Kekäläinen & Company are one of the world’s most daring dance groups, building a body of work over the last 20 years that has explored nudity, philosophy, feminism and the failings of the modern world. Managing director Lilja Lehmuskallio speaks to IAM about the challenges and rewards of working with progressive choreographer Sanna Kekäläinen.
What led to the creation of Kekäläinen & Company?
Sanna Kekäläinen founded Zodiak Center for New Dance in 1986 and worked intensively in that production structure for 10 years. But by 1996 there was a need to start an independent working structure, an ensemble that could build more lasting possibilities for presenting choreographic works and themes. That’s how Physical Art Theatre was born. In 2001 the name was changed to Kekäläinen & Company. Since the beginning the company has worked in the same studio theatre at the Cable Factory in Helsinki.
What have been the proudest achievements for the company?
The work of the company has always been performed globally, from Canada to Central Europe and South Korea, getting a great response despite the very specific themes we address. We have proved that the work can touch a very wide audience with hugely different backgrounds, which is the aim of the company. One of our highlights in 2014 was a five-city tour in Mexico of Kekäläinen’s solo performance QUEER ELEGIES. The work was so well received by thousands of people – which was great, as Mexico is a country where an independent female contemporary dance artist working openly with issues such as gender and sexual identity isn’t necessarily the most common sight. But the most impressive achievement is that a female-led company has thrived globally and has developed a venue in Helsinki.
Can having such a powerful message in your work sometimes limit your commercial success?
The message and meaning in Kekäläinen & Company’s work is definitely the most important thing. That’s something we are not willing to compromise, even in today’s market economy and with limited funding. The challenge is to market our work in a way that is approachable but remains honest to its roots. We have found that straightforwardness is the most important guideline when trying to win the attention of the media and audiences.
How has your role as managing director changed over time?
I started with the company as a dancer in 2005. Kekäläinen was the choreographer of our MA final work in 2004 and I was instantly interested in her themes, values and method. These days I am responsible for the production side of our work, but I continue to work as choreographic assistant for Kekäläinen – that is the deep basis of our continuing collaboration. The company has grown tremendously during the last 10 years, and is now firmly established in the field of Finnish dance. I have had the amazing and rare opportunity to explore my own professional identity, developing from dancer to production assistant and finally to managing director whilst maintaining a very close relationship with an artist whose work I think is truly important. Standout moments come in everyday work, like when I see our message reach an audience and make a change in them.
How does Kekäläinen & Company approach touring?
Touring has always been a lifeline for the company, allowing us to see how the work resonates outside the homeland. The reward is seeing a performance stimulate discussion. We also run workshops as a way to deepen the understanding of the message. They can be focussed on a specific theme, like the techniques of nude performance.
How many people are in the company?
We have around four permanent staff, depending on the project, and up to six staff working around a specific piece.
Your latest work is DIVA VULVA. How did this piece come about, and what are your plans for it?
Our mission with DIVA VULVA is to research the theme of ‘the body as a symbol of capitalism,’ asking questions on gender and identity. The work has already raised interest in the international field, and we are in negotiations for touring in Paris in September. The hope is to find a diverse international audience for the work and to tour it extensively.
How are you funded and how do you market Kekäläinen & Company?
The company is funded by two yearly-applied grants: the state fund from Finnish Arts Promotion Centre and the smaller municipal fund from Helsinki City Cultural Office. In each new production we will find a specific angle on how to approach the marketing, as the budget is always very small. One thing is always the same though: a very strong visual image is the first step. The marketing concept derives from the artwork, while the strong themes of the work guide us as to whom we will specifically target in our marketing.
How does Kekäläinen & Company support, develop and recruit new dancing talent?
At the moment the working groups are formed of people who have expressed their interest in the company’s mission and work. It is the way to make sure everyone is aiming towards similar goals. We also support other artists by sharing our space when we are not working in it. We are starting a new project called Oasis, where an artist chosen through an open call gets to work in Physical Art Theatre and, if there’s a need, have Kekäläinen as the mentor in their work. We hope to get funding for this idea.
Images © Johanna Tirronen / Lilja Lehmuskallio