Dancer, choreographer, artistic director and artist professor Pirjo Yli-Maunula has accumulated many merits, and no wonder. After all, she has dedicated her career – soon to span four decades – to the art of dance.
For Oulu residents, Yli-Maunula is familiar as the key figure and co-ordinator of Flow Productions, which brings the most interesting works of circus and dance art from Finland and round the world to her home stage at Cultural Centre Valve. Every second year, Flow Productions realises an immersive, i.e. site-specific work, whose process of preparation deviates considerably from other works of art. Varikko, the fifth immersive production by Yli-Maunula and the working group she leads, is being built this time at the Oulu City Depot.
‘First you must find the space where the work will be realised. The venue influences the content of the production quite fundamentally, and with Varikko the space has a particularly strong impact. We couldn’t present Varikko in any other premises than here in Oulu’s City Depot. If this work were transferred elsewhere, it would require an entirely new process, and the whole production would have to be re-built from scratch,’ Yli-Maunula states.
‘The orientation on materials and the performer’s relationship with them are also an essential part of the production. I often start things upside down: for example, I want a big pile of peat, and only then do I start thinking about what it will be used for,’ she continues.
The property at the depot owned by the city is indeed interesting (and for sale): in the middle of the engine room, there is a pile of peat and a box of fragments, but the final key ingredient is still missing – i.e. the creative talent.
Yli-Maunula trusts her designer team: Heidi Kesti as the set designer, Anssi Laiho as the sound designer, and Jukka Huitila as the light designer have each participated in all five immersive performances: in Varjakka (2014), Torni (2016), Secret Garden (2018) and Hylky (2020). Only the costume designers are new in Varikko: Sylvi Siltavirta and Pirkko Hansen-Haug.
‘The construction of this sort of work is easier when at least some of the creative team know how an immersive performance is created. A great deal of self-reliant initiative as well as independent work are required from the working group, but I also trust my designer team a great deal,’ Yli-Maunula says appreciatively.
Dancer Milla Virtanen and performer Nikke Launonen have been involved in several of Yli-Maunula’s immersive work, but the performing artists are first-timers, though they are experienced professionals in their fields of art. That too is part of the process.
‘For me it’s important to share authorship, even if I’m the director. I give the work its points of departure and determine its atmosphere and themes: I can give the performers particular tasks. The dancers, actors and circus artists bring their own expertise to the work, creating, for instance, choreography in their own scenes. The process becomes communal, as a result of which the mutual trust between us and our areas of expertise also grows. The performers can also step into an area where they might not go in their normal work,’ Yli-Maunula reflects.
Everything needed is born in the process
Immersive performances start from the place, materials and artistic working group, and the preparation process of the work of art itself produces the final result.
‘Everything in the work is created within the process as you start to bring it into being. I do think about things in advance, but everything that’s done and how it’s produced occurs within the process – not in the pre-planning, but right here and now. In this case we’re also open to what the team creates for the work. Someone might suggest an idea which then generates more ideas, which continue generating more and more ideas. As David Lynch describes his own processes, you only have to catch the first fish and then the whole school comes along with it. To me that pictures our own working method rather well!’ Yli-Maunula chuckles.
In Varikko, two Oulu Theatre actors, Merja Pietilä and Susanna Pukkila, are taking part, and in the future the intention is to deepen the co-operation between Oulu Theatre and Flow Productions.
‘During the European Cultural Capital year, 2026, we’ll be collaborating with the theatre in the production of Faravidin maa [The Land of Faravid] – directing it together with Alma Lehmuskallio – and there will be more theatre actors involved at the time. It’s great that we’ll get the theatre’s bigger resources involved: our goal is to bring about an immersive work of art for a larger audience,’ Yli-Maunula explains.
For Pietilä, merely joining Varikko already fulfilled the dream of a lifetime.
‘I’d been dreaming of joining Pirjo’s production for so long that I was a little nervous about whether my expectations were too high – could I or would I still like it? Now when it was possible for me to be involved schedule-wise, and the rehearsals started, I was sure that I wanted to be a specific part of this. Not only that, but the depot facilities are so spectacular that I’m on fire with enthusiasm for this space,’ Pietilä declares.
‘I didn’t know that Pirjo gives so much freedom to its makers. We get to present our own hopes and wishes for the production, which is exciting and something new for me,’ Pietilä notes.
Although up to now the construction of an immersive work has already been an inspiring experience, Pietilä absolutely anticipates the presence of the audience the most.
‘For myself, what interests me more than anything in this work is the spectator contact. It’s so different than in the theatre. People get to come and go entirely in line with what they personally prefer: to come close or remain far away – and all of this is just around the corner!’ Pietilä exclaims.
