Sideshow profiles Finnish aerialist and dancer and not-a-theatre-maker Ilona Jäntti and her un-British body of work.
When I think of Ilona Jäntti's work, I think of cold water. There's clarity, and simplicity, but the performance refracts the source: like an item at the bottom of a well, the originating idea or impulse is down there, visible, but the angles have changed and the image has broken down, and you're not sure what it is, or how far away it is, or whether you can ever bring it out.
It's circus that feels and acts like contemporary dance, and, after quitting rhythmic gymnastics when she was thirteen, that's where Ilona began. She took classes in contemporary with a view to applying to schools after her A-Levels, but when graduation came and she didn't get any of the placements she wanted she looked for the first time to circus, and acrobatics, as a way to broaden her repertoire ready for another round of auditions the following summer. She started to take evening classes at Suvelan Sirkus (now Espoon esittävän taiteen koulu) and, as she told me when I met her to talk about her background and work, it was a steep learning curve: 'I couldn't do anything, because I'd done rhythmic gymnastics but you don't do any acro, you just do a lot of apparatus handling and basic gymnastics. I had to be in the same group as like 12 or 13 year olds because I didn't have any base for what they were doing. I didn't really have that clear idea of circus either: I didn't know what it was; I just thought acrobatics or something.'
At Suvelan Sirkus she found an affinity for aerial, particularly hoop and corde lisse, and when the summer came she was split by her interests: she applied to dance schools, but then went with some friends to audition for Cirkus Piloterna (now incorporated within the Dans och Cirkushögskolan), expecting rejection, but thinking that it would be a useful experience if she wanted to apply again the next year. She was accepted to the course. 'I still, to this day, do not quite understand. I only really went to the audition to see what I should know. But maybe that's why they took me: I clearly was very keen to learn and wanted to do it, but I also very clearly couldn't do much. I didn't have the strength. I did try, but I couldn't do any of the strength tests. I don't think I'd get in now either.'
At Cirkus Piloterna she worked on skill, but, for the most part, more ambitious or nuanced work was still far off. There were a few teachers who were interested in a choreographic approach to circus and more oblique methods of devising – Ilona remembers a particular juggling workshop where the students were given simple tasks and rulesets, and regrets not incorporating them into her practice: 'I love juggling, but I'm not a juggler. I should have just taken all those exercises and forced myself to do that in the air, but then I think at the time I was still so worried that I'd never make it as a circus performer because I started so late – I was just manically trying to learn more tricks so I could get some sort of act so I could get some sort of work after school. So if I had actually just dared to come down a bit and start to work... I don't know whether I'm stupid or whether I just didn't dare to do it, but I think about it now and I should have just started to really take those lessons and use them in the air. I guess it's being at school as well: you don't know whether you'll ever get a job. You don't know that you'll ever get one single gig – or I didn't anyway. So it's really hard – it's really scary as well. It's scary to start taking time for research when you're told you should be ready to do acts.'
It was at Laban – the low, futuristic dance conservatoire that on first encounter always appears to have landed in Deptford Creek – that Ilona began to pull together the skills from her previous training, undertaking an MA in Choreography but keeping close her interest in the circus arts. 'I had very little choreographic training at circus school, was given very few tools for how to make an act or a show. I mean obviously you make stuff all the time at school, but you don't even look at how you make stuff. You just make it. I guess there are certain things like you don't put all the hard tricks one after another or you get exhausted, and you don't do everything at the beginning because then what are you going to show at the end – things like that. But that's partly why I wanted to do choreography – because it felt like I could do tricks and I could move but I didn't know how to make stuff.'
She graduated the MA in 2008, and I first saw a triple-bill of her work at Jacksons Lane back in 2009: Muualla, a piece in collaboration with the animator Tuula Jeker, which in the spectrum of Ilona's work is lighter and more whimsical, witty in its choreography and self-knowledge as the artist swims, flies and crawls through organic and mutating virtual spaces; Cel, a hoop solo with live cello that was perhaps closest to a pure dance piece, drawing on Ilona's strengths as an aerialist who exhibits a completeness of movement and gesture (she's a technician, but it doesn't feel like technique); and Footnotes, a piece that had in particular that quality of abstraction, of cold water, and a great resilience to interpretation, Ilona working on a long, suspended bar (pictured best as a sort of bench-size trapeze) with another bar, unattached, held in the hand or by the feet, that she had to carry with her on each difficult crossing.
'Footnotes was my final piece for my choreography course at Laban,' Ilona explains. 'My topic was to collaborate with someone from another artform who would give me instructions to follow, and it could be any instructions – so I went to a lighting designer and she gave me photos and sketches and things and then it all came from there. The first half of the material I just made on the floor and had to transfer that to the air, and I thought I was going to do it on hoop, but then it felt really restricted, so I had to just like open the hoop [she mimes breaking the circle and rolling it out] – that's when we went gaspipe shopping. A lot of things just happened; I had no idea what it was going to look like at the end. So I kind of followed the instructions and I don't think she had thought either as to what it would be; we just really worked in a way where she gave me a photo then I had to try and work something up for the photo.'
