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Under the Gaze of Children – Päivi Aura’s work moves people of all ages

A little girl in a frilly dress does a few dance steps next to an old wood-burning stove. The setting is Äänekoski, a factory town of a few thousand residents in central Finland in the late 1950s. The dancer is Päivi Aura, whose long, multifaceted career in Finnish dance began back in the 1970s.

“I’ve been dancing all my life – I’ve never been able to sit still for long. It’s just innate. I don’t know where I got my dancing know-how from as a little girl, but that memory is very strong. I flitted around like a butterfly,” she recalled.

In her early twenties, she moved to Jyväskylä to study physical education, even though it was never her intention to become a PE teacher.

“It was the early ’70s and there just weren’t any other educational opportunities in Finland then,” Aura explained. She did her master’s thesis in the late ’70s in the faculty of physical education – on the subject of pedagogical dance, prophetically enough.

“For my thesis, I did an interpretation of the creative, aesthetic side of dance. The way dance could be part of children’s creative education. I’m sure that even back then, I was already forming my own concept of which aspects of dance are important to me,” she mused.

Finding freedom with children

Päivi Aura’s career path has been a journey of many years through – and between – roles as a dancer and dance educator, student and teacher. Later, since her move to Helsinki, her choreography work has “flowed onwards” from one task to the next.

In the mid-’90s, though, it looked as if Aura’s dancing career might come to a difficult end. She sustained several leg injuries, and a broken ankle was treated badly.

“I ended up immobile for a whole year. The doctors said I’d never dance again and advised me to change career. That was the critical point where I had to think very hard about whether I could still dance or do anything dance-related,” she recalled.

Aura decided not to listen to the doctors and instead began a tough exercise regime on her legs with a simple elastic band technique. Three years of hard work paid off: nearly twenty years later, Aura is still dancing. Her artistic career also zoomed off in a new direction towards children’s dance.

“I had a sense that even though I was a bit banged up and couldn’t dance as much as I used to, I could still work with children. And by doing that sort of creative activity, I found a completely new way to engage with dance!” she smiled.

Aura dived into the world of children’s dance in 1998, and soon her work had taken on an international dimension. Today she is one of Finland’s best-known dance artists on the international scene.

Päivi Aura’s magical dance works such as Moon Maiden (“Kuuneiti”, 2007), Me-Me (2009) and Petit Câlin (2012) have toured extensively around European stages and festivals, and she has collaborated with people in Asia and Middle America. She is currently working on a new dance piece.

Her dance works, as well as her workshops on related themes, have always been created together with children and parents as well as professionals from the fields of dance and performing arts. Aura has two children of her own, so it was not a stretch to begin working with children.

“I didn’t give it a second thought. I actually felt a freedom, both inside and out, to create dance and to work in my own way. Being around children comes naturally to me. I’ve never really tried to set down rules for children; I’ve let the interaction progress freely so that we achieve our shared goal,” she explained.

Later, that method infused her choreography work with professionals as well. Choreography that used to be done one step at a time has been transformed into a dancer-oriented approach in which performers are very involved in the creation of works.

“When the performer’s presence is a strong element of a work, it also opens up a different kind of approach to the audience than with a work that was conceived entirely externally. But I am careful who I choose to do this sort of work with. We have to have an excellent working relationship so my idea will get across,” Aura emphasised.

Sensitive presence

Päivi Aura has tackled some major themes in her works, such as the relationship between people and nature, as well as bodily encounters. Petit Câlin, meaning “little hug”, was premiered in 2012. In creating that work, Aura investigated intimate emotions: joie de vivre, happiness, anxiety and pain, around which the dance piece was structured.

“Petit Câlin means the first embrace a child receives after birth. We thought it was quite like sitting in someone’s lap, where you can do anything with no need to fear. A free, secure arena,” Aura explained.

That piece is also an example of Aura’s way of choreographing. The dancer Takako Matsuda performs the work within a loose structure as an instant composition, together with the musician and lighting designer.

