Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


(Un)making Nonsense with Sonja Jokiniemi

Collaborative practice and challenging neuro-normativity


Published: 16 Oct 2019

Cover image courtesy of the artist. 

The following article is extracted from an archival report of da:ns lab 2018, written from the perspectives of participants Chloe Chotrani and Chan Sze-Wei. It include excerpts from the artists' lectures and Q&A sessions with the da:ns lab participants.

On alternative modes of expression,

Sonja’s lecture began sitting in a circle on the studio floor. Each participant was invited to give a non-verbal gestural introduction to themselves. She also referred to the previous evening’s performance sharing, where she had introduced elements from her works Blab, Rrr and Hmm in performance and video clips.

Alternative modes of expression and learning are central to her work. Sonja works with this in an experiential way, in community-based work, as well as performance solo and group works. She is interested in how we can claim space for sharing of subjectivities but also the validation of different modes of expression. When working with people with special needs (e.g. autism, mental health), it is important that the diagnosis does not define the person, but instead raises the potentiality of different perceptions.

“Mainstream society has a strong emphasis on conceptual thinking, verbal expression, lingual abilities, social intelligence, how we should understand each other’s codes and respond in coherent manner. Though research on acknowledging diversity has broadened, there’s a lot of exclusion, especially in what is considered valid knowledge.” – sHmm by Sonja Jokiniemi

  • Reference to cultural theorist Erin Manning’s writing on autistic perception, and how autistics tend to perceive experience as chunks instead of differentiating subject and object.
  • Realising that she was already exploring this in her work, attempting to explore the world before one had the definition of it.

Some concepts that have become important in the course of the project Caring for Stories, a collaboration in Belgium with a social scientist Dr Leni Van Goidsenhoven and participants on the autism spectrum:

  • Intra-action – what emerges in meeting (things and people, people and people, groups), to bring to light knowledge that is forming in an encounter.
  • Multimodality – merging of verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • Intermediality – storytelling combining different media.

“Hmm (2015) relates to my need and my desire to go towards working landscapes that I feel some affiliation to. It is also my need to be in a working environment that I can understand, where I don’t have so much difficulty understanding the social roles. So that it’s not only the other with a more visible diagnosis that might be analysed.”

On sensorial logic,

Multi sensorial objects in my work have a “sensoric” logic. For Blab, the hair, chains, slime came from her looking and imagining what needed to be felt to make sense in a way of opening up potentiality of associations.

In a masculine dominated society, that way of understanding the world is highly criticised as nonsensical. I have been trying to claim this space as not nonsense. To say it is nonsense negates those people and their way of understanding that (do) not belong to the neuro-normative. A world based on a construct of neuro-normativity excludes a lot of knowledges.

    Hasyimah Harith: Would you have responded differently to the neuro-normativity of performative spaces if you were male?

    Sonja: There is a masculine construction of rational and conceptual thinking and self-presentation that has to do with efficiency and hiding vulnerability. I also try to think in between the binary. Insecurity, vulnerability, incapability are seen as negative traits in neoliberal society. Aware that this is a generalisation – observe that the theatrical stage has become very violent and tends to show (the) body as something strong physically. It’s not easy to expose bodies that have “faults”, especially in dance…. So I don’t know if it’s a healthy thing to go into the world of the stage.

On community dance, and new materialist choreographic practice,

Sonja looks at community dance projects as knowledge sharing, instead of going in as an artist and doing something for a community. This is slightly different from artistic work. The emphasis is on healing, with art as a tool to express oneself and find different topics. Whereas as an artist, it’s about being surrounded by a question.

  • Without an alphabet/TU (2015)

Without an alphabet was a one-year process of working with four young autistic adults in duos and as a group. It was a quest for subjective languages; how to speak without a common vocabulary. My collaborator in the performance TU, Veera Kivela’s only vocab was “yes” and “swim”. But Veera responded and understood speech well. They started from a table conversation, and I might mirror her. No structure, spending time with each other and listening to each other. Now she views her work from the perspective of new materialist choreographic practices. But at the time, others called TU “autistic object theatre”.

