Maxine Sheets-Johnstone. Since then there has been a gradually growing interest in phenomenology by dance scholars. To date, phenomenological dance studies have presented various, albeit not thorough, interpretations of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. In fact, so far only two phenomenological dance studies As Vision Becomes Gesture completed in 1994 by Susan Kozel and Bodies Moving and Moved completed in 1998 by Jaana Parviainen have made a concentrated reading of some of the basic aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. While reading Merleau-Ponty’s texts in relation to the interview material I found that his phenomenology still involved notions that dance studies had not addressed and that were germane to understanding some of the concrete practices dance artists engage in. I also interpreted some parts of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking in different ways from previous dance studies. For this reason and the fact that the interview material itself contained a multiplicity of themes and topics which required a rather thorough overview of his work in order to interpreted through its perspective, the dissertation first introduces the basic tenets of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking before directly interpreting the interview material.
In relation to the phenomenological approach utilized in this dissertation, it could also be mentioned that in dance studies two different phenomenological approaches have been used: On the one hand, the thinking of various phenomenological philosophers has been applied to analyze and clarify issues related to dance, dancing and the dancing subject. Examples of this category are Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s, Sondra Fraleigh’s, Susan Kozel’s and Jaana Parviainen’s work which this dissertation discusses. One the other hand, phenomenological research on dance has also been concerned with describing dance experiences through an approach more closely related to qualitative phenomenological research or phenomenological psychology. The aim of this latter approach is to describe different experiences from a first-person perspective and through these descriptions to analyze and interpret personal and subjective engagement with dance. This research is linked to both approaches. It presents and interprets the particularities of the accounts given in the interviews, which could be viewed to offer a first-person perspective on issues related to being a freelance dance artist. However, as its main task it places the interview material in dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and other phenomenological sources, while interpreting different issues related to being a freelance dance artist and attempting to arrive at the more general constitutive elements of the life-worlds of freelance dance artists.
In placing the phenomenological framework and the interview material in dialogue, I relied on a hermeneutical-phenomenological approach while interpreting their interrelations. In it understanding and interpretation are considered to be conditioned by the pre-comprehension of the researcher and the features that the researched objects reveal. In attempting to gain explicit understanding of the investigated object, the researcher enters a chain of interpretations in which each subsequent phase forms the context through which the next phase of interpretation takes place. As the interpretative investigation proceeds it reveals more and more of the investigated object or subject matter and simultaneously moves the researcher towards new understanding. During the course of interpretation, the pre-understanding of the researcher as well as the position she or he holds in relation to investigated object changes. And what is considered to be the end product of an interpretative inquiry is actually an explication of the pre-understanding the researcher has on a considered subject. Therefore, it could be said that in this research my understanding and the meanings and conceptions the interview material and the theoretical framework present became qualified and extended by each other. While this dissertation presents a phenomenological exposition of the nature of being a freelance dance artist it simultaneously presents my self-understanding concerning this issue instead of aiming to arrive at the understanding the interviewees had of their experiences themselves.
In the end, while bringing the interview material and the phenomenological framework together, the research arrives at the conclusion that the life paths of freelance dance artists pivot especially around issues concerning the field of dance they work in, the artistic roles they enact and the consequent activity they engage in, the work they do with their bodies, as well as the experiences and understanding they gain of themselves through their dance tasks. The field of dance the freelance dance artists work in is described as a constitutive space providing them with a sphere of relative freedom in which customs and circumstances both enable and constrain their dance activities. For freelance dance artists the constraints that the field offers, most particularly the lack of social recognition and financial support, are of heightened concern making them struggle and question the manner in which they approach their profession. This research illustrates that freelance dance artists work with dance through a variety of different kinds of dance related tasks and consequent professional roles. Typically, freelance dance artists enact the different roles of a dancer, a choreographer, and a dance teacher. In discussing the concrete means through which the interviewed dance artists approach embodying dance the research shows that dance artists receive pleasure from their work and that this motivates them to attend to their bodies and tasks in certain ways. They strive after what in this study has been termed ‘an integrated motional style of being’ in which motion becomes determinative of their whole existence while they dance. However, it also shows that dance artists are intensely committed to their work and attend to it and their bodies in an unwavering manner. This they are and do so much so that their engagement with dance directs the entire mode of their lives. Finally, the research also addresses the manner in which freelance dance artists relate to themselves as dance artists. Dance work for them is a mode of self-realization, something in which they can experience more of themselves and understand themselves better. Being especially freelance dance artists offers them the liberty to direct their careers more particularly towards this end. Despite the economic difficulties, they appreciate the freedom that inheres to freelance work, since it enables them to make the kinds of artistic choices and questions that they find to resonate with their individual relation to the world.
The main constitutive elements of the life-world of a freelance dance artist that the interview material then points towards are 1) the heritage of contemporary dance, 2) the field of freelance dance, 3) the artistic roles, 4) the dance work/embodying dance, and 5) the self of a freelance dance artist. According to the perspective of this research, these are some of the basic relational dimensions influencing the manner in which being a freelance dance artist is realized. However, the interviewees question features related to each of these elements and point towards the fact that they are not something rigid. To freelance dance artists they are interrelated spheres of exploration in which they search for new ways of constructing and performing dance as well as new ways of relating to their life-situations, the people they work with, themselves and their bodies’. In short, they all are spheres of transformation through which a freelance dance artist’s artistic and professional goals become realized. In the end the research shows that freelance dance artists probe into all these dimensions related to their artistic lives and that they are in a process of artistic becoming that engulfs their total being.
In closing, I would still like to point out that in the sphere of western theatrical dance there are a plethora of biographies and interviews with dance artists available but very little detailed exploration of the dance artists’ experiences of their everyday lives and the choreographic process with rehearsals and performing (cf. Risner 2000). This is the case even more so in the context of Finnish dance art and in relation to Finnish dance artists dealing with contemporary dance. Here modern and contemporary dance have only found a strong footing during the last few decades and scholarly writing on dance has only truly begun to emerge even more recently. Therefore, so far the life and work of contemporary dance artists in Finland have hardly been investigated at all. Even if much of the analysis found in this dissertation attempts to generalize issues, relies on transnational concepts of phenomenology, and relates to international studies of western theatrical dance, the point of departure is still the local experiences and opinions of Finnish dance artists. Therefore, to some degree, this dissertation offers a situation- or context-specific account of the meanings and values related to the practices of contemporary dance. Consequently, in addition to supplementing the emergent tradition of phenomenological research on dance, this dissertation also makes a contribution to understanding the actual lives of dance artists and contemporary dance through a Finnish perspective and fills a gap in research into Finnish dance art and dance artists.
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