International Visitors Programme
Small Dances in Germany
Lately, I have been thinking about small encounters during big occasions. This summer, I attended two large dance events in Germany. The first was the tanz nrw festival around the North Rhine-Westphalia region, and the second, the Tanzkongress in Dresden. Both events gathered many people – artists, presenters, writers, curators, funders – for what seemed like an endless stream of events. And through both, it was the more intimate interactions that stayed.
By Poorna Swami
I arrived in Düsseldorf in early May for the International Visitors Programme of tanz nrw. The morning was cold and lightly wet – an abrupt change from the Indian summer I had departed only a few hours before. Although the following days I would spend in the NRW region would remain generally dreary, the group of people gathered for the programme were anything but. Hailing from places as far as Brazil and Ukraine, Jordan and Hong Kong, my fellow participants (mostly organisers of festivals and residencies) made for a wonderful cohort. Amidst a packed schedule of watching shows, visiting spaces, and meeting artists, this motley group chatted about everything from the works we saw, to the similarly trying conditions under which we work in our respective contexts.
Although the point of the programme was to promote the work and resources of the NRW region, ideally with the intent of presenting NRW art abroad, I found the unscheduled sharings within the visitors group to be very valuable. On a platform that asked us to create a network by scouting for works, the group reminded me that art is more than product – it is a forum between people, always evolving.
Over the course of our NRW trip, we visited Düsseldorf, Cologne, Essen and Bonn. The institutions that interested me most were the German Dance Archives in Cologne, PACT Zollverein in Essen, and Weltkunstzimmer in Düsseldorf – the last two, with their emphasis on encouraging process, especially stood out. Being a journalist and an artist, I used my trip not to find material to curate, but to gather knowledge about institutions and practices that the community I work with might find interesting. The archives, although hard to navigate in English, revealed many meticulous ways in which dance can and should be archived. That the staff was open to research questions from anywhere in the world was heartening. I particularly enjoyed the exhibition on dance critics, which highlighted how German dance’s history of critique is tied into specific histories of violence and censorship. PACT, located in the Zollverein coal mine (also a UNESCO world heritage site) was wondrous. The architecture got me excited and jumpy at every turn. And there was something thrilling in observing many art projects happen simultaneously in the vast space. For so many artists, it would be a dream to work in a space like this.
Despite the back-to-back trips to such seemingly grand places, the artist interactions with Düsseldorf-based artists Ben J. Riepe and Alexandra Waierstall were perhaps the highlight of my visit. We met Ben in his studio – a makeshift white cube, strewn with animal heads and shiny costumes. A small kitchen, office, and passageway posing as archive completed his mini-enterprise. I had seen Ben Riepe’s work many years ago in India, so I was happy to see Geister – Fragment XL, a much more recent work, at the festival. His sense of scenography was as powerful as I remembered. The morning after the performance, at his studio, Ben spoke about the work, his approach to choreography, and how he views his role as a well-funded artist. Although the work’s production value was high, and its scenography grand, the thoughts behind it seemed meandering, discursive. With Alexandra, whom we met the next day (after watching her Bodies and Structure), the conversation was similarly surprising. She spoke on how she understands the human body, and how she works to make her practice more ethical. Hearing the very real preoccupations of these artists helped locate their works, unpack them. Without these quiet exchanges, the works would have remained products and not conversations.
A month later, the Tanzkongress began, across the country in Dresden. The days were sunnier, the air warmer, and the grass behind Hellerau (the venue of the congress) became the most popular gathering space. That shift from inside to outside, from concrete to earth, was telling.
The Tanzkongress’s history is almost 100 years old. Over the years, the congress has come to be a very formal event, dominated by scholars and producers – discourse has not been in the hands of the artists. This year’s Tanzkongress proposed a new kind of gathering. Curated by an artist, largely for artists, the so-called “conference” did away with traditional presentations and panels. Instead, it offered choreographed discussions, physical practices, and communal meals as alternative ways of engaging in conversation.
Over five days, I attended various talks, roundtable discussions, and movement sessions.
A series of one to one conversations between artists who know each other and artists who don’t, was a unique way of literally putting different perspectives in conversation. These conversations, whether on a stage, or under a tree with spectators lying down, allowed artists to meet without the agenda of producing something together. I wish institutionally-backed projects allowed for that more often.
Another format, “The Future has Always been Black” by Thomas DeFrantz in many ways left me shattered. It was a choreographed conversation, in which Thomas invited different speakers to talk about different topics related to Blackness. People in the “audience” could contribute spontaneously, too. Periodically, a gong would ring, and everyone was asked to move the constellation of tables in the room so that you, literally, had to see the conversation from a different viewpoint. In a largely White space, these hours to listen to voices that have been most ignored and most co-opted felt necessary. They also helped dismantle the project of diversifying art platforms (like the Tanzkongress), which bear both well-meaning actions and tendencies toward tokenisation. This session stood out as a beautiful coming together of choreography and discourse, of body and thought. It also led me to many private conversations, on diversity, equity, and history on the grass outside.
For the Tanzkongress, the many rooms of Hellerau had been converted into different settings. There was the Messy Room (filled with paper junk, tinsel, and other paraphernalia), the Music Room (with instruments and musicians ready to improvise), the Studio (with a dance floor, of course), and so on. In the Reading Room, equipped with copies of the Tanzkongress Reader and rolls of memory foam to laze on, I led a reading group on one of the texts in the Reader – a poem by American poet CA Conrad. A small group of five people attended and we spoke, through the poem, about violence embedded in art. A few days later, Delhi-based choreographer Mandeep Raikhy led another reading on a text titled ‘Queer Love’. His group was smaller, but the discussion, equally engaged. It isn’t everyday that artists take the time to read together, to parse word and thought together. These unambitious sessions, lolling over paper and foam, were wonderful because they enabled exactly that.
Although this Tanzkongress wanted to encourage a kind of proximity between participants, the event, 500 people strong, was ultimately exclusive and large; most people had to pay to attend. There were also many flaws, like the lack of access for disabled persons or certain discussions that lacked nuance and direction. And yet, despite the size and chaos of it all, little moments were aplenty, and most inspiring. Because everyone participated in the serving of food and sharing of food, a communal atmosphere grew quickly. Over lunch or tea, artists spoke of books, and performance, and politics. There was space for artists to engage in their own discourse. Perhaps what captivated me most was what I least expected. I met, really met, individuals rather than institutions. Art practice, I often think, can grow more rigorous, ethical, and transformative only when we allow ourselves spaces for collective reflection. In this large gathering, there were pocket-sized moments to carry home, and unresolved conversations to keep us returning.