Expectations & Desires: Steinunn Ketilsdóttir Discusses The Practice Performed

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The Practice Performed 150621 by Sigga Ella

In the world of dance, expectations have a tendency to rule everything around. Whether it be from educators, choreographers, audiences or performers themselves, it’s not always easy to let go to following your desires. This is the idea that has fuelled Steinunn Ketilsdóttir’s research since 2017, which she has now developed into the live context, as an ongoing series titled The Practice Performed. Stemming from her project ‘Expressions: the Power and Politics of Expectations in Dance’, she has been working for four years to develop a method to create material based in the idea of how expectations affect the way one chooses to move in different scenarios. Through writing, talking, moving, hosting round table discussions and engaging with audiences, she and the group she’s been working with have been developing the physical practice and ideology to put the practice onstage. What is resulting from this work is a piece that is an improvised work — the dramaturgy, the dancing, the music and the lighting all happen in real time. Each performance gets its own kennitala (Icelandic ID number) and is a one time only ephemera where each time, the performers get to question how expectations affect them, and make choices based on them and their desires. Steinunn sat down with us in Dansverkstæðið, along with her infant daughter, to talk more about the process of performing the practice.

When you talk about expectations, what are the driving forces behind what build them for you?

 

I think it’s a lot of things and they’re different from person to person. It all started when I was doing my final MA project. I was supposed to write an artist’s statement and I wrote just the way I write. I write a lot through the work that I do. And the feedback I got was like, oh this is not an artist’s statement it should look more like this, you know. It didn’t fulfil the expectations of academia. I was just doing an artistic project and this was the way I wanted to write about it and it just really annoyed me and I kind of went into this rebellious mode and I was like, fuck you I’m just gonna write the artist’s statement that I wanna write. Then I put it in the piece and it ended up being an eight-minute very chaotic and abstract text about what I’m doing as an artist. Through my studies at NYU I really met this expectation of academia and this idea came to life then. I think I’ve always been struggling with expectations of society, of my own as a dancer—am I thin enough, am I flexible enough, can I lift my leg high enough, can I turn enough? I should be moving, I should be sweating, I should be applying for funding and working for two months and then have x amount of shows… All of that creates pressure on yourself and you step into this structure that’s been created and you just continue what’s already there instead of breaking it.

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The Practice Performed 150621 by Sigga Ella

Instead of setting your own pattern. It starts to become a chore.

 

Like you’re only successful if you do this, this and this. You’re not successful if you go another way. Sometimes you can’t even think of the other way because the expectations are so embedded in the structures we exist in. Funding structures, academia, networks, practice, composition, the history that we stand upon. All these expectations that have been created throughout the centuries. Our work is not necessarily about throwing them all away, saying fuck you to all of them, and then starting where? This is our history and let’s become aware of it. I think the awareness is what we’re constantly trying to access in the practices. The practices are really about tuning into yourself and tuning into listening to your own desires. The other side of the coin for me is like what you’re expected to do and then your desires. Desire plays such a big role in what we do so we maybe even talk more about that. We’re constantly trying to access our desires.

 

So through the understanding of all the structures and history and expectations can it be sort of a pathway to lead to greater understandings of desire?

 

Yeah, and noticing in the practice or in the work, going with your desire or going with what’s expected and just exploring that.

 

Like doing what’s expected as a conscious decision?

 

Yeah, exactly. So the consciousness and the awareness of the audience of the expectation, if you do it on your own terms then you take the power back and you change from within. You’re not a slave to the structure or to the expectations or to the history, you’re acknowledging it, it’s there. You’re like, “they want me to kick my legs, so I’ll kick my legs!”

 

How are you going about this now in your sessions?

 

Sometimes I feel like we talk more and move less. It depends on days. So it’s four different practices and we do them individually and then we do them all together and we combine them. Usually we dive into one, for instance, and then we write in our books and then we have a talk.

About what you experienced and what came up?

 

Yeah. We share things. I feel like by talking about it, not just doing, but the actual act of putting it into words makes it more… I don’t wanna say valuable but it makes it more valid. There is some kind of validation when you put things in words. And that’s also what dancers struggle with a lot of the time is validation because all the knowledge that you have is in your body and you are not necessarily trained to talk about it or write about it or put it into words. It’s not necessarily something that’s trained in school. I think it’s different now.

