Bulgarian dance critic and journalist Angelina Georgieva visited last November the Moving in November Festival as part of Capacity Grid exchange program between the festival and Brain Store Project, Sofia. The visit provided an occasion for a conversation with Kerstin Schroth, the festival’s artistic director, on the value of contemporary dance festivals and their role in the development of the art form. The conversation was published in the current issue of Dance Magazine, the Bulgarian specialized annual edition for ballet, contemporary dance and dance culture.

Kerstin, you’ve been working for almost two decades as a production manager and curator in the field of contemporary dance. I found it interesting that your educational background is in Cultural Studies and Political Science. I’m curious to learn what made you engage with the world of dance?

I’ve always read a lot and I was very attracted to the theater. University studies felt like a bubble. I missed some kind of concreteness, to put a reality on what we were studying. As a direct consequence, I got myself an assistant job at an experimental theater in Hannover, already after the first months at the university, and later on at the local Schauspielhaus. Combining the studies with the work in these theaters as assistant of different directors gave me very useful insights and created an immense enthusiasm about the concrete work in a theater, with artists, that the university did not manage to create with me. I also ran the light cues at the evening shows at the experimental theater, to earn some extra money.

I learned so much through these continuous jobs at a young age, about theater as such, about directing, being on stage, being behind the scenes and everything needed to make a stage play happen.

At the experimental theater we adapted Twin Peaks by David Lynch for the stage. I loved the adaptation and the text work that came with this and for a while my plan was to become a theater director, until the moment when ending up by accident working as an assistant in a contemporary dance festival. At that time choreographers like Meg Stuart, Raimund Hoghe, Jérôme Bel, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (and many others) presented their works in Hannover in the festival called TanzTheater International. I picked them up from the airport and took care of them and their teams during their stay and had the big chance to have conversations with them, see their rehearsals and the evening shows. While seeing these pieces, I was somehow confronted with the limitations of the spoken word and witnessed how much more these choreographers made possible through engaging the human body and language in a different way. I never went back to work with theater.

Last year I had the chance to attend Moving in November Festival in Helsinki which since 2020 is under your artistic directorship. I couldn’t not notice the special care and attentiveness towards the participating artist and the way they were given time and space to present their productions and encounter audiences. In what way do you think your close work with artists as a production manager has influenced your approach towards organizing and programming the festival?

I’ve always been highly interested in the aspect of hosting within a festival context, curious about when and under what circumstances encounters can happen, or maybe better, what it needs to make people encounter each other and start a conversation.

The contemporary dance festival in Hannover, I was working for, had a very simple way of bringing people together in a small restaurant with a long table. Everybody, artists (famous or upcoming), technicians and the festival team gathered there each evening after the performances around the table to eat, to drink, to chat. This supported and facilitated conversations on a non-hierarchical level (at least, that’s how I experienced it back then).

When creating the festival sommer.bar for the Berlin dance festival Tanz im August (sommer.bar was both a festival for hybrid forms and the heart of Tanz im August, the festival center), one of my main questions was how to create an atmosphere where everyone feels welcome, can be in conversation and can encounter others easily.

Traveling with an artist for almost 13 years, I experienced very directly the way we were hosted by theaters and festivals as their guest and that there was often very little importance put on initiating a conversation between us and their spectators and the local working artists. These observations continued to strengthen my idea about hosting and giving time to each participating artist/company and to the work they are presenting.

When arriving in Helsinki and closely following the festival in November 2019 (the last edition of the former artistic director), I realized that the audience left quickly after the performances, that people did not often hang out, did not really mingle. And I was wondering why. I wanted the artists to meet their audience and people to stay and speak about the work they just saw. That’s why we now invite everyone for a bowl of soup after each presentation, to make people stay and converse or share an afterglow of the work they just saw.

To answer your question more concretely, yes, working with artists and being on the “other side” has influenced and informed my way of working profoundly. We experienced very strange things on tour (like, that there is no audience in the foyer anymore when we came out, as they hurried to another show or simply went home, artistic directors or curators never showing up), sometimes unpleasant situations.

A festival for me is a place to gather, to spend time and meet and all this I try to provide, think of, maybe orchestrate while organizing Moving in November.

International festivals have started playing a huge role in contemporary dance as a relatively new field at least since the 1990s. In your opinion, in which aspects have they proven their significance to the development of the art form and where have they had a rather negative impact? What do you think should be reshaped in the dance festivals’ landscape in Europe?

That’s a large question to answer. International dance festivals made this art form flourish and cross borders. They brought contemporary dance and choreography to people in many different countries and cities in the first place and showed that there is more than spoken theater and ballet. They support creating local audiences for this art form. International festivals did and still do educational work, help to build careers of artists and embrace younger generations, building up an art form in cities where before often only local theater houses existed. Touring performances on an international level and being presented in different context also gives artists the possibility to present their works outside of their own context, prolong the lifespan of the productions and create the possibility to deepen each piece by performing it over a longer time and maybe also to see it from different perspectives when presented in different cities.

There was maybe a turning point when resources became smaller and more and more festivals gathered in European networks, with the intention to better support, co-produce and circulate the work of choreographers within the network. In my opinion this started to narrow down the variety of presented performances and artists. Festival programs started to resemble each other more and more.

Consequently, festivals in the European sphere tend to be relatively similar and are operating more and more in the logic of bringing international works and showcasing local works in a kind of package deal. I would wish for programmers to become more courageous again and not only show the already proven. I would also hope for more curators taking the lead of festivals again, that engage and think about context, situating the festivals in the cities/countries where they take place. Where thinking develops around a local audience and presentations for this local audience and local artistic scene, rather than for international colleagues.

