Interview with Joanna Leśnierowska

Interview with Joanna Leśnierowska was conducted by Andreea Capitanescu, eXplore Dance Festival director and WASP – Working Art Space & Production curator. Interview firs appeared on waspmagazine.com

How does daily consumerism meet contemporary dance and art in a former industrial space, in Poznań? Shopping mall and contemporary art in a former industrial space. From a Western perspective (the border with Germany has its inevitable influence…) it was a practical choice, good business decision to create a new cultural space. From an Eastern perspective (which in my opinion tends to be too analytical and critical sometime, activated more by the sensitive part of the body, and loosing its perspective for the future), looks like a compromise. Tell us a bit about how the space was reconverted, was it a 100% private initiative or did the state/city also supported it?
Once upon a time, somewhere in a not too big city of some fairly big Eastern European country, there was a visionary business woman and art collector – Grazyna Kulczyk. At the end of the last century she bought, in the heart of the town, ruins of the Hugger Brewery whose origins went back to the year 1844 when Ambrosius Hugger – a brewer from Württemberg – arrived to Poznań (in those times lying under German occupation as the whole North-West Poland). Following Mrs Kulczyk’s passion for arts, the idea of restoring the historical complex of the former brewery included from the very beginning a vision for a place where, as we often like to say, life meets art, and lead to the creation of the Art and Business Center, known as Stary Browar / Old Brewery.

Parallel to the restoration of the original red brick buildings more than a hundred years old and with the reconstruction of already destroyed premises (that became a shopping mall/ business part), the small gallery building has been designed to host a contemporary art exhibitions directly connected and inspired by Mrs. Kulczyk’s collection. At the same time, the best preserved part of the brewery – multistorey Slodownia building (Malthaus) – has been thought of as main building of the art center to be, with a top level turned into a performing studio – the first regular dance space in Poland, working through the whole year and dedicated to promotion, presentation and support to the development of contemporary choreography.
We started to work in 2004, the year when Art Stations Foundation by Grazyna Kulczyk has been established to run the exhibiting and performing arts program based in Stary Browar. The initiative is totally private and the Foundation activities are possible only due to the genuine desire and support of Mrs. Kulczyk.

Even though the Foundation operates as a regular NGO, and as such has all legal possibilities to apply for public money, our possibilities to gather substantial budget are limited, therefore the regular life of the place cannot rely on it. And while the projects within the fine arts field seem natural due to the long-life passion of the founder, support for avant-garde dance and choreography is pretty unique and therefore I believe even more meaningful, making it a patronage in the full sense of the word, offering to the art that has been so far very poorly supported and underdeveloped exciting new opportunities to grow and to break isolation from international communities and local audiences – a chance to regularly follow development of both international and Polish choreography…

How does Art Stations Foundation and Stary Browar work together? What is the connection between the two?
Beside the fact that our activities are based in Stary Browar (and we rent spaces from the firm managing the complex) there is no other formal relation. It is Grazyna Kulczyk, the owner, that connects the two initiatives, but our activities  – activities of a non-profit cultural Foundation (even though at first sight set in a specific environment) – are totally independent. I’d call a connection to the shopping mall a friendly sympathetic coexistence. And we sometimes use the Stary Browar public spaces for our outdoor activities as well..

Within Art Stations Foundation you curate and host the dance program Old Brewery New Dance, including a festival, a residency program, productions and presentations, alternative education programs, the Polish Dance Platform… A lot of activities which developed a growing audience, and brought back to Poland many Polish young artists having studied abroad in the last years. What is the “secret” behind it? Except perhaps the fact that it’s easy to live in Berlin and perform back home in Poland, at a one-hour distance…
For years we have been experiencing in Poland an exodus of the most talented young artists – due to the lack of higher education programs in dance they left the country for international schools and simply had no reason to come back. There was no (and actually still there isn’t) any serious chance for regular professional dance life. The situation is slowly changing, you can now study dance also in the country, but still there is no substantial financial support for local artists (surprisingly, dance-wise Poland seems a land obsessed with  carnivals and festivals rather than daily dance and choreographic practice – but isn’t this a more common disease everywhere? …), no serious infrastructure for dance has been developed (considering the 40 million people and such a big territory, with quite good understanding for performing arts, we don’t have any official national dance center and hundreds of theatres are not interested in presenting dance on their stage) and there is still no professional education for choreographers; even worse – in the common understanding, choreography is not considered an art form and profession you should study, but rather a function within dance production and a natural step for a dancer in his life (or even a traditional way of retiring from a performing career…).

