Tanz im August: Strip teasing the layers
Vanini Belarmino in conversation with Virve Sutinen, Berlin, Germany, 27 August 2015
“I am only interested in power because you can make a difference. I am interested in power because you can change these games. It’s not my identity as a curator or a director.”(Virve Sutinen, Artistic Director Tanz Im August)
Prior to your involvement with the punk rock scene in Helsinki and move to become the Director of Performance at Kiasma, then at Dansen Hus Stockholm, in what way were you connected with contemporary dance/performance? Early beginnings – what led to your practice as a dance curator/programmer?
Before punk, there was ballet. I went to a private ballet school as a 6 year old. I started vigorous ballet training and performing at a very young age. I had my first job in the theatre as an 11 year old at the children’s ballet in 1973. I have worked in the theatre all my life in that sense.
I stopped and stated intensive dance training, meanwhile becoming interested in politics and music. For a little while had a little punk rock club for minors in Helsinki. After that I went back to dance in the beginning of the 80s. I studied theatre science and kept on dancing and making pieces. Later I took the diploma as dance teacher. So I was always around dance. It’s my first love.
But after the 80s, I was injured very badly at the age of 26. I stopped dancing and became engaged with dance in other ways: writing, observing, research. I did all the jobs you can imagine in the field of dance, teaching children, working for the dancers union and other odd jobs.
I was working with a lot of dance organisations and started writing dance reviews for a conservative newspaper. And then I met a dance writer from New York, Marcia B. Siegal. I had been interested to study at the New York Tisch for the Arts but, it was so far from Helsinki at that time. I latter did my Masters in Performance Studies at NYU.
After that everything came together.
When I came back to Finland, I took over the Finnish dance magazine andy became its Chief Editor until Kiasma was built in 1997. It was clear from the beginning that they wanted to have a performing arts curator in the team. And I applied for the job – I went and I got it.
The threshold was low. This was really a pioneering work. To be part of a museum, to be part of a team, a different kind of museum that integrate the performing arts into the programme. It was great for the Finnish artists because it was the time when conceptual dance was coming in so strong. So we kind had a mission from the beginning of what do to, who the artists were we wanted to present. It was a very exciting time.
So how was it received within the museum context?
We had a very visionary Museum Director, Tula Arkio.
It was clear to our director that it was not enough to just to have a just a contemporary fine arts museum, that there was the potential for an interdisciplinary experience for audiences.
We could see at the time that people were moving from the galleries to the theatre and vice versa. Artists were choosing which context they wanted to present their work.
This was extremely exciting. It wasn’t all clear. There was a fear that performing arts in the museum means that we were going to put dancers in front of the paintings, like silly things. Of course through the processes, we overcame this.
It was great for the artists to be in a context where perimeters were pushed, literally there was more space and this opened up potentials to work differently.
What was it like navigating the relationship between the body and objects - museum curators who were traditionally object oriented?
I don’t think there was an issue, rather there was very little understanding of the economy of the performing arts. It is very, very costly, and has a different cycle.
When there is an exhibition, once it opens, you rest for a while. When you have dancers, you have two days that the company is present. It’s a different pace.
So there was a mutual learning process on how you put those processes into the one institution. With big exhibitions, you plan two or three years before. In the dance sector you hardly know if you still exists in three four years. A lot of the issues have a lot to do with economy.
Looking back over the last 25 years of Tanz Im August, how do you perceive the shits in artistic direction and the festivals relationship to the city of Berlin?
For me, I think this city has always been exciting. The festival has always been exciting. Previously there were three festival curators, I actually didn’t find it quite problematic because I came from afar. When I got here, I was just interested to see everything. It probably feels different now that there is one Artistic Director and the responsibility of the festival is no longer divided into so many different organisations – with HAU being the host.
I came into a different situation in many ways when I came to the festival. I came into a city which is going through very rapid change. These changes have been coming for a while, but I think there comes a point when it tips over and that moment is now, it’s tipping over into something else.
When it comes to dance, people all over the world are coming to Berlin. I wonder when it meets a saturation point - when the city can’t take good care of the artists coming in. I think there is already a sense of this. I talked to a Korean artist who’s been living here since 2006 and she says that the critics don’t come to her performances. There are hundreds of performances happening a day and it’s not humanly possible to see everything.
The wonderful thing about Berlin is that people do have their own audiences for their work – and this is the most important thing for an artist – that they have an audience who’s there for them and who wants to understand what they are doing.
Could you elaborate a bit more on your statement: “We would like to develop Tanz Im August into a durable structure for contemporary dance”.
When it comes to the cultural life in Berlin, there is big change coming. You can feel it everywhere. It’s in the Staats Ballett, it’s in Volksbuehne.
Coming from outside, it’s interesting to come at this point. It’s opening up a little bit. There is no denying this is the theatre city of the world in many ways. But times are changing and there will be new winds for sure.
How much I am part of that, I don’t know, I try to find my own way because I try to be there to understand it from the viewpoint of the dance sector. What can the festival do to build a more sustainable dance culture in Berlin. It’s not just about being a “good” festival and selling tickets but how to be a good partner, a good platform. It doesn’t have to do everything or a lot of different things but how can it do what it does best, most effectively.
