by Ann-Marie Wrange*,
Vivre Sutinen is now working on her third season as artistic director of the Tanz Im August Festival, Berlin’s annual presentation of tendencies in modern dance and performance. Sutinen’s aim is not only to present aficionados of the avant-garde with the best dance and performance art, but also to express in her program her wider understanding of the art world. Sutinen has held many roles within the arts, including positions beyond dance and performance art.
With a background as a dancer and choreographer, she has worked as an editor for the former Finnish dance magazine Tanssi. From 1987 to 2008, she was in charge of the Kiasma Theatre, a venue for all kinds of performing arts at The Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma (MCA), in Helsinki, Finland. Whilst at MCA, she also curated exhibitions; most notably, she was responsible for some of the museum’s series of exhibitions entitled “ARS,” which presented international tendencies in the contemporary art world. Thereafter, she successfully curated the program at The House of Dance, in Stockholm, Sweden, and held residencies for many upcoming artists. She also worked as president of IETM until 2012, when she moved to Berlin for Tanz Im August.
Sutinen questions what is “new” in today’s contemporary dance. In fact, she sees a growing self-awareness on the part of many dance artists who are looking back at history, rather than trying to astonish audiences with something new.
On the issue of “newness,” Sutinen says:
“I don’t even want to use the word ‘new.’ What is new? The idea has become totally devalued! Of course, the art world is in constant change. This happens on an artistic level and on curatorial level.”
“What is really interesting is the new awareness brought by artistic research. Choreographers are not trying to invent the wheel again in pursuit of the new. Rather, they are breaking out of the obsession with newness in order to create new knowledge within the framework of dance history. I think this approach deepens the work and gives new weight to contemporary dance.”
In last year’s program of Tanz Im August, Sutinen presented two postmodern icons of dance history, in the shape of a retrospective of Rosemary Butcher, and a performance of Lucinda Childs 1984 piece Available Light.
Of programming these works, she says:
“I think the audience for contemporary dance is also coming of age. It is not only looking for new and emerging in art. There is an urgent need to fill in the gaps in historical writing when it comes to the postmodern generation, especially when it comes to the European forerunners of postmodernism. In the European context, there are many dance cultures, and dance is cultivated in many different contexts. There might be great artists to be still found and presented to wider audiences. Although Rosemary Butcher is well-known in the UK, for many people she is just a name. It was a privilege to work with her and see her old and new work come alive. Often we do not really understand the value of what people were doing at the time. So, looking back is as important as looking forward. Butcher’s retrospective was curated by her one time producer Andrea Niederbuchner. I think that, working with Rosemary and selecting several topics and key concepts of Rosemary’s thinking, Andrea found a very interesting way of presenting a lifetime of artistic innovation.”
Sutinen sees a sort of coming of age of contemporary dance, which has created a wider, more diverse contemporary dance scene:
“I think it is fair to say that contemporary dance is becoming socially, culturally and politically more and more diverse. Also, there seems to be a wide range of practices applied in the work of the coming generations. In the last months, I’ve seen everything from circus, performance art and ballet mixing with contemporary dance. What is considered as contemporary dance is also influenced by folk dance, social formats of today and yesterday, even skating. At the same time, there is a whole new generation investigating the essence of the body and movement.”
On cross-fertilization of forms within dance, Sutinen comments:
“Circus is also about movement and the body, and increasingly finding its way on stage. It is influenced by dance, theatrical narration and the syntax of dance. It is rewriting its paradigm, not in the context of freak shows and tents, but in the context of theatre. I can see how this also brings new kinds of movement and physics into contemporary dance. Just like the urban dance movement did in the 1990s.”
Sutinen believes that the art of dance is being taken more seriously in wider society:
“It is a fact that there are more and more dance institutions every year, which surely gives more weight to dance. This is mostly happening in Europe, with new dance houses opening. I believe that every institution has its organizational challenges; it will take time to secure the desired visibility and the required working conditions for artists. As dance becomes more visible, it becomes more attractive to other art institutions. As we have seen, the museums are opening their doors to choreographers.”
In general, there appears to be a lot happening and a new kind of openness in contemporary dance. In that sense, the times are very exciting. This openness is also influencing the artists; for example, the art of dance is being influenced considerably by the plastic arts.
