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Marja Nykanen is originally from Helsinki, trained at the Aarhus Theater Academy and at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières.
She co-founded in 1997 the Théâtre d'Illusia-Aurora Company, currently based in Rouen, Nouvelle Aquitaine, France.
Since then she has created about twenty shows, realizing more than 1000 performances in the world, both in theaters and festivals of international fame and in unconventional places or in public spaces such as gardens and parks suitable for the creation of aquatic puppets.
After a trip to Vietnam in 1997 to meet the source of the water puppet tradition in the Hanoi region, she created First Song in 2000, a water puppet show inspired by the first song of the Finnish epic Kalevala.
This first show is followed by three others, all set on a water stage, which travel around the world for years.
After a residency in Taiwan in May-June 2019 at the Lize Puppet Art Colony, she creates for the Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnette 2021 the show Cantique Aquatique, which crystallizes more than 25 years of research on the technique of water puppets.
WHAT MEMORIES DO YOU HAVE OF WATER FROM YOUR CHILDHOOD UNTIL THE ENCOUNTER WITH VIETNAM?
My father was born on the border with Russia on the edge of a very large lake, very often in the summer we went there on vacation.
I remember the sensation of what we called fishing nets : the rays of light on the bottom of the lake when we took a bath.
For me it was something really fascinating.
And then I remember in Helsinki when we went with my mother to wash carpets by the sea, I was four, five years old.
The women washed the carpets, talked, argued, the carpets were colored, then we all squeezed them together.
And then I remember, when I was seven, eight, my father had a boat, which was called Tuli , which means the "fire" .
We could sleep in it, we could go on excursions to the islands sleeping one or two nights in there: sometimes it was very windy and we threw up, sometimes it was completely calm and it felt like we were sliding on the water.
How does all this relate to theater afterwards?
I think it was a trigger anyway.
When I arrived in Paris in 1985, there was an exhibition of Asian puppets in the Louvre and that's where I discovered that there was a form of water puppet .
Five years later I entered the Charleville school, where I was able to see several videos of Vietnamese performances, and in Reims, I was able to see a live show.
When we started working on the graduation project, I looked at Finnish history and my childhood and thought of a Finnish romantic painting called Lemminkainen's Mother , which is a bit of a shamanic hero, a kind of Don Giovanni. shaman.
In those years in Charleville there was a three month stage design course and one of the students, Olivier Defrocourt, was interested in my work, so I showed him some of my research and he said: "I want to do my diploma too. on this!".
Olivier's idea was that the important thing was the surface of the water, so the inside walls of the pool had to be reduced so that it looked like there was more water than there actually was.
The cut of the tub was a kind of triangle that meant that if the water overflowed it would go back under to collect it.
For me it was very important to use the reflections of the water, to remember my childhood , that magic of fishing nets, because I had seen that the Vietnamese did not use reflections at all: they used the lights to illuminate the puppets but they did not use water as an element of reflection.
I also found it interesting that in the Kalevala the first lines are about 1000 years old and apparently even the water puppets are about 1000 years old; the Kalevala is composed in octosyllables and the Vietnamese songs for water puppets are also in octosyllables, so there was this correspondence, entirely and purely theoretical.
The year after graduation I met Jean-Christophe and he probably has Vietnamese blood. ( Jean-Christophe Canivet, co-founder of the Illusia-Aurora Company, ed )
So I said I wanted to go to Vietnam to see how they did it and so we left, I was four months pregnant and we went there for a month.
It was funny because we had Jacques Félix's phone numbers for UNIMA Vietnam, we had the number of the House of World Cultures, because they had come to teach in Charleville, but when we arrived in Hanoi we discovered that there were three digits in less in any phone number.
Here we are without any contact in Hanoi.
We started going to the Ministry, to the offices: "Do you know? Does anyone know where there is a person called that? Is there anybody like that?", And then one day, we were in an office, we were asking, and a guy walking by in the corridor he says: "Ah, are you looking for him? He is there!".
I put the road map in his hand and said: "Mark me here where!".