“I asked why it was problematised even on the stage. The stage is supposed to be available for alternative forms of expression but it is very much normativised. When something feels non-communicative – an un-useful discourse – we easily perceive things we don’t understand as non-communicative.”

Sonja was interested to see how she could engage with a language (of her autistic collaborators) that she felt very affiliated to, and how to find a collaboration through this kind of language exchange.

    Shanice Stanislaus: How do you create a knowledge sharing space with someone who might not know or trust you?

    Sonja: For Without an alphabet, I started spending time in the residential community centre to first introduce myself and my questions, and did daily activities with Veera for one month. Then I asked one day if she would like to come to studio, and then later asked her about going into the theatre. I had mainly improvisatory sessions with her. With each participant it was different – with another, we tended to debate, for example conversations about counting. Nobody was ever forced to come to work with me. It was their own choice, as they were all young adults. With Veera it was quite clear that she enjoyed us doing things in front of people but with the others it wouldn’t have been nice for them. It’s important for me to find collaborators who want to work with me. You can’t just impose ideas on people, it’s not how I like to work.

With Caring for stories, I am working in a housing association for people with mental health conditions. The framework had more (of an) aspect of art for health care. I used to be more against that approach but now I see it’s a complex landscape to operate in. You can shift this from within. You can work against art as service, which is not always expected by people who take part but by the funders who expect something to show that this was useful and beneficial. This is very much in the language with which such work is spoken about.

“As (an) artist, I feel very much the need to not speak of artistic work as art service.”

In Caring for stories, we attempt to create an equal learning environment. I didn’t go as a specialist. Participants and each of us are all specialists. I try not to go into habit of teaching, which is not always easy with people with cognitive difficulties where sometimes there are things you need to teach to go somewhere else. But I realise that I also sometimes need teaching or someone needs to say to me you’re not focusing on the right thing. I think of this as guiding, not something negative or constitutive of a hierarchical relationship. If we consider that we all have some sensitivities, points that we are not strong in, then it is in those points that the other can strengthen or guide us and that doesn’t need to lead to (the) way we communicate in general, e.g. if I need to change a diaper, that didn’t change the way we worked artistically together. He wouldn’t become a more needy person to me and we would still communicate the same way.

    Susan Sentler: It would be very beneficial to share your practices, e.g. for Candoco Dance Company (UK), to shift their approach to disability.

    Chan Sze-Wei: Did the performance of TU consist of new material each time?

    Aparna Nambiar: How did you guide Veera?

    Sonja: With Veera it was a score that we knew. I might do that differently now. Back then I didn’t have enough trust in the chaotic and felt the need to score things. We worked with material generated from our conversations, which I scored into a sequence of sections. Now I would give just 2 hours and invite people to come to our interaction instead of framing it as a kind of piece.

    Faye Lim: Do you have sense of Veera’s point of view of what the format was or her experience of the duration?

    Sonia Kwek: Would you sustain the collaborative relationship with Veera? I find it hard to work with communities because I feel that I exploit them because I move on, but in their lives it’s an absence.

    Sonja: For me, too, the end of a project is never the end. I don’t know how Veera felt. In terms of session lengths it was clear when she wanted to stop, because she would put her shoes on. Some things were easy to read if we were having the same feeling. When I first went to the community centre, I was told that everybody needs a lot of structure. But with Veera she was always very calm even when I was lost. The tendency for overcarefulness from the healthcare approach didn’t seem necessary. I grew very attached to Veera. Her father was also a part of the process and gave input on how he saw her responding.He saw me mirroring her unique language and was touched to realise that I was validating her language. He felt some strength from that.