How do you reflect on the internationalization of the art scene and especially of contemporary dance that allows a professional like you living between Germany and France to curate a major festival in Finland? This has become more than usual (still not a practice in Bulgarian cultural institutions) and according to you what additional value and dimension does this possibility bring both to local and international contexts and scenes?

I came to Finland basically as an outside eye, bringing with me the knowledge from working and navigating in other contexts. In my opinion and experience, this opens up reflections, adds knowledge and introduces different ways of thinking and working to the local scene.

In the case of Moving in November, this created the chance to re-think the festival (together with my colleague Isabel Gonzalez, the managing director of Moving in November) and defend the importance of an international contemporary dance festival towards politicians and funding bodies, with fresh eyes, within a relatively small scene where almost everybody knows each other.

One of our main focuses is to foster connections between the local working artists and the international artists presented in the festival. We initiate exchange and conversations. We also bring performances that include and work with local dancers, something that supports the knowledge building within the local scene, also educates and grows an audience here for contemporary dance and choreography.

I am also taking with me, what I see here in Finland made by Finnish choreographers to the international scene, via my travels and the conversations I have with colleagues and shed light on a local scene that often feels too far away, disconnected from central Europe, where it supposedly “all happens” (as unfortunately often the narrative still goes).

This is highly important, working internationally for me also means connecting and bridging and including the countries that are not necessarily in the spotlight. I like to think decentral!

One of the main concerns in the performing arts today is how to work, produce and tour internationally in a sustainable way in times of severe climate changes. How do you address this concern in your work?

We work in collaboration. Last year for example Dana Michel presented her work MIKE in the frame of Moving in November. After the performances with us, she traveled further to Stavanger to RIMI/IMIR. To give you one strategy.

We also try to make the most out of the artists’ stay when coming to Moving in November. We do not show a piece only once, but several times. We organize public conversations with the artists, and these Soup Talks are always hosted by a local artist. We also connect our guests to the university here in Helsinki, to work with the students.

An important aspect of our work within Moving in November is that we do not produce new works with the local scene but organize re-plays of older works from local choreographers and place them alongside international works in the festival. This prolongs the lifespan of local works that usually are only shown 3-6 times before they disappear. This is important in a performing arts scene and funding logic where the new is often more valued than the already existing. This thinking for me also has to do with sustainability and taking responsibility for the performing arts field.

Another way of thinking in a sustainable way about presenting performances, is that I often invite bigger international pieces that are re-adapted or re-worked for the Helsinki context partly with local performers. What makes it lighter to travel the pieces up here and at the same time build a strong connection with the local performing arts scene.

From your perspective, what are the leading current trends in the world of contemporary dance, and how do you want Moving in November to stay attuned to these developments? Could you walk us through the curation process for the festival? What value do you want to attribute to it having in mind that your mandate as an artistic director was prolonged for another 5 years?

Please join us for Moving in November this year, to discover the themes I am working on for this edition channeled through the artistic works I have the privilege to see. It is simply too early to give you a sneak peek now in February. I have to admit, that I do not like to think in trends, although I observe them closely, but might not necessarily want to highlight or always relate to them. My curatorial line has a clearly female handwriting. One of my main focuses is to put female identifying artists in front and at the same time advocate diversity in the program by asking the question what kind of bodies we see on stage and what stories are told by whom and especially also for whom.

For me, curating is a process. I see a lot of works throughout the year and am relating to them. It happens often that very early on, I decide for one performance directly after I have seen it and the rest of the festival constructs from this first choice onwards. For this year’s festival, its four works that I saw last year, that somehow related to each other through several subjects, that crystalized the two straights for this year’s edition.

Another important aspect related to my prolonged contract and working in Helsinki has to do with the development of a festival that has very little resources attributed from the city of Helsinki and the state and does a lot with a little. Together with my colleague Isabel Gonzalez we are working on putting this festival on stable feet. We have achieved a lot over the past 4 years, but there is still a long way to go. The festival is now for the first time part of a European network. We extended our collaborations with various venues in the Helsinki area, broadened our audience and we are working in partnership with European institutions and festivals. But we still need our local government to fully acknowledge the importance of Moving in November for the local community and the northern regions that feel often disconnected from the rest of Europe. We bring international guests that would not come here otherwise, and we highlight Finland, Helsinki and the Finnish performing arts scene by organizing this festival.

You teach in various European universities curatorial concepts, production and management among other subjects. What understanding of the role of curator and of the production manager do you want to convey to your students? Has your view on that changed over time?

I think one of the most important aspects I try to highlight when teaching is that I always think from the artistic. The artist and the artistic project are central in my thinking as a curator and as a manager. I do not think detached from the artistic project, everything is built around this, the budget, the organizational and productional aspects. My view on that has not changed over time, even though I see a lot of market orientated logic and pure thinking of economics kicking in besides me. If we lose the view and passion for the artistic and put this off center in our work, we better go working elsewhere, I think then we have nothing more to do in the sphere of performing arts.

February 2024

Capacity Grid program is part of Life Long Burning – Futures Lost and Found (LLB3) supported by Creative Europe.

The interview is published in Bulgarian in Dance Magazine, nr. 6/2024, published by Nomad Dance Academy – Bulgaria and Brain Store Project, Sofia, partners within LLB3.