Moving mountains in three days

The three-day symposium Working Together Transnationally. Structures, Conditions and Artistic Practices took place from March 31st until April 2nd in collaboration with the European Dancehouse Network. Curated together with the Brussels based sociologist Rudi Laermans and facilitated by Fearghus Ó Conchúir, about 70 international guests and participants discussed and practiced models of solidarity within and between production structures and artists, investigated possible media of collaboration and explored choreographic forms of collaboration.

Irmela Kästner is independent author, journalist and sporadic curator in the dance field. He participated as observer at the invitation of K3 and took a look at a highly complex conference situation, with the aim of representing the positions and opinions with journalistic integrity, especially in all their inconsistencies.

Moving Mountains - in three days

I confess: the title is stolen. Or at least borrowed. Moving Mountains in Three Essays is actually the title of a piece byt the Icelanding group Marble Crowd, which premiered at and was commissioned by the togetherapart festival. “A monstrosity”, so the artists in the face of their own self-imposed task. And precisely for this reason, the spirit of their collective mode of working served as a catalyst for manifold discussions on collaboration and cooperation in the fields of dance and performing arts in Europe, as well as above and beyond its borders.

K3-Centre for Choreography at Kampnagel in Hamburg celebrated its 10th anniversay this year and to mark the occasion, it invited partners – artists, producers, academics – from across Europe. The agenda proposed both work and pleasure. Solidarity, transparency, fairness. What unites us. What separates us. In a three-day symposium, these issues were also discussed in light of already tried and tested choreographic forms of collaboration. Togetherapart – together and yet also apart: the focus lay on collaboration, on its prerequisites and potentials, without specifications or goals.

With great lucidity, Saga Sigurðardóttir (Marble Crowd) gave a demonstration on practical collaboration using cardboard boxes. Within her cardboard playground, there was as much destruction, as construction; things were ripped appart, glued together, and piled up. In the end, the workshop participants symbolically built a hospital for Europe, a haunted house and finally, a Japanese garden. Much like the chronology of a future vision of social harmony and well-being. Playful, light-hearted and intentionally naive. But without ignoring the wounds of exhaustion and failure, the ghosts of distrust and fear. Not least of all the fear of not (or no longer) being able to make a living out of making art.

From Play to Money

Honoraruntergrenzenempfehlung – a recommendation for minimum fees – this wonderfully bureaucratic German word, describes a key point in discussion on good (aka fair) practice models of employment for independent artists. As a committed lobbyist and head chairwoman of the German Association of Independent Performing Arts, Janina Benduski has played a leading political role in championing fair payment for the last five years. With the result, that public funding for new productions increased by 1.2 million last year in order to take into account a raise in artist fees. The recommendation for fair renumeration currently lies at 2.300 Euro per month.

In her doctoral thesis at the University of Gent, Annelies van Assche gives a more detailed examination of the monetary reality in Berlin compared to Brussels: in Brussels, it averages a net 1.000 to 1.250 per month, and is slightly lower in Berlin. If things are going well. Which means, however, that most artists are involved in eight o ten jobs simultaneously. With the consequence that less than 50% of their income is derived from purely artistic activities. More than half the time is spent with administration. Still: in Italy, artists can only dream of such sums, says Leonardo Delogu, performer and theatre maker. On the other hand, Sweden seems like th land of milk and honey compared to Berlin and Brussels. Here, independent artists are full-time employees of the state. They receive a basic income even without having to prove their professional status. Just recently, a state pension fund for dancers was established. The trade union, which the majority of artists are members of, has advocated stable working conditions since the 1980’s: more money simultaneously means better recognition and increased public awareness.

However, so former dancer and now director of the Rotterdam dancehouse Dansateliers Kristin de Groot, dancers should not lean back and relax. They need to be trained to become their own lobbyists and to be able to confidently approach politics. “Artists have influence! Every artist is a citizen with all the associated rights and responsibilities”. In establishing the Moving Futures festival in 2013, a project that tours through a series of theatres in Holland, she moreover wanted to counteact another problem: the decreasing possibilities of showing a production at all. For only with actual performance opportunities can artistic identity grow.