Sutinen considers this to be a welcome development:
“Choreographers are more aware of the different ways of presenting their work. Contemporary art has been very open to including different practices. Choreographic practices and thinking are not only the factors in dance. The art of dance involves much bigger concepts; it allows increasingly for more action in different contexts, maybe also bringing new audiences to dance. This cross-fertilizing is a constant process; it defuses the borders and forces us to revise our definitions constantly. I think this constant negotiation makes dance interesting as an art form.”
For Sutinen, the political role of the stage arts is also growing in importance:
“I think this new openness creates new possibilities to be part of society and reach out to new audiences and new creative partnerships. For sure, this suggests new politics too. It is the politics of participation and action rather than aesthetics. More than decoration, it is a deep revolutionary force [she laughs]. . . . Dance used to be a lot more concerned with aesthetics, but now I think there is another kind of connection between dance and society, which is evoking action and promoting change. The artists are approaching their audiences more as equal partners, doing things with them, rather than for them; even engaging the audience in the process of creation, or in the actual performance.”
Concerning the festival Tanz Im August, Sutinen has a very reliable and constant Berlin audience. However, there are always challenges for a festival director:
“We are very lucky to have a loyal dance audience, but there is also a huge potential audience out there, that we want to reach out to. In the present migrant crises, artists and curators are taking seriously the possibilities and the responsibilities in being an active part of society. It really comes down to the question of accessibility, how the threshold can be lowered and how to include socially excluded groups. This means that there are different realities to accommodate; not only the immigrants, but also, for example, the kids in the suburbs, or the elderly.”
Sutinen believes that accommodating to these new realities requires new forms and approaches:
“Meeting the cultural commissar of the EU, I was disillusioned a little. There seems to be so little understanding of how art and culture could contribute in the crises. There is a huge potential in that arts which is wasted.”
“Anyway, this is not our sole mission, but I think that we could do more and that we would love to do more, if we could be seen as equal and valuable partners in hosting, building relations and negotiating cultural values with the newcomers [to Europe].”
Sutinen believes that cultural programmers need to develop long -term visions in relation to refugees and migrants recently arrived in Europe:
“In Germany, many cultural institutions have really reached out with all kinds of special gestures. Giving shelter, collecting money and clothes are important, but that is more like emergency services, we also need a long-term commitment to the communities. Events are not enough for real inclusion. Who are the openly racist people? Did we miss something? We certainly did.”
The festival director believes that people in the field of the performing arts have much more to give in relation to welcoming refugees and migrants, and challenging racism, than the politicians are aware of:
“We are not health or social workers, but we are used to working globally. We have intercultural skills, which should be improved for sure, and used for making art accessible.”
Sutinen has shown her social commitment over many years, through her organizing of the annual urban dance festival, first at the Arts museum Kiasma and, later, at The House of Dance in Stockholm. The Tanz Im August festival can be said to hold to the idea, not so much of social commitment, but, rather, of opening a window to allow the rest of the world to see the work of the Berlin arts community. In any case, the director believes, not very much has been done to really investigate the dance culture and identity of newly arrived refugees and migrants:
“First of all, there is too little research done on our audiences. The Tanz Im August audience is typically white, well-educate, from the inner city. In Stockholm, we organized a conference on audience engagement, and I do think it is the responsibility of the institutions to produce this kind of data. There is plenty of research done in the museums, but the dance sector has always been too poor to invest in audience research.”
“When writing a new application for 2016-2017, I was trying to understand the economy of dance festivals. I could not find any studies of dance as an economy. I did some research myself by calling different festivals. I think that this type of general research could really strengthen the field of dance.”
Even if Tanz Im August is rather an avant-garde research laboratory of dance and performance art, rather than a project to reach out to social groups, Sutinen always has her mission in mind:
“I am on a mission to work for a more sustainable dance culture wherever I am and whatever my role is. Here, the festival has its history and its historical role in the city. Maybe it sounds strange for many, but Berlin can also be quite isolated, and the festival has always provided a window to the outside. One of the festival’s goals is to keep the audience and artists aware of what is going on elsewhere.”
