I just spent three days at the Baltic dance Platform in Vilnius the capital city of Lithuania. The platform is an integral part of the annual international contemporary dance festival New Baltic Dance. It was pleasant surprise to be able to go. Dance Ireland sent me a message only a few days ago asking if I’d like to attend as their representative with support from the European Dance House Network.
I don’t know for sure, but I guess they realised that everyone in Dublin and around the Republic of Ireland was going to be fully caught up with the Dublin Dance Festival and I came to their thoughts as someone who could benefit from filling the gap. I was really happy to accept the offer. Luckily the dates fitted into my diary between other immoveable commitments.
Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company balances on a tight-wire of financial survival. There is no way for the company to pay for a trip like this from our budget. It isn’t even a matter of priorities really. There just isn’t any money to do it. This means that as artistic director of our annual festival and the Echo Echo Ensemble I am pretty semi-detached from the round of European festivals, co-production processes, networking and exchange.
I think that this isolation has, to an extent been a blessing for the development of the work of the company. It is very easy to get distracted from the rooted relevance and richness of ongoing art practice in a particular place by the slippery surface of the international circuit. However, this is of course a mixed blessing as despite an inevitable tendency to fleeting and shallow connections there is also potential warmth and collegiality in meeting, in person, at events where people have shared experiences of shows and other events to reflect on together and the opportunity for discussion and exchange in person. For these reasons I was thrilled to be approached.
It is relatively unusual to take on all the roles I have, being artistic director of a company and ensemble, programming an annual festival, taking a producer role in projects, overseeing studios, hosting artist residencies, directing and choreographing new work, performing and taking on a wide range of teaching, and my feeling was that the trip could be beneficial for all, or most, aspects of my work.
Most importantly, of course, going to a festival gives the chance to see lots of performances in a short space of time. As well as being a marvellous pleasure and privilege in itself this also gives a chance to locate the work we do in Echo Echo in relation to other contexts.
So here are a few reflections on the various aspects of the busy schedule over the three days.
European Dance-House Network presentation:
I am in no position to make any firm judgements, having only a very partially informed perspective but it was pretty clear that there are what seem to be quite fundamental issues to be addressed around the membership structure and processes for fulfilling the core purposes of the network. The network co-ordinators making the presentation did refer to these issues, arising from how it has grown and developed from its roots as a small group of, organisations, primarily in Western Europe, that identified shared interests and sourced European Union funding to help them to establish a formally constituted network to address these interests. The strong, but polite and respectful contributions from the floor did add emphasis, though. There were comments about the map that was projected during the presentation which showed, rather starkly, that the member organisations were situated, overwhelmingly, in the richer, western countries of the EU. There were pointed comments, from direct experience, about the perceived exclusivity of the “club”, concerns about having “membership by invitation only” policy, and the perennial danger, in the context of EU funding, that the energy of organisations, which characteristically experience being under resourced already, can be sucked towards sustaining international networks and diverted from core functions and priorities. It was fairly clear that the presenters were a least partly aware of these concerns but the impression I had was that they left the meeting with a realisation that they may need to spend some serious effort on re-thinking what they do, how they do it and how they communicate it.
Showcase /Pitching Sessions
I don’t really like this context for finding out about work. I feel uncomfortable in the “festival programmer going shopping” role and I’ve disliked being on the other side too as a performer or presenter. It always seems to favour rather predictable work which is easily distilled to a dynamic presentation. This is the same problem that arises with PR clips and taster videos. Of course it is natural enough that festivals should try to support artists from their locality to present to visiting programmers and producers just as it is natural for those people to attend but that doesn’t really change my feelings.
In this case the discomfort was somewhat relieved by the choice to get a couple of local dancers who also perform as comedy duo “B&B” to compère. Their way of doing this, which referred, explicitly, to the tension in the context with humour and irony was skilful and imaginative. They had prepared well, knowing the names and backgrounds of the invited “buyers” as well as the details of the artists and work being presented and they kept returning shamelessly to teasing the large element of the audience who might be on a “shopping expedition”. This definitely helped me to avoid the feeling that I was pushing a supermarket trolley as I watched. The whole feeling was a lot more collegial and relaxed than I have experienced before. The 16 works presented, by artists and companies from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, were at very varied stages of development, from pieces that had already a history of touring to very fresh new ideas. It included work for children and families. It was interesting to see how artists chose different strategies for dealing with the context. These included simply, quietly and clearly describing the piece while kneeling in front of the audience, doing one section of the piece full on but not really contextualising it, demonstrating some of the creative process, having live performance simultaneously with clip videos running in the background, and mixtures of these.
