Woman dancer in public street, from Une joie secrète (2019), a film by Jérôme Cassou on the Nadia Vadori-Gauthier’s project ‘Une minute de danse par jour’,


Local leads the way: Pelzverkehr Festival, Austria

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From Une joie secrète (2019), a film by Jérôme Cassou on Nadia Vadori-Gauthier’s ‘Une minute de danse par jour’, showing at Pelzverkehr 2020. Photo © Nadia Haussman
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The Covid crisis is shifting focus from the international to the regional – but festivals such as Pelzverkehr have already been there for years

The global Covid crisis has forced the art sector to reset and re-think: many large institutions specialized in international exchange have suddenly been compelled to ‘go local’, gearing towards community engagement and sustainable modes of travel. Regional festivals on the other hand, have been working in such conditions for years. Challenged by economic precarity and lack of institutional support, artistic directors like Ingrid Türk-Chlapek from Pelzverkehr Festival have become specialised in sustainable practices and audience outreach.

Founded in 2016, Pelzverkehr is based in the town of Klagenfurt, in the Carinthia region of Austria. For some, the idea of curating a dance festival in the middle of the Austrian countryside might seem ill-fated, but for Türk-Chlapek ‘this geographical position is a treasure’. At the crossroads of the burgeoning Ljubljana dance scene in Slovenia and a growing contemporary dance field in Italy, Klagenfurt blossoms once a year into an oasis for dance and performance, with artists from Carinthia as well as guests from across the Alps-Adriatic region. This focus on local artists and audience has certainly been influenced by financial limitations, but also by a deep desire to tap into the vibrancy of the region. ‘I always knew that we didn’t have enough money to invite people from all over the world but I also didn’t want to. Of course it is a big plus that it’s good for the environment, now more than ever, but I always wanted to do it like this. Because the region is rich!’

Fight Bright (2018) by Milan Tomášik & Co (SI/SK). Photo © Stanislav Dobak
Fight Bright (2018) by Milan Tomášik & Co (SI/SK). Photo © Stanislav Dobak

Though more and more artists choose to stop commuting by plane amidst the health crisis and climate catastrophes, bringing a wide variety of performances to rural areas also saves local audiences from having to travel far and wide to access artistic content. Challenging the cliché of the peripheral festival, Türk-Chlapek doesn’t shy away from programming complex and thought-provoking works. Yodelling naked men (Simon Mayer), body activist clowns (Silvia Gribaudi) and classic queer movies (Ulrike Ottinger) all co-exist in Pelzverkehr: ‘I want to show that also in Klagenfurt, it is possible to go beyond conservative and conventional formats. It’s also part of the city’s identity.’

Enticed by her bold choices as well as her ingenious approach to audience outreach, a growing number of guests look forward to Pelzverkehr Festival every year. From making site-specific works a central part of the programme, to organising artist talks, outdoors workshops and parties, Pelzverkehr implanted itself in the city by reaching out of the black box. For Türk-Chlapek ‘the involvement of the local population is simply a must’ and while admittedly, the local contemporary dance scene is small, ‘there is a substantial community of tango, flamenco and urban dancers with whom we always try to collaborate during the festival’. Instead of high-handed research into how to reach the ‘real’ people, her tactics are down to earth and effective: from 424 spectators in 2016, the amount of guests had almost tripled by 2019.

‘I try to talk to people in the audience before the performance starts. I go to them and I say hello, nice that you’re here, and how did you hear about the festival? After the performance I ask them what they thought because I’m really interested. I also encourage the “regulars” to go see things that are less comfortable for them and to question what they feel.’

Flamenco + heavy metal: Firebird by Ana Pandur, with musician Damir Avdić (SI). Photo © Zarja Predin

While no one questions the significance of the festival, its future is still uncertain and the lack of solid infrastructure reveals the precarity of Türk-Chlapek’s work and her legacy: it is evident how much of the success of the festival relies on the organiser’s passion and grit, and how little it is due to actual structural support. ‘As I get older, I’m thinking of ways to separate the festival from my own personality. I would like to pass it on, but at the moment no one else will do it in these conditions.’

More than just locally relevant, the importance of regional festivals is crucial to the ecology of the Austrian and European scene as a whole: it is vital for artists to have platforms to tour their work in decent conditions. Türk-Chlapek denounces the wastefulness of the current funding system: ‘I’m against the policy of getting money for a production and showing it only three or five times. It’s not sustainable and totally capitalist, putting the artists in a position of perpetual production. One should be able to live from a piece by touring for at least a year before having to think of making another work.’

Trailer for Zeitgeist, an underwater urban dance by Hungry Sharks (AT), choreography by Valentin Alfery

So here comes the less sexy side of sustainability, beyond eco-friendly travels and local engagement: the responsibility to update and re-invent ways of working relies once more on individual willingness to change behaviors, while deep structural change lags behind. We can learn myriads of tricks from dedicated organizers like Ingrid Türk-Chlapek, and be inspired by the compelling way they enrich the ecology of the dance scene, but there is also an urgent need to invest and support local festivals if we want to reach a thriving, creative and sustainable future. 

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Klagenfurt, Austria
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Pelzverkehr takes place from 19–26 September 2020. Details: www.festivalpelzverkehr.at

Theme: Covid
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