“Pottuja” (Finnish for potatoes) is a minimal and surrealist self-portrait based on two biographically relevant objects. It’s an outcome of research done on tensions between my roots, my willingness to adapt, and social anxiety. It attempts to describe the bodily manifestations of awkwardness, embarrassment, and avoidance, followed by the sense of alienation and isolation from others. It questions audiences empathy and ability to read body language. How important is the face or any particular part of our body in describing our inner state, and how distorted is this description when not all the parts are visible?
Milla Toppi is a dance student at Die Etage in Berlin. Originally from the north of Finland, she moved to Berlin in 2015 to join Tanzfabrik’s Dance Intensive Program and continued her dance training after graduating. In 2018, she took part in the Oulu Dance Hack workshop focused on augmenting dance performance with modern technology. In her work, she’s drawing from her passion for visual arts, her love for movement, and her previous medium, photography. Currently, she’s concentrated on developing a style and expression matching her sensitivity and sense of aesthetics.
I made this video as a not-so-serious ending for this blog. I created four new imaginary stocking characters and played around with editing them into one video. For music I used New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’. I had lot of fun making this, hope you enjoy it!
In my piece I wanted to give full focus on my gestures and body language and therefore I aimed to minimize my facial expression. The face and the eyes are the first things we tend to look at on another being, and lot of interpretation is based on those. My interest was more in how one can read awkwardness only on body. I tried different ways to neutralize my face expression with no luck finding what I was after. I started to wonder what the effect would be if I managed to erase my face completely. That’s when the idea to use the stockings came to me.
Already earlier I considered to use the stockings somehow since they were one of my self-portrait objects with their own symbolic meaning. Now the stockings seemed to have not only a practical use but also they contributed to the dream-like surreal feel and aesthetics I was after. So eventually different elements came together.
It’s the moment when I’m alone in the studio and I’m stuck. The clock is ticking and the material doesn’t seem to work or make sense. I’m trying to keep on working but frustration takes hold.
Here’s a compilation of those little moments described, taken from my rehearsal footage.
The research phase produced a lot of material and ideas, but without a clear goal it was difficult to put it together.
Part of the problem was, that while making the self-portrait I was at the same time the creator, the performer and the subject. For a while my mind was overwhelmed by this and I struggled to put my thoughts in order. Normally, I imagine people and events on stage, but during this specific process I lacked the distance and perspective to see the piece clearly. At some point, I figured, I needed to create an entity; a character I could identify with, that would take the spotlight and give me, as a creator, the vantage point to direct the piece better.
I always draw a lot of inspiration from my dreams. So far in the process of making the solo, I had not considered using dreams. I figured that dream reality would be a fitting scenery for my character, because fears and anxieties often appear in dreams while we process them. I was also seriously drawn to the absurd way dreams portray every-day issues so I found myself coming back on and on to this concept. After a while, I realized that inadvertently my imagination had found its focus.
Slowly, a clearer image of my entity appeared. Who was it, how did it move and with what quality informed the use of space and dynamics, and the type of a relationship I would try to build with the audience. With those answers, the first concrete idea for structure of the solo appeared.
I made this video inspired by wet socks.
The audio above was recorded at my parent’s backyard right at the edge of a forest spring last year. While living in Finland, I didn’t appreciate enough those little details, but now I’m constantly longing for them. I was homesick when making the solo, and hoped to spend the Easter in Finland, but the lockdown got me grounded in Berlin.
I miss many things; the feeling of freeze on my cheeks and the frost on my eyelashes. I miss how my thighs would get piggy-pink from cold when I wasn’t dressed up enough. I miss the cracking sounds of burning wood in our sauna. And I miss the crunchy sound under my feet during winter.
I’d like to introduce research phases of making the solo. In each of the phases I was trying to approach the topic from a different angle in order to get a more complete understanding and figure out what is my own aim.
I dug deeper into my experience with awkwardness and found shame, anxiety and discomfort. It wasn’t easy to handle all that negative energy but I tried to channel it into specific body parts and to figure out how those emotions control my body.
I made a little video for this phase. I call it my Claustrophobic anxiety moment.
The time which I spent on rationalising and, honestly, over-analysing the topic. I discussed and wrote a lot; made mind-maps and researched the topic online.
Task-oriented phaseA practical approach. I started to give myself tasks; mostly questions or direct requests. This way I managed to produce material in a straightforward way and get something concrete done. Very handy during those days when feeling tired or stuck or just not inspired.
Period when I decided to go all wild with impro. I made super long sessions and filmed everything. Felt like a good idea while having fun in the studio, but I ended up buried under hours of video material to go through and decide what fits and is worth exploring further.
“Dancing a dance where everybody except you knows the steps” – I heard this before I started to work on the solo. It expresses in an interesting way how I feel about my clumsiness in social situations. It is like I’m taking part in a dance but I’m missing crucial bits of the choreography.
Maybe I have never learned the steps or maybe my counting is just different. Either way, I blunder about and stumble on the floor, then withdraw hurriedly avoiding more damage to make sure that the walls receive appropriate support. I watch everyone glide above the dancefloor in a coordinated combo of social forms and convenances. Locals have learned the steps long time ago, they dont have to plan or think – they trust their well-honed and tested instincts. My instincts are no use here. So, in a very human way, I observe and learn to keep my toes away from danger.
Let us start with a potato and stockings. Those items are where my solo work “Pottuja” comes from. Back at the very beginning, I was given an assignment at school to create my self-portrait using a chosen object or objects and present it to others. I decided to look for a defining emotion, something that I could identify with. I’ve always felt a bit different back in Finland where I grew up and even more so since I’ve moved to Europe ( that’s how we call these parts where I come from). Coming where I come from and being who I am blends and reacts with people around me. It can bring a lot of awkwardness in me and this awkwardness is not simple, it’s complex and – I thought – worth studying deeper.
Potato is very dear to me. It’s awkward, round and shapeless at the same time, almost without colour. It’s humble, but can turn into so many delicious, almost fancy things – it stays a potato, even if it’s mashed. It’s a boneheaded veg that doesn’t give up and flourishes in places where fancier vegetables can’t be arsed to grow. Potato is a symbol for my roots. The stockings come from my childhood. When I was a kid, my parents cut my hair very short. I was awfully ashamed by it, because everyone else in my eyes had beautiful long hair. My solution was to wear long, black stockings on my head to have hair like Pocahontas. Or occasionally swap them for a lighter kind and become a blond princess for the day. Obviously, no one except me was in on the fantasy so it must have looked weird to the spectators. I felt great. I was like everyone else. That’s why the stockings symbolise an awkward attempt to fit in the group. To adjust and adapt — hide?
That was the beginning of my creative process. The objects served as inspirations for movement qualities and gave me stylistic direction. Originally, I planned to use both of them as props on-stage, but had to choose one in the end. It was convenient to start with the objects and then use them as depersonalised forms of some of the more tangled bits of my identity.