The audience crowns the work
According to Yli-Maunula’s experience, the final touch to the immersive work is provided only and exclusively by the audience that has arrived to view the production, and which is different each time.
‘The further the rehearsals go, the louder the work begins to scream to the audience to get the interaction started. For this reason, pre-performances are arranged before the premiere. Situations of interaction with the audience can’t be rehearsed except with the audience itself,’ Yli-Maunula affirms.
Through the previous productions, Yli-Maunula and her working groups have already developed a good feel for how the audience behaves during a performance. Nevertheless, each presentation situation of the work contains surprises that those doing the production draw from for ensuing performances.
‘Each spectator has a lot of power in relation to our presentation: they decide themselves what they’ll focus on watching, what they actually watch, how long they do so, and whether they’ll leave in the middle of it all or personally participate in the production. There’s a certain kind of herd mentality in an audience: some move about a lot, others are passive, and the performers adapt. And every performance provides instruction for the next – ahh, that can go this way, too? As a performer it’s nice to experience the diversity of the various groups of spectators,’ Yli-Maunula points out.
Many fields of art are combined in an immersive work of art, creating many portals to view the presentation for the audience.
‘Someone might be more interested in the circus, dance, the actor’s work or just the space itself and its visual character,’ Yli-Maunula reckons.
A year’s work – over in a moment
The production of the work including all its various stages is described by the artistic director as intensive and even laborious.
‘We began with the dancers and circus artists a year ago. We had two rehearsal periods together last year, and this year we continued in June. In the beginning of August, Susanna and Merja joined the production and we rehearsed together until the premiere while the set design, lighting and soundscape were being completed,’ Yli-Maunula relates.
Varikko saw its opening night on Saturday 27 August and the work’s performance series will continue until 30 September.
‘The construction of the “world” of this work is fascinating – when it’s finished, you just want to be in it and you don’t want to leave. It’s sad when that world is demolished and everything comes to an end,’ she admits.
For Yli-Maunula, it is difficult to assess how Varikko differs in relation to the previous works.
‘As a creative director, I try to find better solutions for the immersion, and one develops as an artist alongside it. Thus far the works have been appreciated, and of course there’s some anxiety over whether the new work is up to the same level as its predecessors, but in my own opinion we’ve succeeded in producing a series of consistent quality. Comparison of these works is like comparing one’s own children, but it has to be said that we did achieve something special with Hylky,’ Yli-Maunula reckons.
Food for thought for the audience
The world of immersive works is a holistic experience, but for the audience the experience of the production is always individual – and after the presentation has been seen, not everything is clear. Some of the spectators return to watch the production again. The experience is described as exciting if even oppressive in parts – and this is not a bad thing at all in the view of the director.
‘Black humour, dark tones, surrealism and absurdity – these interest me. They’re the spicy elements found in all my works. I have a favourite line from Dr Who: ”Sad is happy for deep people.” I love the middle ground in the arts that’s just between laughter and crying. Those contrasts where somebody may laugh whilst somebody else may cry at the same thing. The spectator’s imagination is given free rein: nothing is ready-made and fed to him or her like a McDonald’s hamburger. Spectators must personally go to some trouble and allow their own thoughts to fly,’ Yli-Maunula emphasises.
A “fomo” stress test
The numbers of audience members are limited and the total tally of performances is twenty. If one wishes to view a performance, the tickets must be booked immediately – and it has to be accepted that one may not come close to seeing everything in the work itself. FOMOS – in other words, “fear of missing out” – is present in watching the production.
‘There’s a lot of self-selection in the performance, while at the same time things are happening in various spaces. This can cause anxiety in the audience — that “fear of missing out” feeling. Always before the performance, I tell the audience that they’re going to miss a huge number of things happening here. It’s useless to be afraid that something is left unseen, because something’s left unseen all the time – regardless of what one chooses to watch in the presentation. So it’s advisable to concentrate on what one is watching at that particular moment and not start running all over the place. The experience is better the more you quiet down and you’re present where you are,’ pictures Yli-Maunula.
Especially towards the end of the performance series, demand is greater than the number of tickets available. The performance is meant to be enjoyed on the spot, but a small bit of Varikko can be tasted on 3 September at the Welcome to Oulu festival on Kuusisaari, where circus artists Katarina and Jared van Earle, who perform in Varikko, will perform a duet.
The schedule and additional information regarding the Oulu kylässä (Welcome to Oulu) festival can be found at this link.
Performance times and tickets for the Varikko can be found at this link.
Varikko is part of the Oulu August Festival programme. You can find the whole programme at this link.