Continental Shift

America admitted defeat the same morning that the European Dance House Network launched IDEE, a self-styled programme of Initiatives in Dance through European Exchange. “New York is no longer the capital of the contemporary-dance world,” conceded Gia Kourlas in the New York Times on September 9th. Looking east she continued: “The point is not to declare a new capital – there isn’t one – but to recognise that there has been a shift in the power base since the formation of the European Union, where the creative landscapes in Amsterdam and Bucharest are just as vital as those brewing in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Vienna.”

Europeans might sometimes be distracted by political centralisation to see these shifts. While we dissect the realpolitik of an EU-wide constitution or fret about myths of overly curved bananas and circus performers in hardhats, Kourlas can see past political structures to a network of artists with no perceptible centre of bureaucratic power. Geographical proximity and freedom of movement means “the European dance community stretches beyond culture and country and is made possible by curators and producers who may not always make the right choices, but who aren’t afraid to try something new,” she says.

Although London, Paris and Vienna are represented in the seven-strong membership of the European Dance House Network (EDN), so too are Oslo, Cork and Stockholm. The latter cities may be geographically peripheral but, applying Kourlas’ thesis, they are just as culturally vital. Further symbolism lay in the directors from those six dance houses (their colleague from Düsseldorf couldn’t attend) announcing the first year’s programme of IDEE in Cork, the 2005 European Capital of Culture. Awarded annually this honour helps to spread attention from political capitals to the cultural offerings of smaller cities. Cork’s short twelve months as cultural capital means it symbolically – and literally – represents the antithesis of a permanent artistic centre of power.

The IDEE project doesn’t contain any radical departures from the day-to-day work of any of the dance houses. It’s strength lies in the nature of the co-operation and mutual support that underpins the seasons of performances, travel bursaries, outreach, conferences and appointment of a writer/thinker-in-residence. Attention at the launch was inevitably drawn to what audiences would see during the first year’s season: Boris Charmatz (France), Yasmin Godder (Israel), Lia Rodrigues (Brazil), Hooman Sharifi (Iran/Norway) and Zero Visibility Corporation (Norway). In addition German choreographer Thomas Lehmen’s dance score Schreibstück will be interpreted by dancers from Ireland, Norway and Vienna.

This choice is a consensus of individual suggestions and although not all six groups will feature in each dance house, at least two directors must agree on a chosen artist. “The suggestions also don’t have to be from your own country,” says Kenneth Kvarnström (Dansens Hus, Stockholm). “This first year we have companies from Israel and Brazil, so although this is a European project it doesn’t have to feature just European choreographers.”

“We don’t go along with a group of pet choreographers that we want to present”, adds Mary Brady (ICD, Cork). “We are really trying to situate the pieces culturally and politically so there is a context for the work.” Yasmeen Godder attracted four producers and so two of her works will feature in London, Paris, Stockholm and Cork. Each has a different reason for choosing Godder’s work. The Place in London included two of her works in DASH05, a season of music, dance and visual art by young Jewish artists. Her septet Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder is based on Palestinian security camera footage and the grainy images of inspiration had a special resonance after the summer’s events in London, particularly with The Place located near the site of one of the bus bombings. In Cork next year she will be placed in the different political surroundings of events around notions of Territorial Claims with artists from the Northern Ireland and the Republic.

These different contexts demand mediation from the non-performance aspects of the project. So too does the fact that the seven dance houses are at various stages of maturity, with a youthful average age. The Place, formed in 1969, is the oldest, but five of the seven were founded in the past ten years and the Dansens Hus in Oslo has yet to be opened. “When we are presenting Boris Charmatz it will be the first time his work is shown in Norway”, says director Karene Lyngholm. “The music is by the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, which we know may be a difficult kind of music for our audience. That isn’t the case for Sigrid Gareis in the Tanzquartier in Vienna.” Lyngholm will feature a pre-performance talk with Charmatz and then herself travel to Vienna and speak about the experience of the Oslo performance. “The exchange between directors is as important as the exchange between artists, particularly for us on the edge of Europe,” she adds.

The Carte Blanche bursaries were envisioned as simple unrestricted opportunities for young artists to travel to another city in the network, whether to take class, watch performances or just drink coffee and talk with other choreographers. During a meeting in Cork the conceptual simplicity began to fall foul to bureaucratic entanglements. Who would fund the artist, the receiving dance house or the sender? Although the beneficiary is clearly the person who is sent, some directors, such as Claire Verlet (Centre National de la Danse, Paris) could not commit money to activity that wasn’t taking place in her dance house. “This is such a simple idea, yet we can’t seem to make it work!” an exasperated John Ashford (The Place) exclaimed at one point.

