Looking back at my first year as artistic director of Moving in November, Helsinki

2020 started for me with intensely thinking about what it means to arrive in another country, a new city, a different culture political situation, in another dance scene, as the freshly appointed artistic director of the oldest contemporary dance festival in the Helsinki area. A festival that grew out of an artistic initiative, out of a local artistic scene that felt the urge to bring international artists and their works to the city.

How to rethink and restructure a festival that has educated generations of artists, and that has grown a significant and stable audience over all these years (namely 35)? How to convince the city officials, cultural foundations, and funders in general, that an established organization with a history and a reputation is as sexy as a new adventure? That continuation in a city, within a community, is of high importance. How to re-think a contemporary dance festival in a scene situated between the premises of a dance house (currently being built) and a local center for dance dedicated to the local scene? Players that are stable and potent, engaged in various networks and situated within houses, with their own stages. The conditions of Moving in November are that we do not have a house, but we can interact with different venues in the city and reach out in different areas to audiences and to artists. One could think that a festival between those two is an important component to add, as we can handle our work way more flexible, and we are the ones bringing contemporary dance from the outside. Highlighting an opening to the world.

When applying for this job, I was especially keen to work with an organization rooted within an artistic community, on a local and international level, and inspired to re-think what a festival in these times can be. To question the international versus the local; to reflect how both could be present in Moving in November in different ways, developing the festival as a meeting point and a place of exchange. Being driven by art and artists, and not wanting to highlight their nationalities or draw a line between artists living and presenting in Helsinki and artists producing abroad. Wishing to work with an organization that already has an audience, as much as the capacity and ability to widen and enlarge this audience, by bringing in new perspectives and another way of operating.

I discovered that Moving in November, since its beginning, is running on the enthusiasm and engagement of a few and is definitely not standing on well-funded ground. Coming from the outside and carrying a different image of Moving in November, it was a major surprise to me to look at the festival’s finances in relation to the years of its existence and the catalogue of its achievements, within the city and the community, in comparison to other bigger European festivals in cities like Berlin or Brussels. To actually discover that Moving in November has hardly any stable support needed to plan ahead or engage with artists on a longer-term basis, to continue building an audience, to reach out to other areas of the city, and to find new partners locally and internationally.

Moving in November is loved internationally and locally, its importance, outreach, and work is recognized by artists, audience and professionals, but city officials and local funding bodies still think of the 35-year scene-changing organization as a “project” and finance it as such. Moving in November has received multiannual support from the city for 3 years (2019-2022), in an amount that is helpful but far from providing this organization any kind of stability.

I was looking at a festival that, before I started, could only operate 6 months a year, program decisions being finalized by late June, sometimes even in August, the work on communication, public relation, press and audience outreach operating in the imposed time limit of 2 months a year. What had I gotten myself into?! The first grant application we wrote early September 2019 to Kone Foundation was exactly about this, as much as about the chance of giving Moving in November a certain kind of freedom in operating. Luckily, we have been granted a 3-year funding, to double up our salaries and to work throughout the year. Without this funding, Moving in November would not have survived 2020.

This was one step in the right direction to grant Moving in November continuity and a first shimmer of what stability could possibly be. It would be far too early to take a rest on this. It is the moment that the festival could take the jump from cooking on a low flame to a stable funded organization operating all year around, engaging with artists and audiences on continuous terms.

Cultural politics here in Finland do not necessary go with the idea of supporting further development, growth, and outreach of already existing organizations (apart from the ones subsidized by law). The logic of funding projects and single new initiatives seems, to my surprise, a priority. Coming from the outside, I am looking at a vivid performing arts scene that has learned to develop quality work and a unique handwriting with little means, in small venues; venues that are often not on stable ground themselves and that can only give space to artists for rehearsals and performances through an application process and/or rental agreements.