“We’ve trained a lot together, and it’s partly set out which action follows another. But I’ve left a lot of space for the performer’s feelings at that moment, for good and bad days. And that freedom applies to all three performers on stage,” she said.

“It creates a certain fragility in the piece. It can break very quickly, and that’s something I can see touches people. It makes the whole audience – children as well as adults – concentrate,” she added.

Aura has performed Me-Me (which means “We-We” in English), her “baby piece” for children under age three, with dancers including Lieve Hermans from Belgium and her own daughter Kati Lehtola. Me-Me was created as a charming solution to a common problem with works for small children.

“I’ve seen a vast number of pieces where at some stage a child is taken out of the performance space. They want to be part of the activity, too, and then there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth – terribly restless! I wondered if there was a solution,” Aura explained.

As she held workshops all over Europe, the idea for a new way of working with children gradually began to take shape. This was the basis for Me-Me, which means “we” the performers and “we” the audience, both together.

In the piece, the performers – three dancers and a musician – are on the same level as the children and adults in the audience.

Aura described the piece: “We just go out to sit and wait. We see who is there and what starts to happen. When we see someone in the audience moving around, that’s the impetus for us to start moving.”
She continued: “We ask the adults to refrain from speaking, while the children can just be themselves. We even let the children come onto the floor with us. The moment is where it all happens. If I’m not 100% present, it just fizzles out. And this works for children under three: children over three start to have such models of social behaviour that they need a different kind of performance.”

“But those babies! They’re just there, observing, until they’ve finished. Some remain sitting in one spot; others come along with us. Sometimes we don’t get very far before some little person comes and sits on our lap. A random child, in a completely strange situation! They decide for themselves that they can go up there,” she remarked.

Aura explained that the unpretentious, active participation of their young audiences delights and challenges the performers. That uncompromising presence is the core lesson she has learnt through creating dance and performing for children.

“You can’t fake it with them. Experienced adult viewers can sit silently and politely through a performance, whatever they might think of it. Things don’t go like that with children. They are more prepared to respond to anything at all, and you can get all kinds of feedback from that. It’s simply fantastic,” Aura smiled.

Movement in all of us

While the pieces developed by the Auraco dance theatre, founded in 2006, are termed works for children, Päivi Aura said they are just as much for adults.

“There are often tight-lipped adults sitting in the audience, but during the performance their expressions gradually change and soften. I’ve seen it happen many times. Somehow, stopping and being silent opens people up in a way that can sometimes be a bit confusing,” Aura said.

“The way a dance piece is presented can affect people of any age. All of us are physical; we have movement within us. While our movement often gets stiffer with age, it doesn’t disappear. If we give it permission to emerge, then it will have an effect on us,” she pointed out.

In Päivi Aura’s view, dance can give children cognitive knowledge as well as a fundamental understanding of their own existence.

“For small children, movement is their natural mode of self-expression: they’re very good at it. I believe that movement can strengthen children’s self-image and their whole being in every way – when the child moves herself, but also when she sees movement,” she noted.

Aura worries that adults do not always devote time to children’s mode of communication. In her view, interaction between adults and children is “an incredibly important thing,” and in her most recent workshops she has focused on non-verbal communication between children and parents.

“The adults merely pause and look at their child for a brief while: that’s something that doesn’t happen very often. Taking time to watch, and remaining in the child’s gaze for as long as she needs, without starting to entertain her or deciding for her what the next step is to be. Letting the child decide when and how she is ready to proceed. That’s my current mission,” Aura explained.

Having become a grandmother herself in 2011, Päivi Aura has expanded her repertoire in recent years to include working with elderly people in performances in care homes. All of those experiences have led her to believe that movement is our most fundamental means of communication at both ends of life.

She concluded: “When I’m in those situations, in front of or alongside people of different ages, I forget all about my everyday worries. I think, wow, I’ve got a purpose in life! If I can show someone else just a tiny sliver of their potential, then my own work becomes more meaningful.”

The article was originally published in Finnish Dance in Focus 2013–2014 magazine.
Translation: Ruth Urbom


Author Elina Manninen
Artist Aura, Päivi