What to talk about?

Thoughts on the Forum ‘Dance in changing Europe and Beyond Europe – May 11 & 12, Hellerau-European Center for the Arts Dresden by Annette van Zwoll.

It starts with a bang, signalling two days of frank and fascinating exchange. At the end of the panel ‘Expanding the network beyond Europe’ – in which international collaboration projects are introduced – the artists in the audience are asked for their needs. Amongst the need for more international touring opportunities, an online calendar for international festivals and other practicalities, one choreographer fiercely expresses her need for acknowledgement of the white privilege in the room, for her need to discuss how and when collaboration touches upon colonialism and euro centrism. Murmurs arise, defences are uttered, energy rises.

‘It starts with a bang, signalling two days of frank and fascinating exchange’

What to talk about when talking about ‘Dance in changing Europe and beyond Europe’? The forum aims to support ‘a culture shift and systemic change, through partnership, collaboration and shared leadership’. A noble, but broad theme and this breadth is reflected not only in the forum itself, but obviously also in the needs of the participants which comprise a healthy number of artists, as well as presenters, producers, programmers and funders

In terms of fruitful collaboration, the most insight comes in presentations from other continents. Representatives from Mexico, Hong Kong, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, South Africa and Brazil are sharing their scenes, their need for collaboration. We learn that in Mexico, the scene is as diverse as the country itself and that at first glance the contemporary dance scene seems to be invisible but it’s there, alive, diverse and interesting. Anna Chan from Hong Kong, one of the initiators of Asia Network for Dance (AND+), also stresses the importance of acknowledging differences. Asia is huge and complex with different historical, political, geographical and cultural backgrounds. But over 30 curators, artists and scientists are investing their time, energy, expertise and belief to find common ground, with an acknowledgement of their differences, to create a bottom up network dedicated to connecting, developing and empowering contemporary practice Asia-wide and are trying to build an audience for contemporary work. 

‘Rather than longing for collaborations with Europe, there is a need to travel in their own countries and on their own continents’

An interesting remark of Chan’s was the need for Asia to look at Asia. The different artistic scenes in Asia are not connected and hardly know each other. It’s a remark that also popped up in a previous EDN Atelier ‘Authenticity of expression in the local context – Post-Soviet Body’ which was dedicated to establishing a stronger connection between the scenes in Post-Soviet countries. It is also a wish expressed by Ilona Goyeneche from Mexico, as well as by Panaibra Gabriel Canda from Mozambique. Rather than longing for collaborations with Europe, there is a need to travel in their own countries and on their own continents, in order to connect to other artists and build a sustainable community. But that is extremely hard to realise with barely any funding systems or infrastructure.

These points return in a conversation with Canda, Marcio Abreu from Brazil, Abdel Marc Camara from Ivory Coast and Gerard Bester from South Africa. These countries are huge, very diverse, and these representatives are putting all their expertise, energy, dedication and resourcefulness into creating art and building their own infrastructures, with almost no financial support, in contexts that are politically precarious and complex. Although each local context is very different, as is their artistic work and methods, there seems to be a common thread in the motivation: to make work that is politically relevant, shows alternative perspectives and, very importantly, that connects to a local community, by organising classes, working with local communities, empowering them and presenting their work in local contexts. Embedded locally, they are spreading out countrywide, continent-wide and overseas.

‘I’m left with unformulated questions and thoughts, and inspiration that has found no words yet’

This panel, with representatives of other continents, is potentially a way to dive deeper into the traces of colonialism, into current euro-centrism and power structures. But there is not enough time, there are too many people and maybe even not enough interest. Planning and practicalities stand in the way. So we get interesting bits and pieces, which skate upon the surface. For example when Abreu explains how the first colonisers arriving in Brazil didn’t recognise the gestures of the indigenous people towards them as a sign of their identity. What? Wow, interesting, but I need more to understand what it means and what implications this misunderstanding has for current times. When asked if the support from European institutions is also a form of colonialism, Panaibra answers that he feels there is ownership of that money for all, especially since western countries have benefited so much from African resources. An interesting thought, but how does that hold up when you are not involved in the decision making process of who / which project is worthy of support? I’m left with unformulated questions and thoughts, and inspiration that has found no words yet, struggling to comprehend all the complexities and no time to dive deeper into them at that time.

‘What to talk about when talking about Dance in changing Europe and beyond Europe?’

What to talk about when talking about ‘Dance in changing Europe and beyond Europe’? There are many topics to choose from, as this forum showed (I did not even mention all of the panels). The examples from people who built an infrastructure out of nothing to support their art as well as their communities stick with me the most. At the same, the forum does feel unsatisfactory, because of the incapability of its participants to address constructively the provocative topic raised in the opening session. In conversation, one person said that it’s quite unusual to have so many intelligent and creative people in one room. I looked around and saw the truth in that: intelligent, creative, hardworking people who dedicate their time and energy for a good cause, who are trying, each in their own way, to make the European dance world an inclusive one. But despite all the dedication, all the effort and actions taken, the automatic response to the topic seems to be defensiveness, attempts to avoid conflict and to smooth the conversation over. Perhaps this Forum was not for that, but maybe it could be used as a springboard to develop a collective attitude that goes beyond these defences, that confronts some of our discomfort in order to really build on ‘a culture shift and systemic change’. I would love to have some of the guests back as workshop leaders!


Annette van Zwoll is an independent dance dramaturge, text writer and international project developer from the Netherlands, living in Berlin. Among others, she is engaged with Bitter Sweet Dance / Liat Waysbort as artistic associate and works for Uferstudios: a site for contemporary dance. Her interests are broad, but she has a soft spot for topics like gender, age and cultural structures that influence our way of thinking. http://www.vanzwoll.com/