    I consider the collaboration as a non-hierarchical position. Saying that I would go to exploit is saying I have the power to exploit – but I don’t think I do. If I meet someone and am genuinely interested in what they are expressing and they are obviously agreeing to work with me, it’s a common understanding even if it’s not in the form that we know. We need to say in advance that this will start and end, and be clear about the duration of project. Sometimes it’s also good to break things and not stay too long. Our meeting is like an infiltration, and we each bring something of our own. Isn’t that the same in the world in general where we don’t have the chance to build long term relationships?


On dance and disability,

Sonja’s has a new creation with Maija Karhunen (a wheelchair user who is an influential curator of an online dance critique website) that will be premiered at the Kiasma Museum. She has written an article on the disabled body in dance. Can a disabled body ever be considered neutral on stage, and is that meaningful? This question is important to how she perceives her body onstage. She doesn’t try to attempt towards neutrality, or that she could be a template of many possibilities. There’s always a certain person onstage. Rather than making work that deals with the question of disability. It’s just two people performing a work about hybridity, a mothering cocoon (not just female mothering, not gender specific).

Sonja made archive paintings of trans female, hybrid female figures with extensions, tentacles. How she imagines herself, something to do with religious images, the iconography of mixed beings, influenced by Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto.

    Melati Suryodamo: I understand why people are very sensitive about exploitation when it comes to working with the disabled. But what if we see them as equals. Collective support gives attention to another side of our world that most people have forgotten exists. This is not about taking pity on others but about understanding the world of individuals that have been pushed away and treated meanly in history. We are lacking knowledge to understand their world but art can be the bridge to encourage public/society’s understanding. I saw many projects in Germany and the UK involving (the) disabled that were seen as social projects. Nowadays it’s getting better that these people have the right to express their presence, that we start to understand their experience and build dialogue and trust. This takes time even when the collaborator is a sibling. The world needs exposure to such work. The question is where to show it. What does it mean if the work is shown only for disabled audiences?

    Susan Sentler: Jerome Bel was criticised a lot for Disabled Theatre. I recall Charlotte Derbyshire of Candoco countering “Don’t think that [the actors] don’t have decision making. They can control their desires.” Candoco was very adamant to have mixed cast for The Show Must Go On (that Susan participated in). I never learned so much in my life as when working with them. Our rehearsal director had to slow down and look at the work with different eyes. For Jerome it was one of the best renditions of the work because of the versatility of the cast.

    Shanice: What are your personal and professional challenges when you work with a community, as someone who comes from a neuronormative world?

    Sonja: The challenge of how to categorise this kind of work – as an artist and for funding. This is challenging since all of my work speaks against categorisation and planned definition, and proposes alternative spaces for diverse imaginations. I try not to categorise my work in the disability art sector. We need to be sensitive, aware that we don’t know everyone’s sensibilities. Not everything is visible. If I can train my mind – it can be useful to name conditions – but I don’t stay with labels. A person is many things. Autism is a condition, not an illness. It is the whole person but not everything they can give in this world is under the diagnostic label. I don’t consider myself as being too different, and I don’t need a diagnosis for me.

    Hasyimah Harith: I appreciate your strategy in responding to disability. Choosing conversation instead of ignorance, dedicating enough time for the work. This is another way to find ourselves.

    Melati: With regards to new materialism – there is a reason and history for violence of stage. The socio-political requirements to detach the body from the context. Dematerialisation was the basis for using live performance in art. It’s even more brutal to detach the idea of performativity by separating the presence of the body from dialogue with objects. In your showing yesterday, you were like the object but what is this dialogue of you and the object? This is like a fetish to sense something from material and grow with it. In the ’90s, there were so many ideas about fetishism and different ways of perceiving the world and connection with material. How you built a relationship with Veera, and with objects, is very sensitive and special. People who have a fetish with objects show a desire and obsession, but for your work I see more a dialogue with objects.

    Sonja: I wouldn’t exclude sensuality/fetish, but it’s not how I define the relation I’m working on. In (the) choreographic field, from the 2000s there was discourse of choreographing the in-between. I consider these affective relations. I’m also interested in what emerges if sexuality is also part of this.

On books and drawing,

Books RRRRR and PA A, which were a written/verbal scoring of conversations, comprising unfinished texts, soundings, and visual scores.

