Being Spontaneous Isn’t Easy

Petra Čechmánková interviews Ilona Jäntti

Ilona Jäntti is a Finnish choreographer and acrobat. After graduating from Cirkus Piloterna in Sweden, she started concentrated on choreography which she went on to study in London, where she received a master’s degree in the field in 2008. Recently, she cooperated with the Prague-based Cirkus Mlejn to create a performance entitled Dynamo, which is one of the subjects of the following interview.

How did you get to the Czech Republic in the first place?

A few years ago, Eliška Brtnická saw my performance in Stockholm, Sweden and as a consequence o that, she sent me a Facebook friend request on behalf of Cirkus Mlejn. When I found myself in Prague later on, I just contacted Cirkus Mlejn thinking it would be great to have a place for training in Prague. We met and later, I came for their Fun Fatale festival, where I gave several workshops. I had a few ideas I wanted to turn into a performance. I shared them with Cirkus Mlejn and that was the beginning of that production.

So, you came to Prague as a choreographer?

I don’t perform in Dynamo, I sort of direct it and most importantly, I am its choreographer. However, a lot of the things you see in the show are actually ideas of the performers. The way we work is, e. g., I tell them: “Try to do something like this [movement].” And then they work on the given movements and I just put the results together.

How is working with Czech acrobats different from working with Finnish acrobats?

I think circus people are very much individuals. Everybody focuses on his own special thing, so it seems to me, there are actually no geographic differences. It’s not like with dance. When you work with a certain dance company, all its members share a movement vocabulary, because they’ve gone through the same kind of training. On the other hand, the circus people undergo diverse schooling and experience even before they start doing circus. They often have foundations in theater, dance, acrobatics and other disciplines. The only difference is probably the fact that I don’t speak Czech.

Where do you find inspiration for your performances?

The first thing I need to think about is who the performers are. I must know what circus arts they are proficient in. For me, it starts with the gear they handle and then the actual technique: balancing, silk acrobatics, etc. That is usually the starting point.

Did you use the same approach on Dynamo?

With this performance, I had to take account the large number of performers. I started thinking what many people can do together. So the starting point for Dynamo was the acrobats and their techniques. I knew beforehand there would be a lot of aerial acrobatics.

Does it mean that the actual physical body work is more important than directing In your performances?

Essentially, yes. It may have to do with my background. As a child, I started with gymnastics which includes 4 disciplines, each performed for a minute and a half. So you work very hard for a very short performance. You show your minute and a half routine with the ball and you go on to do the ribbon. I got used to working hard on very short routines and I only had experience with very short choreographies. Perhaps my attention span is very short, too (laughs).

How did you get from gymnastics to circus?

I started dancing. I did contemporary, because I wanted to be a dancer. I was used to perform in productions, where movement carried very abstract meanings and wasn’t really intended to tell a story. It was a sequence of movements that created an atmosphere or a mood change. It was nothing like working on character development in theater. I think I carried this approach over to circus.

Do you think somebody who has never been a dancer can become a choreographer?

I think so, definitely. Because it gives you a different perspective and all that is left for you to do is explain your idea to the others, so they can somehow bring it to life. AS a choreographer, you don’t have to show them the steps or the floor or aerial movements. There are different ways choreographers work.

 Is there a story Dynamo is based on?

No, I don’t work that way. However, the performance doesn’t take place in a vacuum. When there are several people on stage, there are always relationships between them. I enjoy theater pieces, films and books with solid stories, but it’s not something I want to create myself. I am more interested in motion, what the acrobats are able to do physically and what it eventually looks like. Of course, it always means something. However, I am more interested in placing the different pieces of equipment in the performance and using it to create images. I deal with practical rather than conceptual questions.

Does this show in your Czech performance?

Dynamo consists mostly of very short numbers which are somehow related to the performers. They show, who these people are and what they do in circus. I was also inspired by sports, people who form teams. This was essentially a team effort. It may seem that the performers represent certain characters, because they are themselves, real characters from their real lives.

Does it mean the performance is completely authentic?

I hope so. It is to me. We are not trying to do anything that would prevent the performers from being themselves, e. g., telling them not to talk. It’s okay if they talk to each other even during the performance. If they want to talk, let them talk, as long as it’s real and interesting to them at that moment. I hope it makes the performance interesting to the audience as well. Of course, it’s difficult to stay authentic, spontaneous and honest in movement and speech in front of an audience. It is difficult to take things that emerged spontaneously during rehearsals and repeat them in front of an audience. It’s just hard to be spontaneous.

So, if the performers feel like doing something during a performance, they are free to do whatever they want? Do you let them be this spontaneous?

I think there are scenes in which they are free to do whatever they want, as long as they do the core of what is important to do. There is a lot of aerial acrobatics in the production and when you are hanging in the air and performing with someone else, you can’t be that spontaneous. However on the floor, the performers are free to have a chat if they feel like it.

You use animations in the performance. Where did this idea come from and who is the author of the animations?

Yumi Hayashi designed the costumes and she wanted to do back projections as well. I worked with projections a lot in the past but I didn’t have any ideas in this respect that could be used in this show. I wasn’t forcing her into it, but she came up with some ideas and I think she created very nice images which were interesting to use in the spectacle. But technology always brings problems. I am more interested in the physical work. Whenever you do a project which involves a lot of technology, it’s… Phew! “No more of that” I always say to myself. But if somebody wants to use it in a performance and comes up with a great ideas which work for the whole, then I am fine with it.

What projections did you use in the past performances?

Normally, I always worked with the same animator. So far, it was only my solo performances. We did two show together one of which was experimental and we didn’t want to perform it again anymore.

What are your plans for the future?

I am working on a new solo project which may premiere at the end of 2013. I am also going to tour with the Swedish company Circus Cirkör from min November to May.

added: Nov. 26, 2012

This article was written as a part of the “Writing On Contemporary Circus” educational project for students of journalism by Cirqueon