The piece has since been reworked into a shorter format, and in 2011 will change again as its placed within a new full-length piece, Svartisen (Black Ice), in collaboration with the dancer Pirjo Yli-Maunula and with lighting designer Ainu Palmu, a key collaborator who worked with Ilona on the original Footnotes and many of her other pieces. Svartisen will premiere in Ilona's hometown, Oulu, and her commitments are split now between Finland and the UK. The UK is the better environment for corporate work; Scandinavia has the edge when it comes to rehearsal space. But throughout 2010 Ilona was an occasional, night-time resident at Bethnal Green's Museum of Childhood, researching new site-specific material that was shown in December as six short pieces (Up, Up, In The Air) that used variously aerial hoop, a Museum sofa and a very large sheet of paper. It was a first sortie into the territory of the most vocal and pointedly honest of audiences: the very young. 'I was very nervous, because if they don't like it not only will they walk off but they'll also tell you so,' says Ilona. 'But I felt like I wasn't really thinking, Oh, what are they going to like, what are they going to do, should I be a clown. I'm not a clown, so I wasn't trying to be. It was really just making things I enjoyed: the stuff I enjoyed doing when I was a child, my favourite things.'
All the showings went well, but the piece on the sofa turned out to be the best received. 'That was my absolute favourite thing as a child, doing cartwheels, bouncing on the sofa, doing somersaults and things. I was a little bit worried that I would be a bad influence – because obviously it's a public sofa there... but kids will bounce on the sofa regardless, if they see me bouncing on it or not. And afterward I could tell they were bouncing it on it differently – they were mimicking what I'd been doing and they were doing it really well. There was this one little girl who kept asking if she could do it. I said she could if she'd asked her mommy, and she said: 'Yeah, yeah but I want to do it now. Put the music on!' I had to put the music on! She did the whole thing, and it was brilliant – how seriously she was doing it and how well she was doing it, and the things she thought were relevant to the whole performance and that she remembered the best.'
Another piece to surface in the UK last year, again at Jacksons Lane, was Polar, the product of a short research period with the handbalancer Natalie Reckert. Ilona performed a piece of aerial on suspended chickenwire, a material that in folding around the aerialist kept her shape and held a record of her action; Natalie balanced on a catwalk grid above the audience, inverted and looking down as they looked up, as if through the plane of some twist in gravity. There were discernible underlines and connections in the piece, but, in a way, it didn't want to speak – or what it said was carried away like a whisper on a strong wind. It was a work-in-progress, but it's how Ilona wants to work. 'I'm not really saying that it's a bad thing to work in narrative,' she says. 'But I was not theatre trained and I just feel that there are so many things in circus that I'd rather explore than how to tell something. I'm just really interested in what you can do with your discipline or with your body, other people, objects you've got within the space you're in. What can you do? I don't think there always has to be a story. I don't think the circus disciplines have to be forced into a theatre format somehow; it's absolutely fine if someone can do it and wants to do it, and I'm happy to do it in a show where we've got a director and there is a script and all that, but I'm not a director, I'm not a theatre-maker. I don't really have any interest in learning to be. I'm interested in just finding what else is there in my circus disciplines.'
The aesthetic of her work stands out for me in the UK, and I ask Ilona whether or not she thinks it's particularly Finnish, or Scandinavian. 'Well, I think its very un-British,' she says, 'at least in the way that it does seem to be a kind of requirement here to have a story that is really like What Is It About – in dance it's acceptable for it not to be about something. In circus it isn't, I don't know why. I think that here it's very confusing if you don't have narrative, and I think its a shame sometimes because I think the circus discipline is enough. The performer and the experience is enough. Also circus performers are often not actors... I'm really not confident speaking on stage for example. It'd be great if I was, but I'm not and I'm not sure there's any need for me to start learning that now because I don't have any specific interest in acting. So I think it's just enough to work with your discipline – just really concentrate on the circus aspects; it doesn't have to make sense in a theatre kind of way. It's not theatre anyway so why do you have to make it theatre? Circus is enough – why make it theatre? And of course it doesn't exist in a vacuum and people are going to see different things in it if it's more abstract, but I don't know. It's not theatre, and circus performers are not actors or dancers, and very often the dance is made on the floor: you do the act and then you make your little dance after the act. And you make a dance that you've done in a dance class and you just take that dance and put it before your act. I think it could be much better. I think movement is movement, so it can all be dance.'
Ilona Jäntti was interviewed in the bright, riverside ground floor of the Royal Festival Hall 29 December 2010.