On top, due to political circumstances, as in other East-European countries, we faced years of isolation of the Polish community and dance scene from rest of Europe, so both Polish artists and audiences have not been exposed to the dynamic changes of international scene, to various choreographic approaches and current trends, not mentioning the choreographic reflection and  discourse. Obsessed for years with  “dance theatre” (I put quotations marks deliberately to point out that its aesthetics did not had much in common with what we could associate to classical Tanztheater, but rather with some mix of hiper-emotionality and narrative quite common for Eastern Europe), Poland was not a place in which a graduate of an international school, especially with a choreographic profile, had much to do…

In this specific local landscape, establishing a place like our studio in Stary Browar, with its consequent artistic profile and interest in avant-garde choreography, the first regular dance venue and a platform of artistic dialogue, research, creation and choreographic reflection. Such endeavor must have become a bit schocking and with its radical change brought hope for some long-awaited normality to local community as well as to all those that left the country and would like to come back but did not had a real chance nor reason before. To come back even if not for good (although many really decided so and actively engaged in a hard work of changing Polish dance reality) – then at least to be able to share their work with local audiences and find here support for their research. And let’s not forget that the life of a young maker is not easy in all parts of the world, and every new opportunity is more than welcomed.

And also: Poland has its own rich culture, language, sensitivity, incredible theatre tradition, great music and interesting visual arts field, many artists are really eager  to confront themselves with their own heritage and develop their art in this very particular context! But the program and formats I created were never designed for Polish graduates of foreign academies! The diploma doesn’t work  automatically as a passport to Stary Browar.

To be honest, having the chance to meet and also work with many young graduates of different schools, in my view, the value of academic dance (and choreographic) education is a bit overrated. I am generally interested in young dance artists who want to become choreographers and next to talent and some necessary predispositions, and are, first of all: open-minded, ready to take artistic risks and dig deep in search of individual voice; also those who stay open to dialogue and reflection (and self-reflection) on the art of making dance. And for that you don’t necessarily need to have a special license… From the beginning I cared also for those promising Polish artists (not only youngsters) who never left and did not go through any formal education (the long list of our residents and scholarship holders really proves it).

I promote and support talent and hard work and believe (no matter how much truism it sounds like) that becoming a choreographer is a complex (and often life-long) process… And it is this very process that interests me the most. And to discuss and create the best possible conditions for it  – a professional, safe, but also constructively critical environment – I consciously devoted the performative program of Art Stations Foundation known as Old Brewery New Dance.

How do you perceive the idea of networking on European level in the dance field? How much does it influence your job as curator/programmer? I know you are a member of Aerowaves, what are your thoughts on dance networks, is there room for experimental artists to be promoted within them? How much are they about buying and selling?
I see networks just as any other tool – useful only if you know how to use it. Again, I would not over-estimate them in general, though I think they can be very powerful and beneficial when applied as one of the elements of thoughtfully designed long-term programs of supporting the development of artists. In the Polish case, it allowed to break isolation of the Polish dance community from the rest of Europe, professionalize the research and production methods, and strengthen inspiring international (also educational) collaborations. It is also a great tool in promoting Polish dance abroad. For me, it is equally important that through networking I myself have a great chance to learn from more experienced partners and also I can directly engage in general discussion on modes of support and development for today’s dance and choreography.

