Choreographer Mikko Orpana: “Dancers have a lot to give to the creation process of performances”

How is a dance performance created without a predetermined choreography? This is what Mikko Orpana examines in his doctoral thesis.

Mikko Orpana graduated from the Theatre Academy in 1999, and he has worked as a choreographer and dancer already for over 20 years. The idea to pursue doctoral studies came up when Orpana acknowledged his desire to renew his artistic practice. “I began to grow tired of creating choreography purely on the basis of my own ideas and aesthetic. I wanted to find ways of collaborating with dancers and giving them more space,” Orpana explains. He became interested in collaboration-based choreographical processes and decided to begin studying for a doctoral degree in 2010 so that he could delve deeper into the topic.

Creating a dance piece through improvisation and collaboration

In addition to the written component, Orpana’s doctoral research also involved an artistic component that consisted of three performances and one workshop. Some of the themes that he explored in his artistic projects include systems theory, improvisation, mind-body relationship and dancer’s agency. Ideas developed by philosopher Lauri Rauhala and philosopher Erin Manning served as the core theoretical basis for the written component of Orpana’s doctoral research.

Orpana was especially interested in choreography that was the result of co-creation within a group and the dancer’s role in the creation of the choreography. “As a choreographer, I gave myself the mission to answer this question: how could we approach the creation process for a performance in a way that doesn’t force the choreographer to pre-determine the working group’s activities, or the content or the style of movement of the performance?”

If no pre-defined vision is shared with the group, what could be the starting point for creating a dance piece? During his research, Orpana developed his own tool, the so-called sleepwalking method, which combined observation, movement, meditation and improvisation. “The purpose of the method is to gently start from a passive, almost dreamlike state and to wake the dancer and make them aware of their own feelings and observations, which can then produce new movement material for the performance,” Orpana describes the process.

The choreographer assembles the group

In his research, Orpana switched up the roles of the choreographer and the dancer. When dancers are given the space to bring their own backgrounds and ideas to the table and as part of the dance piece, the choreographer’s role is to influence more from the sidelines.

“Dancers have so much to give. I wanted to make a conscious effort to dismantle the hierarchy of work practices, which makes the creation process more of a shared effort. This puts the choreographer in the role of a person who assembles the group, while dancers become the real choreographers.”

Earlier in the spring, the work culture and management methods of the dance sector sparked up public debate. With his over 20 years of experience, Orpana has had the opportunity to witness the development of the field over the course of several years.

“Co-creation within a working group has become more common, and auteur-style, centralised approach methods are less frequent. Nowadays, it’s not just the choreographer that makes the decisions.”

Orpana is aware, however, that the lack of funding in the field has an impact on everything, including work methods. “If a group doesn’t have a lot of rehearsal time, it’s easier to have the choreographer call all the shots.”

Public examination on 24 August 2022

Mikko Orpana’s doctoral research Choreographed by situation. Self-organizing choreography and the dancer’s agencement will be examined on 24 August 2022 at Uniarts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy (Auditorium 1, Haapaniemenkatu 6, Helsinki). The opponents are Dr Sophia Lycouris (University of Edinburgh) and director Janne Tapper (PhD). Professor of Artistic Research Leena Rouhiainen is the custos. The public examination will be held in English.

Read the doctoral thesis in the Taju database

Public examination of Mikko Orpana’s doctoral research