The DanceHouses

An utopia?

Many dancehouses in Europe have been created over preexisting buildings: convents, factories, industrial sites, brick houses, distilleries, to name some examples. They have been developed recycling architectures and redefining the identity of spaces. Few houses are now in the process of being built and the relationship between architecture, needs and contents leads inevitably to explore the subject of sustainability.

At the Atelier "Building a dancehouse" in Bassano del Grappa (August 2015), participants explored the development of houses for dance and structures in Europe considering the philosophy and the architecture. 

The idea of a Tanzhaus - create a contemporary reality, open all year round, ready to accept and support the approach of any choreographer

An utopia?

Finding money to define creativity, developing different generation possibilities, while facing new European needs. Seven panellists, moderated by the reporter Dany Mitzman, have been gathered in Bassano del Grappa for the first day of a philosophical analysis which goes throughout the history of dancehouses. A journey from what has inspired the founders – John Ashford (Aerowaves), Bertram Müller (ex-EDN President), Karene Lyngholm (ex-EDN Chair) – to what moves recent directors – Bettina Masuch (tanzhaus nrw Düsseldorf), Kristin de Groot (Dansateliers Rotterdam), Suzy Blok (Dansmakers Amsterdam), Hooman Sharifi (Carte Blanche) – toward a future of new collaboration.

Dance Houses against the festivalization of culture

Everything started while John Ashord was at The Place (1986-2009), establishing the theatre as a proving ground for a new generation of independent contemporary choreographers. He was contacted by Richard Schweitzer to talk about a new idea of “Tanzhaus”: start a new current dance tradition that could stand beside the already existing “opera houses” and “music houses”. It was a definite vision against the festivalization of culture, that thought dance only for Sundays or festivities: create a contemporary reality, open all year round, ready to accept and support the approach of any choreographer who needed facilities.

A long maturing process of the dance sector, leading to the implementation of EDN with a specific mission and vision

In the meantime, Bertram Müller had his career built up on philosophical, theological and psychological studies. At that time dance was a political problem, as dance till the Sixties was corrupted by Nazism. Then Pina Bausch arrived, spreading the concept that “everyone is an artist”, so he could be one too! But till the beginning an artist has to deal with money problems, and subsidiaries were not meant for freelancers. Müller thought of a supporting system for “free artists”, a cosmopolitan place that could maintain itself offering either professional or amateur education (teaching) and workshops (studying) during the week, while at the weekend there were performances to gain some money back. It was soon clear that these intuitions would have no chance without a professional environment and a European reality, so he started to think about a dancehouse network to find out what they shared together even though they were so different realities.

Karene Lyngholm was the first Chair of the network, while Norway was constructing its society, having the first professional dance education only in 1978. As in the meantime dancehouses were gathering, Norway wanted its dancehouse too. It started a long maturing process: while researching what they wanted and which money was needed, politics started realizing that dance wasn’t theatre but an art on its own; and art is international. When the founders decided to create a Dancehouse Network, the main criteria was to find a way and a place to help new artists. Analyzing their own identity, they asked themselves who they were and what they weren’t, till they finally branded EDN.

Dancehouses Network - a facilitator

The second matter to question was the artist needs. It wasn’t easy at the beginning to find an artistic agreement about what and who they should have supported. For Ashford it came out very useful and interesting to be artistically joined by Kenneth Kvarnström, a wise artist who could give them an insight of the outer reality.

Third point is still questioned: are we a network of a big organization, to do things in a functional way, or do we have a mission beyond that, as to develop and support dancehouses?, as Müller points out. The need of this conference starts to take shape: «not to label and limit, but to label and facilitate such complicate relations», says Lyngholm.

A key player to support the mobility of artists and the circulation of art works in Europe

The development of dance in a solid structure

The building of the European Union has had a strong impact on EDN creating a peculiar reality different to find in other nations. John Ashord’s explains its feasibility: because of the availability of public EU subsidiaries, because dance is a useful art for the EU as it doesn’t require linguistic knowledge, and because dance is emerging as far as EU has given priority to mobility. So artists are now free to travel and create new works in other countries, with people of other countries, in order to promote the idea of a European identity (and cheap airlines have done lots for Europe too!).

On the other side, Bertram Müller underlines the economical aspect of Art, and dance it’s not an economic issue. So a dancehouse can give at least technical support, knowhow and promotion to survive – in most countries festivals are made by dancehouses, but this is not enough to develop dance as a solid structure. So in a postmodern individualistic time, the only way to survive is to stay flexible, work in our time, in life, with people.

So how is the second generation of new directors surviving with such a big heritage, huge challenge, and rising difficulties between staying local and keeping national?

The balance between local, national and international: relevance of the dancehouses to prepare for a multicultural future

A new generation of DanceHouses

Bettina Masuch has inherited a big accumulated knowledge, having nowadays a dancehouse which is both theatre and production house, with 3000 visitors per week and an educational programme. But even if she is rooted in the local environment, she is aware of the importance of keeping “the head in the world”. The landscape might have changed, but the values haven’t. So can dance be developed even more? Even if now there are many more great dance schools and many more well-educated young artists, dance is still the sister at the end of the table begging for money. An artist has the right to be seen, so how do we deal with them and with resources? The answer is about commitment and critical thinking. In a time close to changes and transformation, where people are afraid of complexity and shy away from difficulties, an artist needs a shelter, a “house”, to be protected and supported (as all the previous great masters had had).

The landscape might have changed, but the values haven’t

Different is the situation in the Netherlands. Kristin de Groot has realized how important is to be entrepreneurial when Dutch politics started to cut down most of the funds. Together with Suzy Blok they had to rethink their position and working strategies in order to find new ways to keep producing and supporting their artists. So while the dance community was starting to emigrate, national collaboration became a priority: they had the facilities but they needed visibility. Suzy Blok started to collaborate with other disciplines, and in order to build a national audience she thought of a travelling festival (the Moving Futures). Political changes have turned liberalization into individualization, giving more attention to the artist (if professionally supported!). So Dutch dancehouses had to find ways with the institutions and with the artists, creating more responsibility on their side (who to support, what to give) but also on the artist side (what do I need, what do I want to do).

Hooman Sharifi has the same open mind. Born as a street artist, he is aware of the importance of having a variety of audiences to have a work developed. So a dancehouse should be at the same time functional and creative, where people can express their needs and their ideas. But we live in our time, bound to our history, so once borders have been opened we have to be ready for a multicultural future, with different languages and different backgrounds.

This report of the first day of Building a Dancehouse was written by Lara Crippa for ABCDance in 2015.