Hanoi is quite large and by the time it was all under construction the street names had changed.
So in the end, we didn't just have a book with technical drawings.
With the money we had earned by organizing small puppet shows for the French school carnival, we were able to order an outdoor water puppet show, in a village, because it was not the season to see these kinds of shows.
Water puppet show, Vietnam
AFTER THE LONG PATH OF RESEARCH AND CREATION THAT YOU UNDERTAKEN IN THESE YEARS, HOW DO YOU SEE WATER TODAY?
What has really changed for me in recent years, if I think of water, in relation to all the research that there has been on living beings in general, is that it has finally been accepted that plants, trees, can have a intelligence, they can communicate, they can produce sounds, or even emotions .
I have the impression that water is the living side of all of this, and that everything is connected.
It cannot be said that it is just a body of water, to bring it back only to physics, or to chemistry: water has another function, it really has something living in it.
If we talk about emotions, the emotion it arouses in me is tenderness and respect.
It's like recognizing that water is truly like the ancestor of all living forms, which has been watching us for a very, very, very long time.
WHAT KIND OF REACTION DO YOU WANT TO AROVE IN THE PUBLIC THROUGH THEM?
I think there are some people who still need to experience the mystery of water, to preserve the wonderful aspect of this element.
And that there are other people who need to be touched by water in a much more concrete way. .
It will always remain a part of the mystery, I believe, because no one can yet explain how life can be created.
There is always a small step into the void, something that cannot be explained in there.
HOW DOES WATER INFLUENCE THE ANIMATION OF THE PUPPETS?
Water always has an unpredictable side and indeed there are times when we are frustrated because when it rains a lot we cannot work, water arises in a very authoritarian way, it generates conflicts at work.
It is not a small element to which we can say: "Okay, rain today, but not tomorrow!".
The mass of water is important for the puppets, I am talking about this technique that we use, the mass of water around the puppet is much more significant than, for example, for the manipulation in the air the resistance of this element.
A person who manipulates or works in an intellectual way, one could say Cartesian, will have difficulties, because water requires a more bodily, sensual approach and requires that you work on your intuition.
At the same time, the water asks to hear the currents beyond the puppet.
We cannot limit ourselves to considering the manipulation of the external form of the puppet as corporeality, we must go further.
Control sticks are long enough, so one way or another you have to perceive several square meters to be aware of all the space that comes into play, even if it's not visible to the public.
And I think there is also a special relationship with the stage mates, because if you are focused only on your own interpretation, there will be accidents between people.
You have to be very aware, a bit like in a dance choreography, I would say.
By structuring the movements in water as in dance writing, we are more easily able to use terminology that comes from dance rather than from theater.
There are fewer lines, fewer diagonals, there is something rounder, more linked to gravity, linked to the resistance of water, to heaviness.
You have to overcome yourself.
In working with water, if you are in resistance with the materials, the audience feels like a tension and the risk of breaking the puppets becomes almost uncontrollable.
There is something that you have to let go of, a confidence to have in order to arrive at this state of interpretation, in which we surpass ourselves.
We are not very many to be trained in this technique in the Company, we have never done workshops, maybe it will happen.
So far we have only four, five people who have worked with us.
We realized that it really isn't a job for everyone.
For example, it is necessary to have a time, both for meditation and for Chi Qong , or for the preparation of the scene and the materials, so that the actors during the time of the performance can achieve this increased presence .
Even though the show only lasts forty to fifty minutes, the time to place the puppets and get ready can be three hours for a show.
Set design for Cantique Acquatique, Théâtre d'Illusia - Aurora
HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE VIETNAMIAN TRADITION DEVELOPED OVER THE YEARS?
I often go back to the book that was offered to me then, and it seems to me that there are still many things that I have not experienced in traditional techniques, this does not mean that I think it must be traditional, but, after Charleville, I have noticed that there is a tendency to neglect traditional techniques, as if there was something devaluing .
When I was young, I was not at all interested in traditional arts.