The same applies for Moving in November. It is remarkable that such an organization has so little financial support from the city and the government, that it is treated like an artistic project, that each year it is asked to apply anew and prove all over again its outreach and relevance. An outreach and relevance that cannot grow, as there is no time or resources granted to raise both. And due to this, it can never agree to longer commitments with artists (local and international) and develop sustainable relations and initiatives that would bring stability in working, producing, and presenting artistic works in the long run. Moving in November is not a simple project, but a whole year-round organization, working within the artistic scene through conversations and assistance. That is what we started to provide in 2020 for some of the local and international artists, and that is, in the end, what I can bring to the Helsinki scene after having worked internationally for many years with artists, as manager, mentor, and festival initiator.

Moving in November could easily be turned into an important and stable partner for the contemporary dance scene in Helsinki and abroad.

“Finnish artists are not seen internationally”, interestingly enough one of the reappearing phrases I have heard since I started in September 2019, in combination with artists asking me for advice on how to enter the international scene and how to present works on a more continuous basis outside of Finland. This made me think of and investigate the operating culture political structure. And basically, I encountered the same problem as we are facing with Moving in November. Just like the festival, artists apply for a multitude of projects every year from a multitude of funding bodies, to realize one project. At the same time, artists apply for co-production money, rehearsal and performance spaces at various theaters and festivals, to rehearse and to show their project with the (hopefully) granted money they have applied for. How can a single operating artist, while writing applications after applications for every step of the process to realize a project, possibly think about long-term development, when each step of the realization of a project is uncertain and heavily guarded by gate keepers, reading and judging the different applications? The development of an artist as such does not stand in the foreground here, but rather the single smartly written project description that will fall through or be picked up. I have worked long enough as a manager of a well-known choreographer to understand that this uncertainty on all levels prevents any planning and gaining stability. Artists (as much as festivals or theaters) cannot grow and develop in an environment that is driven by project thinking and an overdose on application processes. Building a career as an artist requires time and energy, and in the end, the trust of theaters, festivals, and funding bodies in the artists and their practice, and not only in one artistic project realized every now and then. Basically, I found myself looking at a scene that needs trust, conversations, exchange, and resources for artists, for their careers to develop and for moving themselves out into the world of international circulation, if they wish to, combined with some strategical thinking of funding bodies, foundations, and venues on how to best fund artistic careers on a stable and continuous basis.

Looking back, it has not exactly been the year I imagined when appointed artistic director of Moving
in November Festival in autumn 2019. Starting a new job, in a city and scene I barely knew, especially as artistic director of an international contemporary dance festival, definitely a work that involves traveling, meeting artists, and seeing pieces, was not obvious in these times. As much as I was busy with restructuring Moving in November and cooking up a first edition, I saw myself thinking about the value of contemporary dance in these times and defending an opening to the world, in times where the call for the local became a little too loud for my taste. Reflecting on the responsibility and impact we can have as cultural institutions, as dance artists, as voices that question the structures and the world we are living in, through the poetics of movements and words and through the lens of abstraction. Thinking up the future and utopian worlds, digesting the seen and the unknown in front of our eyes.

The festival program was done by April. By September, we started doubting if we were able to have a festival at all. With a lot of good luck and a big mountain of work, we opened Moving in November in the end, presenting even three pieces performed and choreographed by artists from aboard, alongside two pieces by local artists. Moving in November took place as one of the very few international festivals in 2020 worldwide, a smaller edition, but not less exciting and relevant than the originally planned bigger edition could have been. It has been important to bring people back together to share the experience of watching live events, as it is not only about the pieces shown, but also about the other people, the community one shares this experience with.

Looking forward, after having experienced one year of work on this festival, my deepest wish for the future is that Moving in November can be lifted to stand on stable feet. That Moving in November would be granted the recognition it deserves after all these years, by funders and city officials. Allowing us to develop it further and engage with artists and audience on a long-term basis. We are not able to achieve this alone.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!

Warm wishes,
Kerstin Schroth
Artistic director 

Spilling over, Traces from November – dates will be announced soon, stay tuned!

Photos: Kerstin Schroth and Veli Lehtovaara