Flexibility and security together may sound like a paradox. Flexicuity attempts to overcome the contradiction and is another newly invented and often used word in discussions or more or less steady income. It describes a system that acknowledges the idle time periods between project phases and provides security in form of a state “social wage” for the days in which there is no work. In Belgium, this is called “Flexicurity Provision System”.

However, in the end we all had to admit that the European partner countries knew almost nothing about each other. An overview and list of wages or rather average fees paid in the individual countries against the backdrop of the different funding and working conditions for artists is therefore now top of the agenda in order to allow for at least a rough comparison. Transparency is urgently required.

Let’s Talk About Facts

Europe is in crisis. And there is absolutely nothing to learn from Athens, says an indignant Steriani Tsintziloni about the proclamation issued by the world’s largest art exhibition, the documenta14. Nevertheless, the curator and dance historian is not afraid to clearly identify the negative sides of the art market with its breathless rush to produce new work. Nor is she scared to admit to the frustration that arises and the effort that goes into keeping the machine running despite being exhausted.

“You are not asking for collaboration, you want me to compromise"

Brendan Keaney, director of Dance East in England, originally had his difficulties with promises of collaboration. Rudi Laermans points out that, “The social experiment called collaboration also entails an always particular economy of affects and desires on the one hand and various modes of micro-politics on the other”. Accountability and trust are probably the most crucial factors in such experiments.

Artists contribute to society. Choreographers work with urban planners, dancers with managers, musicians with engineers. The fear of being exploited is high. Yet: how can exploitation be transformed into collaboration? To always keep to one’s peer group and to stew in one’s own juices is ultimately unsatisfying. Thinking out of the box, moving out of one’s comfort zone, also requires courage. All the more, if one ventures into “enemy” territory, as has cultural theorist Gesa Ziemer, who invited members of the far-right political AfD (Alternative from Germany) party to talks, as part of her project Finding Places for refugees and migrants in Hamburg. The refugee policies discussed there quickly became an ideologically biased and emotionally loaded topic. “Let us look at the facts!”, is what Gesa Ziemer demanded over and over again.

Feelings are facts, according to post-modern dance icon Yvonne Rainer. In German, we say that it’s important to “stay grounded in the facts”. But what ground are we talking about? Dancer Eszter Gál noted that not even the ground shared by two dancers in contact improvisation in close proximity to another, is the same for both emotionally and in terms of their individual experiences.

French philosopher Alain Badiou provides good food for thought in this respect, when he invokes an “ethics of the particular”, as “a way to remain faithful to a situation”. In his text, he argues against a general tolerance of difference, in order to be able to singularly enter into new relationships with a constantly new sense of responsibility.

Likewise, the political European landscape knows different demarcations of friend and foe in every country. Sitting down to a shared dinner with politicians in Hamburg, in an evening organized by choreographers Jenny Beyer and Antje Pfundtner at Treffen Total at K3, did not necessarily mean dining eye to eye with the enemy. In Macedonia, where – according to Biljana Tanurovska – people only know the categories of patriot and traitor, daily life is quite different.

“In this country, retrograde traditionalism and obscure and anachronistic mechanisms of governance demand very specific forms of self-organization.”

Which is why it is only logical for the co-founder of the NOMAD Dance Academy to calls herself an activist.


Disengagement. A provocative term. Deliberately so. And yet it means more than meets the eye. Sandra Noeth, currently independent dramaturge and researcher, brought it up for discussion in reaction to her former position as resident dramaturge of the Tanzquartier Wien. The protective cloak of the institution largely determines modes of interacting with collaborating artists. But Sandra Noeth wanted more, wanted to be free of concrete projects. In the Arabic region, where she mainly travels, she wanted to get to know artists better in their specific living and working conditions, to spend “unplanned” time with them, to encounter them as people.

So: not disengagement after all? After a lengthy debate, the conclusion finally is: engagement through disengagement. Taking a step back, in order to engage all the more intensely. It is therefore worthwile to bring up individual terms in order to sustainably clarify their meaning and context. What are we really talking about? Maybe this is also explicitly an issue of concern for journalists.

At the end of a second long conference day, a few participants, incuding the author of this text, gathered exhausted to form a small discussion group – and sit in silence. Too many different languages, approaches, experiences, perspectives. Simply too many words. To intertwine practice and theory more was the request often voiced at the end of the conference.

