Guest Post: Dance Seen – Berlin 2011
Stephen never intended to have a career in dance. In fact, he studied to be an actor and spent many years working in the theatre as a performer, director, and playwright. Along the way, he has enjoyed working as a Festival Producer, a Grants Officer at the BC Arts Council, a waiter, and a writer. His current gig stands out on top, in part because it puts him in contact with amazing dance artists. He finds nothing more satisfying than standing at the back of the Royal Theatre in Victoria as the audience erupts into applause following a fantastic performance.
The email came in late July. “Call me. I have something that may interest you.” It was from uber-arts consultant Judy Harquail. Harquail lives in Toronto but her sandbox is Canada. You don’t mess with Judy. When she has something on the go, she’s like a dog with a bone. Her fingerprints are on everything to do with the development of dance in this country. She oversees a software programming tool used by most presenters in Ontario that helps identify those artists and companies for whom there is multiple interest, and then she swoops in and puts together a provincial tour. She has a special group of eight or ten presenters that are part of a five-year project to increase their knowledge and understanding of dance. She leads workshops for independent dance artists. She’s constantly at a roundtable somewhere. Left alone for two minutes, Judy has checked her email, deleted ten, sent two text messages, and is phoning a dance presenter with whom she must have a conversation now. She is definitely a force in our milieu. And she doesn’t take no.
I phoned her. She phoned back. And so it went for a few days. A couple of brief emails between phone calls (Judy doesn’t do comprehensive correspondence – her emails are more like scratches on concrete, there’s never time to spell check). A picture began to emerge. Judy wanted me to join two other Canadian presenters and go to Berlin for an intense week of meetings and performances. We were to be hosted by Gabriele Naumann-Maerten, a cultural attaché at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin. We were part of a five-year project that hadn’t really been developed yet, but “Never mind – we’ll talk about the strategy later.” And then, “You owe me you realize. For the next five years you’ll be my emissary and you’ll be expected to make presentations at conference events.” Judy is no older than me, in fact she’s probably a couple years younger, but as I agreed to the proposal I felt like a kid.
Berlin. Oh my. My partner Bill and I had been to Berlin the year previous so, lucky for me (but not so true of my two presenter companions) I felt no tug towards the Brandenburg Gate or the Berliner Dom or the Jewish Museum. I was focused.
Our tour leader, Gabriele, is a remarkable woman. At one time she ran a major festival in Hamburg, but for the past ten years she has been working at the Embassy. She constructed a dense eight- day schedule of meetings. The purpose of the trip was to immerse ourselves in the whole of the dance scene in Berlin – a scene by the way that is currently crackling with vitality. We met major players like the former Producer of the € 60 million Saltsburg Festival, now in Berlin to take on the production of 12 major annual festivals under one roof at the Berliner Festspiele. We also talked with independent dance artists hungry for their next small grant to kick-start a project. We buzzed around the city in taxis and toured newly-developed facilities. And in the evening, we attended performances at the world famous Tanz im August (Dance in August) festival. It was a whirlwind, but it was rich. Smart, in depth conversations about how policies and programs shape or feed a culture.
And the facilities! Uferstudios is a collection of 11 dance studios in what were once bus barns in East Berlin. There is another gorgeous 500-seat facility with studios in a former pump house. Hamburg, Kampnagel, built in a former warehouse and factory, has multiple performance venues, dance studios and its own choreographic centre. There was a facility in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin, built in the former headquarters of the secret police. Renowned for the residencies it offers dance companies, this centre has lodging for 12, a huge kitchen, studios, a performance space, and best of all – it is situated on a lake. On those hot summer days, when they have been working on choreography all day the dancers bust out of the studios, toss off their clothes and jump into the lake for a swim.
For me, what I took away from the experience (aside from the embarrassment I suffered when meeting our Ambassador not knowing who he was and saying “Hey, how’s it goin’ Brian? Nice to meet ya.”) was the commitment, the energy, the excitement in a sector where money is a huge issue, but despite the challenges there is a belief in possibility. Berlin is reputed to have a thousand or more practicing independent dance artists. That’s not counting the ballet companies at the big opera houses.
I returned to Victoria filled with new ideas about how Dance Victoria can best serve our local and national dance community. The experience was timely as we get ready to build a performance lab in Studio Two here at Dance Victoria Studios.
And Judy? The cryptic emails have started again. Last weekend she had me sit on a panel at a national conference in Calgary. Who knows where she’ll put me next. But there’s something very special about our Judy Harquail. She has incredible instincts. Knowing Dance Victoria was planning to invest more comprehensively in the development of new work, she made sure I went to Berlin so that I could be inspired. Thank you, Judy.
By Stephen White, Producer Dance Victoria