None of the works, as presented, really grabbed me, and I’d tend to put that down to the context rather than the inherent quality of the work. However, a couple made me interested to find out more and conversations afterwards may lead to Echo Echo making a creative connection through residencies with one or two of the artists.
On reflection I realised that what I was really interested by was B&B, the compère duo. So I’ve started a chat with them about whether they might be interested to come to Echo Echo to work on integrating their presentation and comedy stuff with their backgrounds in contemporary dance. I think that is something that we could really help them to develop. One of the other artists approached me as well. The material she showed seemed quite underdeveloped but it had a sense of honesty and integrity to it and maybe we’ll be able to welcome her to have the time and quiet and support she feels she needs to take her work further.
I do remain concerned that the fact that this format seems to be rather common might be having the effect of guiding younger artists towards working processes that align with creating pieces that present well in this kind of context rather than paying close attention to those deeper, more autonomous, mysterious textures and rhythms demanded by their creative intuitions and which might lead them to interesting and unknown territories.
Fully produced and presented works
I saw 7 fully produced works by artists and companies from the Baltic States that had performances programmed in the main festival.
Kaunas Zoo by Aura Dance Theatre used some quite camp references to night club life, including gold lamé costumes. It seemed to want to make a critique of alienation but failed to solve the perennial problem that just presenting alienated behaviour on stage doesn’t, in and of itself, constitute a critique or even an exploration of the theme. The full on, and enjoyable, energy of the performers and their pleasure in playing the stereotypes actually created, for me, a sort of uncomfortable experience of cognitive dissonance which I didn’t feel was quite the intention.
Future Freak by Latvians, Agate Bankava and Andris Kacanovskis was a dystopian “eco destruction” piece which had a kind of uncomfortable scratchy feel to it but the composition and performance didn’t really sustain the demands of 50 minutes. The loudness, both literal and metaphoric of the presentation wasn’t enough to compensate.
Rock Bottom by Sintua Silina attempted to reproduce the experience of clinical depression. Surprisingly I found myself very interested in a piece which I thought finally failed. This interest came because it failed through making a series of very difficult, possibly brave, choices which are very common, especially for younger artists. It felt like I was watching a piece which consciously or not, set up a list of the most difficult, perhaps insurmountable, challenges. The theme was clearly autobiographical which raises the difficulty of judging where and how imagination and distancing needs to arise from intensely personal commitment. The audience were seated in the round raising the question of managing the role of the audience members as a presence in the piece for other audience members. There was video projection and the problems of integrating a second visual medium which has a very different grammar and dynamic. The theme of depression, with its core elements of stuckness, intensely private subjectivity and inability to change is by nature a hard one to deal with in movement and dance. The performers were clearly from a contemporary dance background and seemed very young for dealing with this subject matter and complexity of conception. The music was composed for the piece and raised questions of the complex relationship between music, design, movement and theatrical image.
Imagine There’s a Fish by Sigrid Savi was surreal, humorous, clever and theatrically and compositionally sophisticated. It made a sharply focused attack on the habits and absurdities of contemporary dance practice. I agreed with everything it said. But I came away with a bad taste in my mouth. For me it seemed, perhaps unintentionally, cynical. I wanted to ask what the artist was going to do now she had broken everything, and to point out that “breaking things” is generally a lot easier than putting them back together again or creating some new possibility.
Blank Spots by Lukas Karvelis from Lithuania was a work which stayed within the limits of expressive, personal, contemporary dance theatre. It had the limits of that approach though there was a level of quite extreme movement ability, within a limited range. I found the piece hard to follow as for me the music was far too loud (to the point of pain) and the intense sudden flashes of light along with a lot of stage mist put me on the verge of a migraine. It seemed like the rest of the audience coped with that better than me.
Bolero – Extended by Seiko Dance Co from Lithuania (in collaboration with Granhoi Dans from Denmark) which took as its basis a musical interpretation of Ravel’s Bolero for eight cellists, eight dancers and a stage manager, had lots of great structural and conceptual ideas in it: An imaginative and amusing way of getting people on and off stage, clever use of stage objects and a satisfying structural development over the time of the piece. There was also a really wonderful improvisation on the bolero theme by the main cellist which showed a really strong understanding of the music and the theatrical context. The central movement idea of “Obstruction Technique” (introduced in the programme notes) had potential but, frustratingly I felt it really didn’t go anywhere very interesting. It was as if the concepts and the ideas had completely trumped the actual development of interesting and layered movement material both at the level of the solo material of each dancer and at the level of the development of the potential for depth and subtlety in the “obstruction” processes.
