Flow Productions is the theatre of the year 2020

Eeva Kauppinen & Dance Info Finland, 9.3.2020

In the beginning of March the Association of Finnish Theatres awarded Flow Production, founded in 2006 and led by choreographer Pirjo Yli-Maunula, for its regional, national and international work combining dance, circus and theatre. The prize board praises Flow Productions for its collaborative, multidisciplinary work both on stage and site-specific.

Following article, written by Eeva Kauppinen, was originally published in Finnish Dance in Focus magazine (2018-2019).

Flow Productions: Torni (2016) © Pekka Mäkinen

Pirjo Yli-Maunula, the lead choreographer and artistic director of Flow Productions, creates striking works of art 550 kilometers north of Finland’s capital. She also works as a curator and producer as well as providing expertise in various other projects. She is a member of the Central Arts Council and was on the selection jury for the ICE HOT Nordic Dance Platform in 2016 and 2018.

Talking with Professor Yli-Maunula you get the impression that a person can be outside of the big cities and still firmly at the heart of a field of art. Whether you live and work in Ultima Thule or, like Yli-Maunula, in Oulu, it doesn’t automatically make your artistic work peripheral or mean that its content has to be set in some untamed wilderness. The artistic demands are the same regardless of place: vision, competency, networks, vantage points and outlook.

Pirjo Yli-Maunula © Janne-Pekka Manninen

Is there even such a thing as the periphery? When it comes down to it, in what sense does periphery actually exist in the art world? Does the need to use the concept of periphery simply showcase a condescending attitude and a value system toward art made out of big cities?

“To me it’s important that my work resonates in my own production environment. That’s the reason to do art and cultural work, after all–so it will speak to and reach as many people as possible where it is,” Yli-Maunula says.

“But I certainly don’t think I would do work that was only local, just for people in Oulu,” she adds.

“I want to have a sounding board for my work nationally and internationally as well. That’s why touring’s important. As an artist you want to get out of disposable culture and you hope your work has a longer life span.”

Yli-Maunula doesn’t like to think of art as even having a periphery.

“But I understand that jargon, of course. People talk about the capital area and then about art of the countryside. That’s how it is everywhere–there’s the capital and then the rest of the country.”

Yli-Maunula was born and went to school in Oulu, a northern university town. That’s where she has put down roots and that’s where she has stayed, because she has established good working relationships and trust with her audience.

“The working relationships include both a workspace (at Culture Centre Valve) and funding. I feel my work in Oulu has had significance, and I’ve got positive feedback about it, which is encouraging. I feel an affinity with the Oulu mentality—the cultivation of sarcasm and dark humor.”

Villa, Hailuoto 2019 © Janne-Pekka Manninen

“Naturally I’ve sometimes thought about moving to Helsinki. In the capital region I can find more artists like me and art circles where I could have interesting conversations,” she muses.

“But on the other hand, since there aren’t a lot of representatives of every kind of art here, especially not dance, it means that artists in different fields are eager to seek out collaborations with each other. We come in contact naturally–out having lunch, at openings and performances, and we follow each other’s work. Multidisciplinary work is natural and easy.”

There are advantages to being outside Helsinki.

“I think it’s kind of special that the arts institutions and festivals in my hometown of Oulu do regular collaborations with an entity like Flow Productions,” Yli-Maunula says.  “Would joint projects between one small, independent group or artist and official art institutions happen this naturally in Helsinki? With so many producers farther south, there’s a different kind of competition and art institutions perhaps don’t need to collaborate like they do here.”

Pirjo Yli-Maunula was part of the selection jury for the ICE HOT Nordic Dance Platform in 2018, where she also often ran into the question of how an artist or art work coming from outside the buzz of the big city can distinguish itself.

“Art has to on the one hand be global and universal, but on the other hand special and unique in how it explores its themes if it wants to speak to an audience outside its hometown,” she says. “Curators are looking for special pieces, things they can’t find in the places where they are.”

Working outside of the Helsinki area doesn’t mean an artist has to shrink her work down or simplify the themes or the thesis of a work.

“In my own work I want to challenge the audience. Not just in how I create the work, but also in my relationship with the audience. I like to create traditional works to be watched on a stage, but also immersive pieces where there’s some way that the audience steps into the piece, some participation and perhaps interaction.”

“I try to find different ways to meet the audience and to challenge them every time to encounter the same art form in a new way.”

Eeva Kauppinen, 2018