Quiet sophistication and an intelligent sense of play define the work of contemporary circus artist Ilona Jäntti, a.k.a. Ilmatila, of Finland. I first ran into her this January at the Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival, performing Muualla/Elsewherea combination of rope, dance, and animation that weaves storytelling across dimensions in a polished play between graphic creatures, projected environment, theatrical space and performer. From digital to physical, Jantii works site-specifically, drawing inspiration from unique environments, apparatus, and her collaborators.  Curious about her process, I asked her to share her experience with the audience of Circus Now.

(Sarah) Would you describe briefly how you began with circus?

(Jäntti) I was 19. I was doing contemporary dance and I felt it just wasn’t for me… something was missing. I don’t know where I got the idea from, but I thought it would be nice to learn to climb on a rope. I remember typing the words “circus”, “acrobatics”, “Helsinki”, in AltaVista (it was in 1999, before Google)… finding a circus school and calling them up to ask if I could come and train there. It was straight after Christmas, I know that I took the first class in the beginning of January—so I probably had seen a circus show on TV over the holidays or something.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I got there I just instantly knew that circus, especially aerial, was exactly the thing I had been looking for. Quite a bit like dance, but working a lot with objects and having the opportunity to make your own routines instead of just doing what you’re told. I’m not saying that I would have made it as a dancer otherwise—I probably wouldn’t have! But in circus, at best, you can combine what interests you the most with all the physical resources you have and make something that is specific just for you.

Photo by Chiara Contrino from Muualla/Elsewhere

Photo by Chiara Contrino from Muualla/Elsewhere

(S) Often you are the sole performer in your work—what’s your history with collaborative performance? Do you work with other companies?

(J) Yes I have, some shorter projects and some a bit longer. I was, for example, on tour with Swedish Cirkus Cirkör for the first half of 2013, and I still perform with them, just not full-time. I like to have several projects at the same time and move between them. That’s the most natural way for me to work. I am not good at concentrating on just one thing, and I also think the different projects support each other. Currently I am working on 7 different projects, all of them should premiere within the next year and a half:

  • Ride: New show with architect Tuula Jeker
  • Silver lining: Duet with a hand balancer Lisa Angberg
  • A pony is a small horse: Duet with trick cyclist Alice Allart
  •  Site-specific project in Helsinki City Winter Garden
  • Pix graeca: Duet with a violinist
  • Quiet: Collaboration with La Tribu group in Panama
  • Namesake: Solo piece

On top of that I am also directing a small performance for 2 members of Prague-based ensemble Cirkus Mlejn. I seem to be moving on to duets now. Working alone came naturally, but it has also made sense: when touring and performing a lot it’s hard to organize rehearsals with others.

(S) What artists and concepts do you look to for inspiration? 

(J) Usually I get inspired by things outside of circus. Having said that, I recently visited Sarasota, FL and had a pleasure to meet two amazing aerialists, La Norma and Dolly Jacobs. Listening to them was both inspiring and eye opening… maybe it was partly because of a cultural difference between USA and Europe, traditional circus vs. contemporary circus. I was immensely impressed by the pride they took in their work and achievements. In Europe you don’t often hear anyone talking like that, being proud of what they do and not belittling their own work.

Public spaces are very inspiring. So is music and the clothes people wear. Photographs, especially photographs of people doing sports. Any sport. In a way, a sports event is a performance, but at least in theory the outcome of it is not known from the beginning, and the physicality of it all is very fascinating.

When making work in circus, I get inspiration from the performance space, the equipment I use, and the people I am collaborating with. If working with another performer, I can’t imagine making the work first and then casting someone for it afterwards. When working alone, I usually start from the space, my chosen equipment and thinking about light. It’s a simple starting point, but it’s essential for me to try to know each equipment’s qualities and features, and truly finding those can only come out of spending a lot of time with said equipment.

When thinking of artists, I find choreographer Lea Anderson and Iona Kewney’s work very unique and inspiring.

(S) Can you describe the creative exchange between you and your animator? Where does the idea begin? Do the images or the movement come first, and how do you navigate changes and revisions? How long does it take to develop a piece like Muualla

(J) I have known Tuula Jeker, the animator, since we were 9 years old. She’s an architect so she sees circus very differently compared to me, which is great. Muualla was our first piece, and that took forever to make as we literally started from zero: I didn’t even know how to turn a projector on. We were taking our time, I think that 15-minute show took two years to make if you start counting from the first conversations we had.

Usually we have some kind of common idea and we start from there. Then we just work slowly… maybe I make something and film it, she then sends me something that she has animated based on the video, I train with the animation and send her the video again. It takes ages, but in my opinion  that’s a good thing.