Her drawing practice has different functions. Sometimes Sonja starts with drawing, and the drawing feeds the performance by being present or inspiring the embodied material. Sometimes the drawing is an after-reflection like in a book. Sometimes a choreographic practice (in Oh no) with pens as a protagonist in miniature world.

    Chan Sze-Wei: Is drawing a practice you share with collaborators?

    Sonja: Yes. Usually with few colours to keep it minimal. Now with Caring for stories there’s a lot of colourful paintings.

    Chan Sze-Wei: How are the books circulated?

    Susan: Did you produce the books as an object?

    Sonja: I distribute the books at shows, in the social service sector and other contexts where I would speak about it. In this way the book based on TU went beyond the four performances. I tried to make a book that has very little words. It’s a reading score in the way you would read a short text. I wanted to bring up the question of what languages are valid to put in a book, to be recognised as “text”.

On her role as female maker,

Hybridity and fluidity in sexual identity and gender roles and how she perceives human interaction. With regard to ideas of normality, she would like to think outside of categories. As a female in society you are in a different position, and in some countries, one could understand that there are fights to be fought urgently.

On fetish,

There is sexual imagery in my work. But I wouldn’t say that the work is only about sexuality.

    Chong Gua Khee: I saw vulnerability and violence in your presentation yesterday.

    Sonja: There is violence, but with a different dynamic. In (the) Finnish dance scene, I see tendency towards works that deal with empathy in a singular colour. Why would vulnerability look in a certain way? Why couldn’t it entail violence? A threatened animal acts violently. Socially, I see this in (the) socialist state in Finland and right-wing nationalist government cutting social security for people in need. I see more violence on the street. There is an expression of anger that doesn’t come from a mean place, but from hopelessness. In (this) psychological climate, there is so much colour and so many reasons. We tend to simplify in theatre psychology. In my work there is a lot of violence, I can’t tell exactly why. It’s an inner logic or impulse that appears and I keep it because I feel that it should also be able to manifest. I don’t believe in monotone voicing about harmony. I don’t know what that means. Attempts to(wards) harmony, tranquillity and common understanding negate resistance and rebellion. Providing spaces of different expression in my workshops. I suffer from soft fascism and I don’t want to encourage that.

    Susan Sentler: What is your daily practice?

    Sonja: Drawing is a regular practice for me, daily when I can focus on one creation. I have also done regular psychotherapy – a personal process allowed me to process multi-colouredness. That internal landscapes are never black and white or singular. Complexity of experience. That’s why I like to speak from personal experience. I don’t display others’ stories or fade my person behind a generic language.

    Dana Michel: What are the roots of your involvement with performance?

    Sonja: As a child, I trained in French horn and piano and performed in orchestras. I recall them as terrifying. Music is in my performance work in use of voice, breath. I discovered new dance and improvisation when 16, then discovered I have a body and can do stuff with it. Then I decided to become a choreographer. I went to London to study dance at Laban Centre. My practice has shifted from dance work to hybrid performance. But I still consider my practice choreographic practice. I was always drawing since childhood. Expressing myself as a solitary child. It’s a way for me to understand what’s going on for me inside but also how I map out the world. The MA at DAS Theatre built my confidence and ability to speak about what I do, in the language that I like to use.

    Aparna Nambiar: How do you see yourself as a creator with regard to use of objects? In your creating a world – I saw a creative role, which is still hierarchical in my association.

    Sonja: I haven’t considered it through hierarchy of power relations. Blab has my way of making sense through choreographic practice but those works have room for you to make interpretations that might not be the same as mine. Some people felt very anxious, others felt celebratory. The emotional scale of audience was very wide. We are bringing something but it can mean something different to me, performer and viewer. Blab is a 3D moving painting. For me it’s fine that viewer gets immersed in one element. It’s not about a hierarchy of watching. My work is not participatory. My role is not same as yours but not hierarchical.

