Dance Festivals Under the Lodestar of International Contemporaneity

Tanz im August: Trisha Brown „Early Works (Leaning Duets)“, © John Mallison
Tanz im August: Trisha Brown „Early Works (Leaning Duets)“ | Photo (detail): © John Mallison

Dance Festivals have long since become an integral part of the annual calendar – even though the dividing lines between the arts are becoming blurred, and nowadays dance is at home everywhere.

Festivals established themselves as a new event format in the 1990s, and today these compact periods of time are an integral part of the performance calendars. For they offer the opportunity of seeing a series of pieces and choreographies in one fell swoop, and many people travel to the festivals from afar: for internationality, casting a glance across national and also cultural borders, has also long since become de rigueur. At the same time, a new figure in the dance and theatre scene gained strength - the curator. In an all-embracing concept, he or she unites disparate elements, art and theory, interdisciplinarity and also strengthens interculturality. With this, the respective festival should also reflect his or her personal view of the international dance scene, drawing a subjective portrait.

Conception change in August

Thus, in 2012, Germany’s biggest festival for contemporary dance, “Tanz im August”, was newly conceptualised, and its curatorium was replaced by a (female) curator. Founded in 1988 by the dance pioneer Nele Hertling in West-Berlin, it operated from the very beginning under the banner of the avant-garde, the experimental and fragile. Later the festival was held in collaboration with the Tanzwerkstatt Berlin und the Theater Hebbel am Ufer (HAU). The programme was selected by a five-member curatorium, which was criticised after the festival for its “randomness”. Following the end of Matthias Lilienthal’s directorship at the HAU, the curatorium was disbanded. With a new director, Tanz im August is now organised only by the HAU. Its 25th edition in 2013 was curated by Bettina Masuch: she staged a review of the history of contemporary dance, but also cast a glance into the future with young choreographers from Africa, Asia and South America. Her successor is the Finnish curator Virve Sutinen, she will direct the next two editions. It is no easy task that awaits her, for the aim now is to re-accentuate the profile of the Festival. “Tanz im August” has long ceased to be merely niche art, meanwhile it also stands for great guest performances, and Sutinen wishes to show both. In view of its unique significance in the national dance scene, a relatively small budget has been made available: the Culture Department has provided 225,000 Euros, while the Capital City Cultural Fund has donated 400,000 Euros.

Hybrid as the norm

However, dance also takes up a central position in theatre and performance festivals, for instance in the newly founded Festival Foreign Affairs, organised by the Berliner Festspielen. The first edition in 2012 was directed by the Grande Dame of the European performance scene, Frie Leysen, after which Matthias von Hartz took over the artistic direction. Foreign Affairs, which could refer to issues abroad or affairs with strangers, already bears its internationality in its title. It wants to bring the world of “contemporary performative arts” to Berlin – and this declaration of intent also reveals the desire to find the appropriate terminology for the confluence of the arts. Dance is well represented in the programme: in 2013 von Hartz showed, among others, a show with five works by the choreographer William Forsythe. In so doing, he made a decisive addition to the format festival that is constantly craving topicality and innovation: here one can see that contemporaneity is developing an awareness of its history and also wishes to offer an overview. Moreover, von Hartz wishes to signalise commitment, his engagement for certain artists. Since, in the past, the curator had also introduced ecological and economic themes into the theatre sphere, he has also established a new series between fine arts, theatre and theory, which questions present-day phenomena. But the Festival has been severely criticised for the time frame in which it is taking place: with its three weeks in July, it has moved into an unfortunate proximity with Tanz im August.

Dance in the south

In Munich there is no competition within the same house: there the Biennales Dance and Spielart take place in alternate years. Since 1995, they have been showing both guest performances and premieres, and are specialised in contemporaneity. For the city this is all the more important since it has no significant free supra-regional venues, and the festivals take place in various locations. In 2008 and 2010, Dance was curated by Bettina Wagner-Bergelt, deputy director of the Bayerisches Staatsballett, who showed current productions from the international dance scene. The 2012 edition was directed by Nina Hümpel und Dieter Buroch, whereby the latter will now only have an advisory function. This means that also the conception of the festival is now once again in abeyance. Spielart is directed by Tilmann Broszat and Gottfried Hattinger; operating with a variety of topics, they invite important theatre-makers from all over the world.

… and in the north

Great dance companies are also at home in the annual summer festival at Kampnagel in Hamburg. Founded 1985 as Sommertheaterfestival, later known as Laokoon, since 2008 it has been called Sommerfestival and is now directed by András Sibold. He focuses on a mixture of art, political discourse and pop culture, and is thus also paradigmatic for Kampnagel itself. In the course of the year, a series of small festivals can also be seen there: the Live Art Festival, for instance, seeks questions and criteria for performance art in nature and links this discourse with a topic – for example with animal studies. And in winter the Nordwind Festival invites visitors on a journey to Northern Europe and to the Baltic states.

These specialised themed festivals are future-oriented in that they complement and question the broadband programmes of the big festivals, which are all guided by the lodestar of international contemporaneity.