Fluids by Wauhaus from Estonia did something special by covering a white dance floor with extremely slippery slime to create limits and challenges for the dancers. It was a lovely starting point (I wish it had been my idea!) and the restraint of the performers at the beginning really allowed a sort of organic and slow rhythm of development which worked wonderfully for about twenty minutes. The restricted use of music, which only appeared a couple of times in the 50 minute show, was also a really good choice. After this the restraint seemed to be a forced issue, perhaps a directorial instruction, which eventually restricted rather than enhanced the inherent humour and vulnerability in the piece and left me focusing on the technology and technique of the work when what I really wanted was for the performers to finally be allowed to play rather than just create images, however amusing most of them were. I did really enjoy the performance though and when the dancers took their curtain call they finally relaxed and interacted in a much more free and fluid and playful way and I was allowed, at that point, to resonate with the pleasures and challenges of their experience of the slippery circumstances.
No generalisation about the pieces I saw (both the pitched works and those that were fully produced) would be truly accurate, but it did seem clear that the work tended toward a strong focus on the use of symbolic gesture and repetition as choreographic devices. The exploration and development of detailed sensitivity to the parameters of poetic movement (phrasing, rhythm, pulse, metre, tonus, proximity, vertical and horizontal space) was not a main concern. I think this is characteristic of much of what is called “contemporary dance” these days, but it seemed quite extreme in this context. The work was often explicitly interdisciplinary and the depth and sophistication of the engagement with the parameters of music, text, object, theatre and light seemed much greater than that with the movement itself. I ended up wondering if people don’t like to dance, don’t feel they are allowed to or just don’t have the “tools and methods” for creating in a way that focuses fundamentally on movement as a material rather than as an instrument.
Mostly though, I just feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to experience the work of so many artists who work with such good will and bravery. That is always a pleasure and trumps every doubt and criticism.
I have no idea how to do that thing they call networking. I seem to prefer to spend my time enjoying watching other people do networking things or having lengthy and intense discussions with one or two people. I’ve kind of accepted that I’m not “native” to the conference, exchange, networking scene and embraced my alien nature! So I had lots of really strong and lengthy exchanges with various people; young presenting artists, older visiting artists, producers and festival directors. The themes of these “chats” ranged widely and included; the dangers of the “next young star” international co-production and commissioning pattern; comparisons of the developmental stage of contemporary dance in the Baltic region now and the situation in Ireland in the late nineties-early two thousands when Ursula Laeubli and I were strongly involved with the exchanges among artists focused around Mary Brady’s time at Firkin Crane ; the experience of one’s “voice” being casually ignored in “networking contexts” because of coming from a poor, peripheral, EU country rather than one of the “big player” countries; training practices for dancers in “the academy” and outside it; instrumentalism/therapy/art.
I learned a lot and got such a rich variety of impressions of the textures with which people approach their work as well as interesting reflections on things we had seen together and the broad political weather we all, to some extent, share. With regard to that I was very touched by the remarkable number of people who, when they realised I was from Derry in Northern Ireland, showed a nuanced, compassionate and concerned understanding of the Brexit issue and the way it may affect Ireland in general and Northern Ireland in particular. In some way this reinforced my experience as being “of” both Ireland and Europe as well as “from” the United Kingdom. It made me hopeful but also more fearful for what may be gradually lost for those of us whose lives and work are being negatively affected by the playing out of the end times of a centuries-long phase of British history.
Because I was in one of those “deep discussions” I missed the group photo. But here it is with everyone except me and the person I was talking too.
Pictures of the performances and events can be seen at: https://www.facebook.com/newbalticdance/
You can find beautiful pictures of Vilnius easily so I won’t upload my own poor panoramic efforts taken from the historic fortified hill in the city centre.
But here are two pictures of gluten free desserts. Respectively 8.5 and 8 out of ten! These are not the only reason I found Vilnius a lovely town… but they helped.
I send a huge thank you to festival director Gintarė Masteikaitė – such a nice and impressive person – I can learn a lot from her abilities in running a festival far more demanding than the Echo Echo one without getting seriously overcooked – and all her team.
I send, again, a big thank-you to the people at Dance Ireland who invited me to “fill a gap”.
Steve Batts 14/05/2019
New Baltic Dance Festival – https://www.newbalticdance.lt/en/
Dance Ireland – https://www.danceireland.ie/
European Dancehouse Network – http://ednetwork.eu/
Dublin Dance festival – https://dublindancefestival.ie/