    Chong Gua Khee: There is a focus on conversation and dialogue in your practice. Do you consider dialogue with audience?

    Sonja: Not really. I have been interested in creating universes where the audience comes as visitors, free to come and go. As a performer, I barely see individual audience. I am so focused on things that are there. The theatrical technique of projecting through gaze to audience - I have cut this out from my practice for a long time. I don’t enjoy watching an actor trying to project something to me. I want to make the choice to look where I want. I wonder if I could look at audience in (the) next work. Could I? It’s conceptual as well as personal.

    Chloe Chotrani: I love your idea of a knowledge sharing space, accessing a language you can’t understand. Knowledge can look different ways and have different colours, shapes, pacing. I associate this with accessing the subconscious realm.

Reflections by Chan Sze-Wei

Sonja’s sharing of her work and process impressed me deeply. The deceptively simple and playful elements of her performance sharing were also characterised by an intense focus and a sense of internal logic – which became clear when she articulated them in her lecture and workshop. There was amazing clarity in how her philosophy of de-centering neuro-normativity and its modes of expression underpins all of her work. Her work clearly stems from her sense of compassion, and an awareness of how constructs convenient to the majority oppress other narratives and other ways of being. I found myself wishing that policy makers and arts organisations that work with special needs communities were able to hear Sonja’s lecture, because this seems quite different from most approaches to community art at this time in Singapore and could be a useful set of ideas to encounter. As an artist her process and expression of her ideas is intuitive and playful while also careful, measured and well-articulated – combinations that are new to me.

Contributed by:

Chan Sze-Wei

Chan Sze-Wei (1980) blends conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, video installation and film. Her work is intimate and personal, reaching for social issues, identity and gender. She has performed with contemporary dance and theatre productions in Asia and Europe and her work has been shown in Singapore, London, Kuala Lumpur, Solo, Taipei, Zagreb and Laos, as well as dance film festivals in the USA and Brazil. Her creative practice is grounded in a somatic approach focused on perception, sensation and the organic knowledge of the human body, its immediacy and its responses. She is also an advocate for the rights and sustainable careers of dancers in Singapore, and the development of artistic networks and exchange in Southeast Asia. She holds a Diploma in Dance from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and an M.A. in Contemporary Dance from London Contemporary Dance School.


Sonja Jokiniemi

Sonja Jokiniemi (1983) is a choreographer, performer and self-taught visual artist based in Helsinki, Finland. She makes transdisciplinary work with research interests in thing ecologies, language and thinking structures, neuro and psychodiversity. She often works with objects, materials and drawings as collaborators on stage. Her participatory projects within the social sector and studies in Expressive arts therapy intertwine with her interest on stage that claims space for intimacy, sincerity and broadening ideas of norms. Jokiniemi graduated from DAS Theatre (previously DasArts) MA Degree programme in Performing Arts in Amsterdam 2013. Prior to this she has completed a BA degree on Contemporary Dance at Laban Centre in London 2006 and taken part at Daghdha Mentoring programme in Limerick, Ireland. Jokiniemi’s work has been supported by STUK - House for Dance, Image & Sound, Zodiak – Centre for New Dance, Dampfzentrale Bern, Kiasma Theatre, Workspace Brussels, Moving in November festival, Veem House for Performance, and Regional Dance Centre of Eastern Finland. Jokiniemi has been awarded two grants by Arts Promotion Centre Finland (Taike): a one-year artist grant for 2017 and a three-year artist grant for 2018-20.


Download the full report for da:ns lab 2018 here
da:ns lab

da:ns lab is an annual platform for dance practitioners to reflect upon key issues surrounding their creative practice, as part of da:ns festival at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay. The programme aims to engage dance practitioners in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region in artistic discourse, research, reflection and exchange.

Want to learn more?

Access the Esplanade Archives

If you would like to access our collection as part of your research, please write in to us via email to make an appointment.

You have 3 out of 3 articles left this month. Create a free Esplanade&Me account or sign in to continue. SIGN UP / LOG IN