In March 2020, Virve Sutinen, artistic director of Berlin’s Tanz im August festival, flew to Helsinki. Within a few days, she received a text message telling her that she would have to go into quarantine for two weeks. ‘At that point, I understood that the situation wasn’t good,’ says Sutinen, sitting in Tanz im August’s public festival library at the front of the currently closed Hebbel am Ufer (HAU2) theatre. ‘I’m experienced enough to know to always prepare for the worst – it’s a trait of Finnish people,’ she adds, smiling – though surely even Finns would not have imagined that ‘the worst’ for this year’s Tanz im August would be a global pandemic.
Founded in 1983 under the shadow of the Berlin Wall, Tanz im August is an annual contemporary dance festival showcasing works by both international and local, renowned and emerging choreographers. With this year’s original programme promising four weeks of performances from the likes of William Forsythe, Boris Charmatz, Geumhyung Jeong, and Milla Koistinen, the festival had to be completely rethought to adhere to governmental safety restrictions.
Now condensed into a 10-day ‘Special Edition’, Tanz im August is one of the latest performing arts organisations to experiment with the online festival format. They are, however, also venturing outside, including outdoor performances and public screenings. ‘We didn’t want to just stream live performances or videos of dance works, and there were two reasons for that,’ says Sutinen. ‘The first was that we thought by August people would have watched so many streams that they would be tired of it. And the second was that live performance is the capital of our artists. It is what, when this is over, they will continue to work with. We didn’t want to just flaunt all of their material on the internet.’
Instead, Tanz im August offered its already contracted artists the possibility of working closely with the festival to create bespoke works for the new format. ‘Sometimes there are hierarchical issues that make dialogues between different parties different, but this time we were all in the same boat. It was very comforting to come together at this moment to try and work things out. Even if it was over Zoom, those talks were extremely important to all of us.’
Many of the newly commissioned works on the festival lineup are dance films, ranging from a documentary following the life of renowned performer Louise Lecavalier to a behind-the-scenes look at the development of Argentinian choreographer Ayelen Parolin’s latest piece Weg. ‘The film gives audiences a very rare chance to see the choreographic process,’ says Sutinen. ‘It’s quite fascinating to see how they started and where they ended up with it. I hope this promotes a greater understanding of what goes into making a dance work. Of course it can be enjoyable, but it is a really gradual process and it takes a lot of time and research to be able to put things together. This isn’t always obvious when you watch a performance.’ Other films take a more political approach, such as Urban Feminism – which follows ten female urban choreographers on a journey around Berlin – and About questions, shames, and scars by Brazilian choreographer Alice Ripoll/Cia REC. Addressing injustice in her home country and how cultural life is being destroyed under Bolsonaro’s right-wing government, the film forms part of an evening of video performances and critical discussions titled Brazil Hijacked – the fourth instalment of Tanz im August 2020’s Happy to Listen talk series.
Other relevant talking points that the festival will tackle – both through Happy to Listen and dance performances themselves – include indigenous perspectives on art and activism and anti-ableist futures. Recent developments in the Black Lives Matter movement are alluded to in American Chameleon: The Living Installments (2.0) a ‘virtual meeting place’ by Nigerian-American artist and poet Jaamil Olawale Kosoko. Designed using the gaming and chat app Discord, the online interactive performance aims to be a ‘flexible space in which black people can feel comfortable when they raise their voices to think and speak out loud’.
It’s no surprise this year’s Tanz im August is so politically charged: the turbulent times we find ourselves in are fertile ground for creative analysis. ‘We always do a lot of things to facilitate meetings between artists and audiences, and provoke questions around how to look at dance, how to enjoy it, how it can be fuel for debate, and how it’s connected to the world outside,’ says Sutinen. She does note though that this year’s online format combined with the unprecedented levels of global upheaval have pushed Tanz im August to be more critical than usual. ‘It’s obvious that there are a lot of problems in the world and in our industry. The old solutions don’t really work, so we need to shift our focus somehow.’
One example of this shift is recognising the greater need for accessibility to dance festivals. Sutinen notes that while they already have had a strong focus on engagement and reaching outside their normal audiences, ‘the ways in which we have been reaching out to them may not have been versatile enough. The new practice of presenting things online means that resources are available for people who are housebound. The online is global. It can also be looked at in places where there is very little dance.’ The festival’s physical magazine, containing artist interviews and think pieces, will also be distributed globally. ‘After watching everything on a screen, your eyes are sore. It’s nice to have a magazine that you can feel and smell,’ Sutinen adds, picking one up and leafing through the pages. ‘I see it as a gift.’
Audience participation is a key element of this year’s festival. From dance legend William Forsythe’s Untitled Instructional Series to American choreographer Faye Driscoll’s Guided Choreography for the Living and Dead, many of the works invite audience members to follow choreographic instructions and become part of the works themselves. ‘Both of these pieces lower the threshold between what is an everyday moment and what is considered the high art of dance. They help to demystify the difference between the two,’ says Sutinen, before musing, ‘I wonder if in the future, the kind of concepts in which artists are relying on local participation will be more relevant if we cannot travel as we used to.’
While this would be an interesting development, she does hope that Tanz im August 2020 will get people excited to see live dance when theatres are allowed to reopen. ‘I wonder what the absence of arts in our lives will do to us. I hope it makes it clear how much depends on it. Not only culturally, politically, but also economically. This is a little weird economy, it keeps people alive and working and creating. It creates all kinds of things without which I think we would be much, much poorer and less innovative.’
Looking to the future, if the global pandemic continues for much longer, arts organisations such as Tanz im August will need to consider how they move forward with operations long-term. Sutinen hopes the sector will approach this endeavour together. ‘The arts sector has become aware of how important it is to collaborate rather than compete,’ she says, explaining that Tanz im August has since April been part of an informal focus group where European festivals share information and discuss their approaches to the global pandemic. ‘I think good things, such as this, come out of every situation. From every catastrophe we can learn something new.’ Still, she thinks it is too soon to say what exactly these lessons will be. ‘After the festival, we will reflect with artists and audiences about what worked and what didn’t. For now, we are in unknown waters.’ ●