“Tanz Im August has been important to artists and audiences, but the world has changed radically since the festival began. As the founder of the festival reminded me again the other day, there was almost no contemporary dance in Berlin in the 1970s. Now, there is a lot of everything, and Berlin has grown to be one of the dance capitals of the world. This changes my position too. Little by little, I can step outside of the expected and engage with new audiences. This also means a different type of programming, with different content. The great thing about festivals is that the festival audience is more open-minded and takes risks with their choices.”
Sutinen is used to the rather stern Scandinavian media landscape. She finds it reassuring to work in Berlin:
“In Sweden, there were very few dance critics. Consequently, they had a lot of power over artists and curators. Here [in Germany], there are many more voices, and it certainly makes a difference.”
Sutinen has always shown a very strong pedagogical commitment as a cultural programmer; not just through organizing discussions and artists’ talks, but also in publishing and documenting what is going on:
“Working ten years in the museum world, I learned a lot about the pedagogical work that is done around art and audience in the context of fine arts. We also have to give more keys to the audience, and not just hope that they understand or enjoy contemporary dance just like that. A lot more work has to be done before and after the performance. The institution provides a context for the artist, but can also be responsible for creating the cognitive and emotional landscape in which the work is met. I think we often leave audiences alone with the artwork, and for some it can be a confusing experience. I am always interested in finding new ways of accommodating the meeting between the artists and their audiences.”
“Of course, the work of the critics and reviewers is very important, but the curators could also be helpful in creating much more of an intellectual dialogue and discourse around dance.”
The art of dance should also be more present in society, Sutinen believes. It is happening increasingly, she says, in arts museums and public spaces. Dance artists are also helpful in contextualizing their own works, she explains:
“The new generations of dance artists are well informed about philosophy and critical theory, and what is happening in other art forms. This has made the art scene much more vibrant today. At some point, it looked like the conceptual discourse would take over the whole dance discourse, but I think we are moving back from that now, things are loosening up.”
I wonder if Sutinen thinks that the period of doing everything except moving on stage, the period of non-dance, is coming to an end:
“There is a shift in the hegemony of dance, and from where I am, I can see all kinds of dance and choreographic thinking existing simultaneously. I still think that everything from standing still to doing arabesques is dance. However, it is true that the hegemony of non-dance is not so strong right now; but I think that all different forms will be with us forever. The conceptual way is not the only way of doing things.”
If we compare dance with music, where there always has been this enormous variety and where all ages and all styles exists and seems to be accepted, does the director think this could happen in the art of dance?:
“What you say about music is true. I have never seen a pop music critic write about classical music, but usually there’s only one dance critic who covers everything from ballet to performance art. Even in this distinction you can see how different dance and music cultures are.”
“Firstly, we need to strengthen the structures of the dance sector; as it is today, it is mostly working in the free sector. Secondly, it needs its own institutions. This means that dance cannot any longer be categorically defined as one thing.”
Despite such observations, Sutinen is glad that there is a very rich dance culture in Germany and an extremely rich cultural life in Berlin:
“Berlin is one of these places where a lot of things are happening, a meeting place of artists from all over the world. There is a critical mass of artists living here, which creates an artistic ambience. It is still relatively cheap to live and work in Berlin. The city authorities are also investing more in arts and culture, in institutions and in the free sector. Berlin can be a good place for artists, even if it is becoming more competitive and there is always the risk that the art community is communicating within its own boundaries, preaching to the converted.”
And what about trying to reach out to audiences using old and new media?:
“Arte is one of our partners, but we don’t have so many premieres to broadcast, as we are presenting our program in August. We have published a magazine in August, and we will continue to use it to introduce our artists and some of the themes of the festival to the general public. Right now, we’re editing our first publication of Rosemary Butcher’s retrospective, which is more designed for those who wish to deepen their dance knowledge.”
What about the 2016 program of Tanz Im August?
“I will continue with my dedication to present artists of all ages, the oldest in this summer’s festival is nearly 90.”
*Ann-Marie Wrange is chief editor of the Swedish dance journal, Danstidningen, since the early 1990’s. Danstidningen covers international dance and other related performing arts and is the only dance journal aiming at a wider public in Scandinavia. The paper edition has resumés in English and French in each of the six annual issues; Danstidningen’s web edition also contains news and reviews from critics from the Scandinavian countries www.danstidningen.se.