However egalitarian, IDEE needed a lead organisation to take fiscal and administrative responsibility, and as progenitors, this fell to Tanzquartier in Vienna. Now with a dedicated office and administrator () it manages the €1.5 million three-year project, with almost €900,000 of the costs funded through the EU’s Culture 2000 programme. No doubt there was more bureaucratic angst negotiating EU criteria, but the process had a democratising effect, and maybe even helped define the nature of the project.

“The key issue in multi-annual awards is the financial involvement and qualifications of a co-organiser,” explains Catherine Boothman of the Irish Arts Council’s International Arts Desk. “Every co-organiser must be able to bring 5% of the overall project costs to the table, so everybody is committing a large amount of money and taking responsibility. As well as that financial equality, it’s important to show artistic and cultural equality, so it can’t be a Swedish project or a British project. It needs to be genuinely culturally collaborative.”

But these strict EU guidelines also meant that some newer and less resourced dance houses couldn’t be co-organisers, and they are only involved as associated partners. John Ashford explains how IDEE can help their development. “For about a decade the Estonian Priit Raud has been establishing a local dance scene. Three years ago the city of Tallinn gave him a hall, which is dedicated for dance performance. For such a small country [1.3 million people] it’s unusual to have one institution, the Kanuti Gildi Saal, dedicated to the development, production and presentation of dance.

“Priit was in on the early meetings we had in order to establish IDEE and the EDN, but in Estonia, which been a democracy for only about ten years, grant aid for the arts is not yet high. One of the disadvantages for applying for money from Culture 2000 is that although you get money from the EU you have to put money into it. Very basically, if you produce something within the structure of IDEE you get half of your money back. But you have to have the money in the first place, and Estonia didn’t. So we hope that the associated partnership between the Kanuti Gildi Saal and IDEE will give Priit Raud additional political arguments to increase his funding in order to take full benefit of the kind of structures that the EU can offer.

“So he has a building, but he hasn’t got enough money,” Ashford continues. “In Switzerland, predictably, they have enough money, but they haven’t yet got a building. L’Association pour la Danse Contemporaine in Geneva, is without a satisfactory home even though it has had access to a venue for a number of years. It was formed in 1986 and so is quite a mature organisation, but it’s only now they are getting the political will from the Swiss cultural authorities to build a house that is specifically for dance. Obviously the EDN is interested in helping to establish the political force to get a building for dance in any city. Once you’ve got a building you have a presence that is unlike anything else.”

Defining that presence, and the very meaning of “a dance house”, has different priorities for the different houses, probably reflecting the cultural foundations on which they are built. For Vienna’s Sigrid Gareis the search for a definition isn’t important, but for Cork’s Mary Brady it is central. With a new dance space in Dublin about to be opened to she constantly refers to ICD as “uniquely the only dance house, as we describe it, in Ireland”. For her finding that description is not just ideological self-definition but practical self-preservation.

“It is very much a network project of European dance houses,” she says. “So almost immediately that makes a statement. What is a dance house? How do we develop dance houses? And how can this programme provide an opportunity, culturally and politically, to give a status to the idea of dance having its own space?”

During the first year IDEE will be under the regard oblique of Boyan Manchev, a Bulgarian philosopher and cultural theorist. “In my final essay I will put all artistic projects supported by IDEE in a common context and in that way try to reinforce the initial concept of IDEE in an advanced stage of the project,” he says. “Also, by my interventions on public debates with the artists or by giving conferences or taking interviews, I will try to assist and provoke the artists to articulate some of the aspects of their creative work in confrontation with that of the other IDEE artists, as well as in view of various dimensions of the contemporary cultural, social and political situation.”

He recognises the importance of questioning the issue of centre and periphery. “Projects like IDEE, can reinforce the position of what is regarded as periphery”, he says. “In many cases this is where artistic work and art “workers” are coming from, but without acquiring the status of “event”. This happens because the latter is related to the normative force and the institutional power of cultural (and political) metropolia.”

At 2.37pm the day after IDEE’s launch, while the dance house directors were discussing future plans, 8,371 people on nearby streets in Cork danced into the Guinness Book of Records. The record-breaking set dance was 1,580 more than when the record was set in Dublin, Ohio, in 1998 – another victory for Europe. But Marco Cosenza, an Italian who works at Apple Computers’ European base in Cork told The Irish Times: “We are going to import the céilí to Italy, and next year we’re going to dance it in Rome outside the Coliseum to claim the record for Italy”. Brave words, but another indication of an increasingly borderless Europe, where vital seedbeds for various forms of dance turn up where you least expect.