Creating new formats is however the most exciting. In 2008 Art Stations Foundation became a founding member of European Dancehouse Network (EDN) and one year later launched, together with 19 other partners,  the 4-year multilevel  EU project modul-dance. Its aim is to create the optimum production conditions for artists, dancers and choreographers throughout Europe in order to facilitate their mobility and promote the dissemination of their work. Up to now, the project supported 52 choreographers and approximately 500 other artists who are participating in international exchanges. Among them many Polish.

In 2011, following shared interested and invitation from ICK Amsterdam, we have launched SPAZIO / European network for dance creation – training and creation program for young dance makers, focused on the interdisciplinary character of the dance discipline. Last year, together with Goethe Institute Warsaw, we co-created Identity.Move! – another project that won a EU grant and for next 2 years will focus on research around widely understood identity issues in Eastern European countries, bridging choreographic practice with theoretical refection.

In context of such created formats my answer is: yes, there is a room for experimental artists to be promoted within these networks. Even more, these networks are created with them in mind especially. Following the mission of my program, I am not interested in “buying and selling” and avoid networks which end up operating in that way. And there are many. But, also in those (usually big) networks there are still great tools you can use according to your own objectives and needs as well as some partners who will share your interest…

What risks can or should a curator take when responsible for programming dance in a new space, especially an alternative one, which needs to also develop an audience?
I remember when I succeeded with convincing Grazyna Kulczyk that the performative program of Art Stations Foundation shall radically focus on contemporary choreography, especially on its avant-garde forms (which, taking into consideration the fact that Mrs Kulczyk was not familiar with this phenomena became in itself quite an endeavor), many people in the city of Poznan and among the Polish dance community portended my imminent defeat. Beside the fact that the idea of a creation space not only presenting but also offering residencies, producing and educating choreographers was as such already quite exotic, one of the main arguments was that there will never be audience for such an experimental program and that so called “dance audience” will never get into it… For some years travelling as a dance writer through different European festivals I often heard many presenters (not only from our Eastern Europe area) saying after certain performances: “my audience is not ready for it”. I always felt personally offended by such saying since as a critic, I was also still the audience (!) and I could not understand who gave a programmer the right to judge my competence in such generalizing way. I could hardly get why – being well educated, interested in and actively participating in contemporary art and culture – why I am, and at the same time many similar to me, smart and hungry for more challenging art people –  why we are regularly deprived of the possibility to be confronted with different works and to make our own opinions and judgments.

When I got my own chance regularly  present dance, I wanted to share with the audience my personal curatorial interest treating viewers as my partners – open-minded people able to receive any art genre, also such complex-like avant-garde dance, and willing to discuss it further, and then decide on their own if they like it or not. Actually, I think we very quickly got over the simplistic “to like or not to like” judgment and could engage in more interesting talks on how the notion of choreography broadened nowadays as well as by audience sympathetic and often critical curiosity – to challenge artists with a thoughtful reception of their work (that became also very important when we started to produce young makers and needed audience to understand more the choreographic process…). And I believed there is audience like that in Poznan! Discussing choreography and its creative process became an immanent part of the program. Should we see my so radical program line  as „taking a risk“–  I’d rather call it honest and consequent curatorial work that also put me in need to be always ready to defend my programmation with every next scene…. And I could as well fail in this… But I think it would be a beautiful failure… That kind of “risk” of clear communicating your artistic stance I find necessary when you put a new cultural place on a map of the city (and community) and want to make a substantial statement or change.

