When you don’t conform to bodily norms on stage

NEWS
Inka Reijonen, 12.10.2017

Maija Karhunen is known as a writer and the editor in chief of Liikekieli.com, Finnish online magazine about dance art. She is also a dancer whose body doesn’t correspond to the normative expectations on stage. In August, she performed at the Tanz im August festival in Sanna Kekäläinen's piece.

Maija Karhunen performed at the Tanz im August festival in Sanna Kekäläinen’s piece Hafed Collage of Differences and Fragility. @ Lilja Lehmuskallio.

Karhunen is also physically disabled: she has a congenital disease that affects bone fragility and she is a person of short stature. Normally she moves with a wheelchair.

It feels unfair to even mention this. However, bodies that differ from the normative idea of a body are still rare on stage.

“Dance and performing arts are obviously challenging when it comes to bodily norms. If I were a novelist, it would be different for sure. For example, as for me, the opportunity for higher education in dance isn’t something taken for granted,” Karhunen states.

Dancer’s body is often personal. Through the body dancer delivers meanings on the stage and is part of the aesthetics of the piece. And especially when that body doesn’t correspond to the norm it becomes political. Disablement seems still to be a statement on the stage.

“Sometimes it feels that for some audience members I’m a screen onto which things are projected – emancipation, politics of diversity, whatever one wants to see in a performance.”

Karhunen finds it important that there are diverse bodies on stage – that way the normativity is called into question.

Every artwork creates its own universe, and the fact that as a dancer I lack the ability to walk is mostly completely unimportant.

“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 in an interview by Olli Ahlroos.

Returning on the stage in several productions has boosted her self-confidence.

“The more I have danced and performed the more I respect my own body and movement. Now I feel that there is a value in what I do. And I feel emancipated and stronger as a performer.”

Against classifications

According to Karhunen, through writing one is able to spread the idea of diversity in the dance art and open different approaches to the piece. “Writing is also a good way to approach people and stay open and curious for different ways of thinking.”

She started dancing in the circles of so called integrated dance where disabled find their own ways to move with non-disabled persons. However, Karhunen doesn’t believe in classifications – that in some places you can act as a disabled person and in some others not.

Maija Karhunen and Maija Hirvanen in the piece Epic Failing. @ Aki-Pekka Sinikoski.

During the last two years she has worked and performed as a dance artist in recognized dance pieces: Hafed Collage of Differences and Fragility (2016) and Studien über Hysterie Zwei (2017) by Sanna Kekäläinen and Epic Failing (2015) by Maija Hirvanen.

When you don’t correspond to the standard and norms, you may end up doing things differently and walking your own path.

Disability has made her braver and more self confident. “When you don’t correspond to the standard and norms, you may end up doing things differently and walking your own path.”

But, what Karhunen wants to say with her art:

“Personal and intimate relationship with your body, how we cope with all the expectations and norms and how we can be and interact on the stage, are always on my mind.”