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The Practice Performed 150621 by Sigga Ella

It seems like such a multifaceted but integrated process.

 

In the beginning we talked a lot about the project being rhizomatic. It has all these connections to different things. I also had to come to terms with the fact that it’s a chaotic project. It’s complex and we’re not just making a piece. We’re doing more. We’re creating a practice, we’re creating a language, we’re creating knowledge. We are talking with the community and sharing what we’re doing.

 

And creating identities, with each presentation having an identity of its own, but then you’re applying it in these different contexts.

 

I kind of love to be doing it. Especially now in covid times, doing The Practice Performed is easier because it’s more organic and flexible to work with it. If there’s a dancer missing, it’s fine. If someone has to go to quarantine or has to get a test and can’t make it, it’s fine. It’s supposed to be adaptable and you’re supposed to react to whatever is there. So in a way doing this work now makes perfect sense to me and it feels like we’re diving into the uncertainty that we’ve been living in for the past year.

 

In a way it comes back to expectations. Because the covid situation has thrown out much of what we can expect of the world and society and then rehearsals and performance, it almost creates a space that’s almost beneficial to this work?

 

Absolutely. I really had to remind myself when I was going into this process now like, “wow, okay where did we come from?” What’s the core of this project? What is it that we’re dealing with? Why do I have this image in my mind that, yes rehearsal everyone has to be there from nine to four and we have to rehearse every day and show up and then we have to premiere… and then I was like, “whoa Steinunn, let go.” That’s what the project is about is to be open and noticing how these things are affecting you and reacting on it. Also being generous with yourself and your time, and forgiving and being human and knowing that different days, different people, different times call for different things. We talk about that also in the work. One day your body might need this and the next day it might need something completely different, and noticing that for yourself, going on that journey for yourself.

You can’t really leave your personal life behind.

 

You can tell people to leave it at the door but I don’t think you can. Some people think that’s so professional that you can leave your personal life at home or whatever. I mean, my reality is now I have to bring her to work [referring to her infant daughter]. This is a journey for both of us. And being okay with that.

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The Practice Performed 150621 by Sigga Ella

Aside from the obvious hurdles of covid life, has anything unexpected come up for you through this process of doing the practice?

 

If I think about the whole journey since I started this research project four years ago, what I’ve had to deal with is, the unexpected part of it was life basically. Life happened to all of us. People have their lives and I have my life and you constantly have to deal with that. Not in a negative way, but being aware and being respectful of the fact that things come up for a lot of people. There’s so much that happens. Even if you plan to be very ready for the unexpected, somehow you are still surprised.

 

You get comfortable and when unexpected things happen it’s still shocking.

 

How can you train yourself to be open enough. I don’t know if you can. You just learn how to deal with it. It’s really hard work. I surprise myself all the time. I think a lot of the time it’s also about being really honest with yourself. It’s been a lot of self-work. If we just go back to the piece, it’s like we’re gonna train ourselves as much as we can to stay true to the moment and listen to whatever’s there each time. But then once we get onstage and we meet the audience and we meet the energy.

How is that gonna change.

 

It’s a performance. We don’t know what’s gonna happen. It’s something you can’t control. Maybe you can control it more when you have a very set piece and you know what it is, you’re just delivering. Then you almost take out the expectation of the audience or the audience’s energy when you are just delivering. It’s like, I’m just gonna deliver and show you and we know what it is. Versus what we’re doing where we come in and the energy of the audience, we invite it in, and it’s gonna affect us in one way or another. Our choices and what we do.

 

It can’t not. Having that audience energy could prove to be a positive thing too.

 

Yeah, definitely. But I’m not sure we can ever be just completely masters of it.

 

It sounds like the kind of practice that doesn’t need to be mastered though.

 

And also being okay with the fact that it’s never gonna be the same, it might be messy and it might be bad. We might do a show that’s not great. It’s very likely [laughs.] And just being okay with the fact that that’s gonna happen.

 

Being like, okay move on. What next.

 

There’s another thing I remember my teacher in New York saying: “sensation is seductive.” Looking for the same sensation, like “that felt so good, let’s try to do that again.” It’s seductive, but then trying to look for the same feeling that you felt yesterday and then it doesn’t feel the same today, it’s because you have to access it from where you are. Where are you today? What feels good today? Don’t try to go for what was good yesterday.

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The Practice Performed 150621 by Sigga Ella