Vikram Iyengar

A performance as an anthem for our times

Johnny got his gun, a theatre piece by dramaturge and director Essi Rossi, sound designer Pauli Riikonen and actor Johannes Holopainen may be the first Finnish contemporary performance that is touring India. TINFO spoke to Vikram Iyengar, the curator of the Pickle Factory LEAP, the festival where the tour is kicking off on 10-11 February, 2024.


How and where did you become acquainted with the theatre piece, Johnny got his gun?

I first saw a pitch for Johnny Got His Gun as part of the Performing HEL showcase in Helsinki in 2019. I found it extremely powerful. Then our lives were taken over by the pandemic. In August 2022, I was at the Edinburgh Fringe in multiple capacities – performing at Dancebase, as a Fringe Associate, and visiting arts industry from India. I saw the full performance of Johnny Got His Gun as part of the Finnish showcase – From Start to Finnish – at Zoo Southside during this time. Watching the whole proved its power to me yet again. Soon after my return to India, I started conversations with the production representatives and prospective partners in India to bring the performance here.

What sparked your interest in it?

Johnny Got His Gun is like an anthem for our times – an anthem no one seems to be interested in hearing. The world has been staggering from one calamity to another for the past decade or more – most of them actively caused by humans, whether it is the very visible effects of climate change or the proliferation of wars and all kinds of other conflict across the planet. The anti-war, pacifist philosophy content was an important point of interest for me. But the most powerful factor is the way the novel has been translated into performance. It is at once intimate and epic, the audience feels implicit and complicit in what is happening, in the story being told.
There is no way that one can brush this reality away. The performer is riveting, the sound design is hard-hitting, the sense of suffocation and trauma is very palpable – and yet the audience is drawn in deeper and deeper. As a dancer and choreographer, the physicality of the piece also makes a strong impression – and that is a primary reason for us to programme it into our Season.

What kind of festival is Pickle Factory LEAP? Does it typically feature European programming?

Pickle Factory Dance Foundation creates homes for dance in all kinds of spaces and for all kinds of audiences. We think of ourselves as a nomadic space to think, meet, know, talk, imagine dance. We define dance very broadly as any performance with movement as a key driving element. We have presented classical and contemporary dance, physical theatre, performance, circus theatre, puppet theatre, martial art and more. Pickle Factory Season is our flagship event, and LEAP! is Pickle Factory Season 4.
Leaping signifies joy, faith, enthusiasm, abandon, imagination, risk, courage – perhaps a little danger – and a lot of fun. It asks us to push down on the solid earth we stand on and take off into the air, trusting that we will find land again – perhaps in the same place we left, perhaps somewhere else. We do not know. To leap is to suspend ourselves in possibility, to de-tether ourselves from the familiar and launch into what we may not have experienced before. It is a moment of freedom.Leaping involves our entire selves, and propels us into movement, time and space – the basic components that make dance happen. LEAP! – Pickle Factory Season 4 invites you to explore space, time, body, and movement with a range of artists through a range of experiences in a range of different ways.
Pickle Factory Seasons have always featured international work. So far the Seasons have always featured work from Europe, though this is the first time we will feature work from Finland and the Nordic countries – there is a work from Denmark later in the Season. Additionally, our Seasons have also featured artists from Australia, other parts of Asia, and – of course – India. The Pickle Factory Season is one of the few international dance events in the country. 
Johnny Got His Gun is the opening performance for this Season, and part of our inaugural weekend.

What reception do you anticipate for this pacifist piece?

Audiences in India are used to watching a variety of performance styles and languages, and I trust they will come to watch this piece with a great deal of curiosity, especially because performance from Finland is a rarity here. Indeed, this may be the first Finnish contemporary performance that is touring India. They start in Calcutta, go on to Santiniketan, Thrissur, Bangalore and Delhi.
Right now, India – like much of the world – is also caught in fundamentalist and violent rhetoric and polarization. Johnny Got His Gun is an extremely timely piece that I hope will get audiences to pause, and question the forces of aggressive nationalism and jingoism, and the bigotry and hatred they peddle. While the piece tells a story from another time and place, the themes are universal and the patterns are recognizable by everyone. I expect audiences to be impacted by the pure artistic power of the piece, and equally by the strident political critique it offers.
Vikram Iyengar spoke to Sari Havukainen
A photo by Dana Roy

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