The festival can build new audiences for artists, it can co-produce. It can find partners for artists. It can play an important role locally.
I think the festival is like icing on the cake. It’s like the fun part on the economy of dance. But production facilities are a central part of a healthy economy of dance. I think in terms of contemporary dance, we are still lacking resources. We are still lacking a kind of infrastructure that would support the artists. The festival is just one little part of the ecosystem. We are not in the position to make big changes for the community.
What led you towards programming the artists from East and South-East Asia?
I don’t want to present the Asian companies as a theme. It doesn’t serve them right. I wanted them to be part of the programme first of all. I think, secondly, for the audience it makes sense to present within some sort of context, not just a one off. Somehow I picked up the performances and artists so that they complement each other. It is often that they give one sided imagine “ Asian dance”. It’s not just Asian dance. We have so many diverse artists and I would like to look at these artists as individuals. With Choy Ka Fai we couldn’t present more than two artists live but presented the 80 portraits of artists working in contemporary dance in Asia.
I was thinking for the audience sake and for the politics of it it would be better to present young and upcoming artists, some radical artists who are working with more radical formats; artists who want to work with big scale; academic choreographers – I think that was the political decision. There is a lot of politics in this it’s a big festival also working on a diplomatic level. Like everywhere you get stronger locally when you get international recognition. So, part of it is the game of cultural diplomacy and part the support to the artists.
There is a number of Korean works in this years program.
The thing with Korea is that they have invested so much into dance education. They have about 15 university degree levels in dance. This gives you an idea how much money they are putting into dance education and you can see from the Korean dancers practicing across the world, there are a number in dance companies in Berlin. Clearly Japan is lacking the educational system and support. Really education is the base to form dance culture.
You’ve presented pieces in the realm of visual arts and dance this year and even covered in part the history of Judson Church – could you elaborate a bit why you moved in this direction?
Berlin has always had that contact between disciplines. Once of the most important questions for me was the economy between visual arts and dance. The Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles commissioned Lucinda Childs “Available Light”, and they really invested in this, and they really created something of value. Rather than what some of the museum world is doing now – where the value is created in the dance sector and then just picked up and placed in the lobby of a museum. Of course, this kind of big scale collaboration was one of the themes of this festival.
For me, it’s not so much about going back to Judson. Rosemary Butcher – that’s another thing. She was really influenced by her years in New York but at the same time, she has not been within the canon of European conceptual dance. So by including her into the programme is about acknowledging the canon we are standing within and the fact that she needs to be there. We really wanted to present her well and make sure that people know we have a pioneer in Europe – who is still producing beautiful, quality work.
So what are you plans on reaching out to a new audience?
The visual art scene is one thing, there is a bigger question of reaching out to those audiences who have not yet seen dance, this is a big challenge. I am hoping to actually get somebody on the team who will work with me on this.
This year we had four people on audience engagement, focused on deepening understanding post performance and physical introductions.
But how to reach out to those who have yet to be exposed to dance? I have some ideas. I would love to do children’s programme and reach out to the young audiences – who are the hardest to reach out to. Looking at how we could serve the different groups. There’s a lot of work to be done.
What is the legacy that you wish to establish as a dance curator?
If you want to build something, you need a certain amount of time for that. It took me 6 years to build Dansen Hus Stockholm. It took me 10 years to build Kiasma theatre. So I know a little about how to build or manage change in an organisation or manage change in a festival without losing your audience. It’s easy to come and just do my programme – but I feel very responsible that the audience is still here even if I leave or the programming is taken in a slightly different directions.
I’m perhaps interested to show dance that’s not very much shown in Berlin, that looks slightly different from what’s being shown during the season. I want to do a lot of things but I would like to manage that process so that the audience can follow with us. They have enough of both medicine and candy.
In the end, the most important thing is to really widen and deepen the understanding of contemporary dance, and art in general. Arts and culture are part of a good life and it should be the right of everyone to be able to engage and participate in this as much as they want to and can. We always have to find special ways to engage those who are outside of the discourse or don’t have the resources or cultural capital to participate. So how do we do that?
My legacy would be to have a healthy festival. I like the festival like to be a party. Not a “party, party”, because this city has more than enough parties. Something beyond the normal season, something a little bit special. It should have that special feeling. Then there comes the season, which is the bread and butter.
How do you stay in love with dance?
I don’t. I fall out of love with dance everyday. I have to say when I started in Stockholm, I had 30 staff and I asked them why they work there, their aspirations. It was very funny because many of them said, “I’m here because I love dance.” And I listened to this and I said – I don’t want you to love dance. It’s not just there to be pampered and loved I want you to interrogated dance. It is to be questioned. You cannot just love it unconditionally. It is conditional, it is there for a reason and all those reasons are relevant for our work as curators. There are so many ways at looking at dance. You can instrumentalise it. You can put it on a pedestal and so on - but to understand dance is more important than loving it.