Howerver, Rudi Laermans advocates peace of mind. He does not consider it imperative to constantly penetrate all levels of academic language or even all languages of artists. Better to dip into the flow of words, give oneself up to poetry or to atmospheric comprehension. Simply turning off one’s thoughts occasionally and letting the medium of language take effect on other levels of social communality. After all, our main concern here – dance – is predominantly based on communicating by means of the body and movement, via real presence. So it is hardly surprising that against this backdrop, discussions on theory and practice hardly touched on the potentials of digital media and networking.

In the boundless overflow of information, communication needs time more than anything else. At this point, I must explicitly mention the head moderator Fearhus Ó Conchúir, who tanks to persistent time management, kept the flow of the conference going and repeatedly urged everyone to provide more space to the act of listening.

Telling (His)Stories

Rudi Laermans propagates collaboration with the academic world from a sociological perspective. After all, the goal is to generate knowledge in dance.

Viennese dancer and choreographer Doris Uhlich challenged everyone to write history together: she as an artist together with her producers and their institutions. With great self-confidence, she defines herself within her own work structures as an institution. And in a rhythm of separation and attachment, so she says, it should be possible to improve the quality of dialog between artists, institutions and producers. Surely, this is not an entirely absurd case of wishful thinking, for it is worth noting, that many of the producers, curators, festival directors present at the conference, formerly stood on stage as dancers themselves.

“This art form is constantly killing its darlings”

Walter Heun, who is – among other things – director of the Tanzquartier Wien, invoked the spirit of old-fashioned producing, saying that producers should “criticize within, defend without”. And he complained that: “This art form is constantly killing its darlings”. A big problem. Over and over again, the main goal in dance seems to be finding new talent. While funding, especially in the project sector, is stagnating. A growing number of artists are thus competing for an unchanging sum. The result is that older artists simply drop out of the system. An establishment of their work does not take place. The history of many artistic languages is randomly cut off. For who should continue to tell it, if not art itself?

“To a great extent, each collaboration is a social experiment in ‘commoning'”, says Rudi Laermans in his introduction to the section “Media of collaboration”. “Commoning”, a newly invented term meaning as much as: developing something together, something that then no longer belongs to a single person. Wikipedia is the best-known examply. Copyleft and copyright are typical emotionally charged words in this context.

Writing a history that belongs to no one in the end? The performance activist Eleanor Bauer suggests a different path: Nobody’s Business, an exchange platform which she founded online, requires exact references. Artists are invited to share their practices with others and in doing so position their own work in relation to that of their collagues.

“When you share a practice or score, you must cite where/when/whom it comes from, or where you think it originates and descens from, directly or indirectly, by influence, inspiration or adaptation. Citation/accreditation is part of the documentation and the overall project of Nobody’s Business as a mapping of knowledge production and movement.” (

A comparatively fair method of writing a multifaceted history that is worth knowling in a shared and responsible way. In general, ignorance and a lack of appreciation cause more harm in the long run than originality.

Who is the audience?

But who are we telling our stories to? Who is the audience? This is a question that often bothers Bettina Masuch, artistic directof of the tanzhaus nrw in Düsseldorf. A dance metropolis like Berlin needs not worry about having enough spectators. The dance scene alone alreay fills the venues, speaks one and the same language anyway. Communication is not an issue. In smaller citites, the situation is a different one. Bodies, movement and words describe different levels of communication, which do not necessarily make sense in the same way. Explaining dance to an audience using words isn’t easy. Where to start? Now and again, the artists are saddled with part of the work of communicating, for example, in so-called community projects. Connecting to a community can definitely be artistically stimulating, as Leonardo Delogu has explored in various outdoor projects and temporary habitats. But it should not be compulsory.

Working together, entering into a dialog, sharing experiences gave rise to togetherapart. Mutual respect, curiosity, the courage to experience new things, and ultimately trust and responsibility are the mechanisms, which we need to build something like community. Creating a solid financial basis for this maybe the most difficult mountain to conquer along the way. Today’s contemporary dance no longer wants to propagate certain messages. Yet: moving mountains, as Marble Crowd demonstrated on stage, need not to remain an utopian thought. It merely requires, as mentioned above, the gift and will to engage in tireless, social improvisation. In the end, the artistic value of such a practice makes it all worthwhile.

Translated by Elena Polzer.