Early December last year, armed with my laptop and some stroopwafels (typical Dutch cookies) I bought in Amsterdam Schiphol Airport in the hopes of securing myself a sweet start, I made my way towards Conde Duque walking across the streets of Madrid. One of the many imperial buildings of the city, this municipal cultural centre – with its massive stony courtyard, exhibition and rehearsal spaces and a mid-size theatre – hosts the yearly Certamen Coreográfico de Madrid, a leading Spanish contemporary dance contest organised by creative platform Paso a 2, founded in 1987 by Laura Kumin (who continues as director to this day) and Margaret Jova.
The programme, designed for emerging dance makers of Spanish origin or residency, is organised around two semi-finals and a final – where six of the twelve candidates are considered for the jury’s first prize of 5000 euros. Yet Kumin cringes at the word ‘contest’: for her, the programme is all about ‘nurturing, getting new audiences to see new work and supporting the growth of starting and mid-level career artists’.
For example: over twenty Spanish cultural centres, platforms and dancehouses (plus some internationals, like OperaEstate in Italy) contribute to the awards list by means of creative residencies or by programming one of the competing works – regardless of whether they make it to the final. Next to the accompaniment and development such opportunities can provide, the Certamen itself offers all artists the opportunity to have individual conversations with the jury, and tries to bring them all to the attention of the European networks it is a part of, such as Aerowaves.
Furthermore, Paso a 2 uses the contest as a pretext to bring dance to other communities in Madrid – another dimension of Kumin’s pedagogical resolve. The Certamen thus counts on several supplements. One is La Colé, an all-female dance company offering a step towards professionalisation to young dancers. During each Certamen, La Colé is invited as a guest to show new work made in collaboration with local choreographers.
Paso a 2 is also part of the European-funded project Performing Gender: Dancing in Your Shoes, an intersectional and international audience development project connecting dance to marginalised LGBTQ+ communities as a tool for empowerment. In Madrid, this has translated into the gathering of a group of people around a weekly movement practice, active since last March, three of whom participated in this year’s Palabras en Movimiento project, another side activity to the Certamen – and the reason that I was there.
A writing workshop initiated in 2016 to ‘spark or strengthen the interest in writing about dance among cultural journalists’, Palabras en Movimiento (words in movement) has also attracted choreographers, programmers and dancers with a desire to work on their analytical and writing skills. I was invited to facilitate the 2021 edition, and this time around we agreed to take it one step further, openly framing the workshop as an opportunity for anyone – with or without prior writing or dancing experience – to spark or strengthen their love for dance by discussing and writing about the pieces seen during the Certamen.
Kimi was the first to arrive. Olga and Maykol came in together and fashionably late. They all loved the stroopwafels, and expressed their insecurity and curiosity right off the bat about what we were about to do. They claimed to have no experience, they had never written about dance before, they were afraid of not doing the artists justice. Bringing down the barriers and convincing them that their gaze upon any performance was as valuable as anyone else’s became, very naturally, one of the main goals of the workshop. It started by noticing how this fear of being unjust or saying the ‘wrong thing’ in a ‘wrong way’ was a shared concern of the whole group, including myself. Rosanna and Catalina, two practising professional dancers within the group, also worried about how they could stay true to their experience of a given performance without harming those who have put so much time and effort into its making. Blanca, an anthropologist with a long and diverse career in cultural projects in several African countries (École des Sables in Senegal included) brought forward the inequality between word and movement in a world still very much driven by the former. Criticism can be a genuinely well-intentioned gift, a trigger for conversation, a sign of respect. But how can we prevent it from becoming a poisoned apple? Questions around the responsibility of the writer kept piling up.
After a first session where these questions were gathered and discussed, and where I gave some tips and tricks on taking notes and identifying different levels of analysis to help them root their opinions and reflections in what actually happened on stage, Palabras en Movimiento consisted of going to see the different performances and informally commenting on them afterwards. The aimed-for results: to publish at least one review each, and collectively decide which one of the finalists would be given the ‘critics award’ – something we inherited from the workshop’s original design.
It was during those informal moments where we also got to know each other better that the broader value of this activity hit me – certainly in the case of the participants invited by Performing Gender. Olga explained about her experience as a trans woman growing up in a small village in Colombia and of how, after two difficult years in Madrid under the pandemic, she was now working her butt off in a cleaning squad dedicated to refurbishing public spaces within the city. Proudly, she showed me pictures of an abandoned courtyard now turned into a community garden, and of the sportspark next to Conde Duque – where they had made the graffiti disappear. She told me of how she enjoys working on something that allows her to channel her creativity, and doing stuff with her hands. Another picture: a beautiful image of a trans-flag dissolving into butterflies, painted by her hand on a self-made, recycled wooden structure designed for children to play on.