(S) How do you judge and maintain a balance between a strong environmental presence, video elements, and movement?

(J) Muualla is very 2-dimensional piece. In our second performance Huhu we tried to be more 3-dimensional, and in Ride that we’re currently working on, we try to go even further and move out of the theatre. For Ride, Tuula is designing a structure she calls a “performance machine”. In a way it’s a simple structure, but it will move some without me being able to affect it, which means that I will have to adapt to its movements. We are in no way lighting designers, but we will also be working a lot with lights in the new piece. When working with animations, the projector has always been one of light sources—so now that we’re working on a piece that only has very little projections, we’ve started to think of other ways to make the work visible.

(S) In one of the panels at CCCF, you talked about bringing a wall on-stage to do a piece like Muualla—creating a piece of architecture to accommodate a theater setting—but often you work site specifically. What are the challenges in working that way, and what is gained or lost in choosing between theater and alternate site? What kinds of red-tape do you run into?

(J) When working outside a theatre space, I have more ways to control all the aspects of my work and I can make better decisions on how my work is presented. In public spaces that have natural light, I can work by choosing the right spot at the right time of the day, or bring in some light sources that aren’t that complicated to use and fit to the space. Same goes with sound and costume, I feel more confident in designing all that for a “real” environment. Most importantly I can choose the surroundings and the visual look of it all—I can bring my work to the scenography, rather than having the scenography brought into a theatre. It’s an economical solution.

I’ve encountered much less red-tape in public spaces than I would have thought. Theatres are often more strict when it comes to rigging, for example. I suppose, and I hope, that people sense that I am genuinely interested in making work that fits to just that space and that building. I still love working in theatres as well — the atmosphere, the lights, it’s just magical. It’s great to be able to do both.

Photo by Inkeri Jäntti, from Residency in The Winter Garden in Helsinki

Photo by Inkeri Jäntti, from Residency in The Winter Garden in Helsinki

(S) I think the aspects I value most about site-specific work are how history, aesthetics, and the public all become active storytellers in a piece. How does this translate in your work?

(J) I started to take contemporary dance classes at 13 and saw my teachers performing in public spaces a lot. Coming from gymnastics background I found that extraordinary, the thought of being able to perform anywhere you please. Over the years, I’ve performed in many amazing buildings and often hoped that I could make more use of the building itself, and spend more time on site trying things out and working slowly instead of just doing my act, something that already existed before and had nothing to do with the place. I had the opportunity to work at Museum of Childhood in London for a few years; I got to train at the Museum, and in return I did short performances in different public areas there. I’ve also made work for outdoor spaces, like Piccadilly Circus in London and for the garden of Racconigi castle in Turin, Italy.

I am currently working in Helsinki City Winter Garden, I’ve been doing secret performances there since last October. “Secret” in a sense that they’re not advertised anywhere, but they’re meant to be seen only by the people who happen to visit the gardens just then. This spring I will be advertising some of the performances, but I would love to see the atmosphere of the garden remain the same. For decades it has been a place where people come to relax and enjoy the silence. I would like to respect that.

During my time there I have been able to show my work to people who have never anything seen circus-related before. I’ve performed for people who have come there every Tuesday morning for the past 30 years. I hear a lot of childhood memories, and people talk to me a lot while I’m performing. At first I found it slightly strange but now I’m talking to them too. They’re asking questions about my work and why I’m performing there. I also get asked about gardening a lot, which I find hilarious! I must have succeeded in becoming part of the place if I get asked about that sort of stuff while spinning on my hoop or climbing a rope. The whole thing is quite amazing really… as a child I was so shy that if a stranger sat next to me on a bus I’d rather miss my stop than ask them to move so that I could get out. I still rarely answer the phone if I don’t know who’s calling. Talking is hard. I’ve surprised myself, I didn’t know I had it in me, being able to talk to people I don’t know.

(S) I love that story. It says a lot about the accessibility of your work and the reciprocal feedback of performance in general—and in cases like Winter Garden it’s quite direct and intimate, with all the surprise elements that come from working in public space. I think I speak on behalf of all our readers when I say how much we appreciate your work and all you’ve shared with us. I look forward to the next time I see you perform.

Ilona’s new project A pony is a small horse premiers at the Fun Fatale Festival in Prague, Czeck Republic at the end of March, and Ride premiers at the Full Moon Dance Festival, Pyhäjärvi, Finland in July. You can see Muualla/Elsewhere return to the States for the Spoleto Festival in Charlston, June 3-8th. Keep in touch and find more about Ilona’s work by visiting her website: http://ilmatila.com