In a way I see contemporary choreography as an art of fearless people – both artists, curators, programmers and audience! – who throw themselves into the unknown and bravely confront their bodies and minds with the world around and the very art itself…  But let me point again that of course, one must never forget that operating within a non-profit private foundation, I was not burdened by any governmental, local or national mandate… The responsibility was rather to the owner but first of all: the purely artistic one… At the end of a day, no risk no fun and here we are almost 10 years later…

I know you support quite a lot of young Polish artists through residencies and educational programs. Some of them were also presented at WASP (Aleksandra Borys, Anna Nowicka, Magdalena Ptasznik – in the frame of Jardin d’Europe 2013 and eXplore dance festival 2012). What are the chances for a young maker to succeed on a European level by his/her own, as an independent artist? You also work close with some young artists, as dramaturge and producer, following or supporting the production process. Is this the secret of ensuring a future good investment?
Stary Browar Nowy Taniec does not function as a regular production house. It is a creation space in which in professional but laboratory conditions we provide most talented young artists with support for their choreographic research. It’s a safe but also constructively critical environment, challenging artists with feedback, confronting their ideas with practice, provoking reflection and embracing into the process also failure (in my eyes very creative if you only know how to smartly use it)… We are not obsessed with the final product (performance or artist as an export item) we do not engage in its further selling, we are not serving as post-production management to the works being created within our program. To the program and the artists working in Stary Browar I am serving as a “house dramaturge”, sometimes, within residency programmes for beginners, also as artistic coach  – though for this not easy task of supporting artists in creation of THEIR best work, every year I invite more experienced artists, choreographers and pedagogues. Working with young makers in such formulated context is less an investment as you call it, it’s more like another artistic risk… The selection of artists who participate in our programs seems rather an estimation of creative choreographic potential – kind of a bet – and how much accurate our estimations are, we learn in the process, and often over the years..

Through almost 10 years of activities, we succeeded to introduce to the Polish dance scene the whole new generation of very promising dance makers who literally changed the guards in Polish dance. Almost every young artists successful in the field has been our resident or took our training programs. I think it may prove we have quite good intuition and that over yhe years we have developed (also artistic) strategies to strengthen choreographic potential and equip artists with  skills that will allow them to become independent, in a sense mature, creators/choreographers. Of course that for a young choreographer in the extremely crowded and competitive international community of today,  to be independent in a sense, not supported by any institution and without a promotional machine, it is to certain degree a non-existence sentence. Dangerous can be also kind of laziness of nowadays’ programmers: global networking creates a privileged group of artists gaining European visibility and having access to residency and presentation opportunities, festival programmes start to look all the same, less and less curators seem to go for their own search, less and less  want to go for (or can afford..) artistic (and programming) risks…

On the other hand, I am also a bit perplexed observing a pressure put nowadays on young artists: we (curators, presenters) seem to expect them to conceive only great works, at the same time discussing on different conferences how complex and simply long, longer than one show, the process of  becoming a choreographer is… if the “new kid on the block” fails from one trial, we exchange him for another “promising” artist, and since the majority of  programs are created for “emerging choreographers” , almost every young dance person wanting to survive, calls himself/herself a choreographer though we all agree that not every great mover has predispositions to create performances. I also think that through new trends in education, we might be producing (and unfortunately “producing” seems the right word) simply too much “choreographers” that an already crowded market simply cannot absorb…. And, to be “just” a dancer (even if great) sounds today almost like second-category profession, not mentioning that – at least in our country – financial situation of this art form, not allowing bigger group productions, forces artists to create dances for themselves even if they do not feel ready for a challenge, otherwise they would not be present on stage at all. And if such talented but not yet skilled and independent enough (as creators) artist, as well as pressured to choreograph by circumstances rather not the genuine wish, if they make (naturally) not the most impressive and complete (and sometimes just bad) work :  thumbs down,  the possibility to get another chance (grant, residency) comes for them close to zero –  they’re out, the line is full of others ready to prove (or sell us) their choreographic potentials…

Conceived already in the first years of our activities as one of the mottos of Art Stations Foundation is: “art does not need support, Artists DO”.  Running Stary Browar Nowy Taniec, I was always interested in the long term support of the most talented and in my eyes most promising dance artists in their way to become mature dance makers. Accompanying this not at all easy journey in a thoughtful way and on each possible level, that would be my “secret”… But does it, as you say, “ensure a future good investment” yet? I think it is much more complex issue… something to reflect upon for another, hopefully eqaully active, 10 years of my work…