In my training everything that was new, everything that was contemporary has always nourished me enormously and it was in Charleville that I was able to revise my vision.
I have learned to respect the technical vision of certain traditional puppets and I always need to go back.
It's a bit like listening to classical music, this doesn't mean you have to do the same thing again.
It's a kind of complicity, even if I don't know these people and I haven't kept any alive ties with the Vietnamese puppeteers, it's like a kind of bridge in time and space.
I think if I have the opportunity to spend more time on research residencies, I think I will try two or three new techniques, especially wheel systems for making puppets spin very fast.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT ARE THE POSSIBLE LINKS BETWEEN SCIENCE AND ART TODAY? WHAT CAN AN ARTIST DO TODAY, WHAT ROLE CAN THEY PLAY IN THE COMPLEXITY OF THE WORLD?
At the moment, in recent years, science is opening up to the living, we talk more about the intelligence of trees, their ability to communicate, the intelligence of animals, and that the capacity for reflection, intelligence, sensitivity they are not something that exclusively concerns man .
Depending on how man treats water, nature, springs, the entire ecosystem is affected.
Artists can highlight this global vision of the consequences that man's aggression has on his surroundings, not necessarily to make political speeches, but to work on the sensible, on the notion of what is alive, on the responsibility that man has towards the environment.
I think the artist can surprise, art is surprising, it changes our vision of things, and I think this provokes a kind of curiosity, of wonder.
If this happens, art has played its role in society.
Drawing by Aina, daughter of Marja Nykanen.
WHAT IS MISSING IN OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH WATER TODAY (DIMENSION OF THE SACRED, CELEBRATION, RECOGNITION)?
Recognition without a doubt.
I think it is easier to access the sacred dimension through music, for example, than through live performance.
The live show questions more than proposing solutions, this is its strength.
The sacred dimension of water is very present, for example, in Islamic culture, I don't know if our society will be able to celebrate it in this way.
I believe that today it is more important to recognize the bonds that bind us to it.
But to truly answer the question of the sacred, we must ask ourselves what it means; what is the meaning of "sacred" for all.
CAN ART HELP HEAL THE COMPLEX RELATIONSHIP HUMANITY HAS WITH THE ENVIRONMENT?
I think we must ask ourselves what presence man proposes on this planet.
These questions are growing stronger also because we know that there are things we can never go back on.
Our children will not have the same planet at all that we had in our childhood.
We do not necessarily need only political discourse or scientific discourse.
We also need to put things back in their place, to question the relationship that man has with nature.
I recently went to a meeting with the landscape architects of the Limoges metropolis who work on the ideas of Gilles Clément, focusing on how to make children aware of the idea that everything has its place and its purpose.
We can't say we want a field without nettles, because weeds play their part.
This is quite revolutionary when you think of it in relation to how we have treated the forests, how we have treated the fields.
If we can go far, in this view, perhaps we can again, even on a human level, have another acceptance. of ourselves.
YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEED TO WORK IN RELATION TO REALITY AND TERRITORIES, WHAT IS YOUR VISION OF YOUR WORK FOR THE FUTURE?
On a territorial level I live in a rural environment and there are advantages and disadvantages.
The word culture for the people here means to sow, it is related to plants, and for me this teaches many things, it forces us to think differently and to see better the bonds between living beings.
How can we learn to be kind to those around us?
Whenever we work in a pond we have to think: "Why am I doing theater? For whom? How am I going to get people to come?".
We have to ask ourselves all these questions and it is terrible if we have to solve everything by ourselves, but when you create some kind of dynamic with the community, then it becomes very interesting, because we can reflect together: what is the purpose of what we are doing?
It may be the show, of course, but what other interests can there be?
How can we raise awareness of these living spaces?
How can we intervene?
How can we share these questions with the locals?
That it is not just a concrete event, but that deeper questions also arise: how do we want to manage the territory?
What can we do together?
What do we share?
And this is where things get very interesting.
Marja Nykanen, childhood photo
ESSENTIAL LINKOGRAPHY OF MARJA NYKANEN
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