Spring Forward: The ‘hybrid’ Euro festival nurturing the next generation of dance critics

Company Furinkai’s Origami at the Spring Forward festival in 2017. Photo: Laurent Philippe
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At the Spring Forward festival, emerging dance writers are offered support and mentoring to review the programme. Nick Awde finds out how the help is tailored to benefit audiences and artists, while developing critics’ skill sets

The digital revolution in the media has landed performing arts critics with a particularly rocky ride over the past decade, forcing the profession to think hard about redefining its role in a constantly shifting landscape.

Part of the response has been the gradual introduction of major initiatives, not all successful, designed to give the new generation a sustainable leg-up and tending to operate within the international festival model. Leading the field is Springback, an annual emerging dance critics programme from which theatre can learn a thing or two.

“The written press, the written review and the critic are obsolete to a certain extent,” says Springback director Oonagh Duckworth. “We see newspapers eliminating or squeezing out their arts criticism more and more. Today, therefore, we need to use all the tools at our disposal to maintain the role of the critic as the conduit between artist and audience, finding a new place in the world of digital publication and social media.”

Springback started in 2014, but before looking at how it works, we first need a little history. The programme evolved from Spring Forward, a festival that itself evolved from Aerowaves, founded in 1997 by John Ashford, former director of London’s the Place, as a network for the research and presentation of emerging dance companies across geographical Europe.

Through its network of partners from 31 countries, Aerowaves holds an annual open call for emerging choreographers, the cream of which ends up in Spring Forward, a peripatetic showcase that takes place in a different European city each year.

That vision soon turned to the engagement of new critics, rolling the experience over from year to year to build a sustainable knowledge and talent network. This year’s Spring Forward, co-hosted with Bora Bora in Aarhus, Denmark, saw a remarkable 34 writers, mentors and observers join more than 200 practitioners and programmers in a festival of  20 consecutive shows over two and a half days.

Selected through an open call by Aerowaves in February this year, the successful writers were mentored by a core of professional critics. For 2017, the mentors were Duckworth, Monna Dithmer, who writes for Denmark’s Politiken, and three UK-based critics: Donald Hutera, Sanjoy Roy and Roslyn Sulcas, who write for a wide range of publications including the Times, the Guardian and the New York Times respectively.

Each participating writer reviews a selection of performances at Spring Forward, with short reviews published immediately online during the festival. Additionally, the writers provide flash reviews on Twitter during the festival and contribute a longer article after the festival that reflects their experience.

Aerowaves profile

Director: John Ashford
General manager: Anna Arthur
Location: London
Founded: 1997 (Spring Forward March 2011)
Initiatives: Spring Forward, Springback/Springback Academy, partner presentations around Europe, year-round promotion of the Aerowaves Twenty
Partners: 42, across 31 countries
Funding: €500,000 (£429,000) annually from the EU and £5,000 annually from Arts Council England
Funders: EU Creative Europe programme, Arts Council England
Next Spring Forward: April 2018, Sofia, Bulgaria
Key contacts: Anna Arthur, anna@aerowaves.org, 020 8681 7123
Website: aerowaves.org

As a Brit based in Brussels after many years working in France, Duckworth has maintained writing side by side with creative work. She brought French dance companies to the Place when Ashford was there and ended up working its international programmes. After Ashford started Aerowaves and then Spring Forward, Duckworth joined as director of Springback in 2015 (the pilot edition was 2014).

That it has proved a fascinating process on many levels, Duckworth says, owes much to “the identity and cultural fluidity – something that I share a lot with today’s generations of artists and writers”.

“Nowadays most people who work in dance, be they dancers, writers or producers, have this hybrid identity, and that’s certainly true of our Springback candidates. I don’t think there wasn’t anybody in this year’s batch who didn’t introduce themselves along the lines of ‘I’m from Finland but my family’s in Berlin and I live in Barcelona’,” she says.

Springback director Oonagh Duckworth. Photo: Elliott Laub

“That raises all sorts of interesting possibilities when looking at the work from those different perspectives. If you are British, living in Britain, watching a show in Britain, that’s quite a different thing than if you’re British, living in Belgium, watching a show from Spain.”

The operating language is English – crucially not the majority native tongue of either the Springback team or the festival participants – and its use carries with it the implicit benchmark of the Angloworld critical tradition.

‘The project is invented as we go along, chiselled out according to the current needs’ – Springback director Oonagh Duckworth

One of this year’s writers is London-based Cath Carver, who also has a connection with the Place – she came into dance criticism via the venue’s journal Resolution. True to form, Carver mixes the job of critic with other activities: she’s the founder of Colour Your City, an initiative designed to transform urban space with colour, and her writing skill set ranges across consumer trends and the entertainment industry as well as the creative side of dance. Through the Place, she applied to Aerowaves to join Springback.

“The festival was definitely an innovative, intense experience in terms of our development as critics,” says Carver. “The new writers like me were there to do the reviews, while the cohorts from the previous years were there to create multimedia content.”

Prior to the festival, there were briefings that were “mainly about the festival along with practical stuff, and we were encouraged to be active on social media”. A special workshop led by Roy delved deeper into review writing, featuring his Planet Dance animated blogs for the Place as a way of exploring the notion of contemporary dance.

Taneli Torma in Classical Beauty at Spring Forward in 2017. Photo: Jan Vesala

“We all needed a bit of demystification,” says Carver. “And then we worked closely with the mentors throughout the festival, congregating at breaks and meal times to get to know each other and to review our work.

“It has definitely sharpened my skills as a critic and as a writer. Not only helping find my own voice but learning about production and space as well. And then of course there was the experience of getting to know your fellow writers there, expanding your network.

“That led to discussion about the role of criticism in everyone’s countries and how it differed. And then there was also the idea of spotting trends, asking yourself: ‘What exactly do I like?’ ”

The artists are not only reviewed by the Springback writers, they are also guaranteed a review from one of the professional mentors. And while there is the hope to create a publication of some kind, the format is already demonstrating a measurable impact thanks to the growing quality of writers and their work.

As Duckworth explains: “At the moment we’re trying to fathom how we combine accessible, good criticism that’s useful and constructive for both audiences and artists, together with in-depth and more evolving discussions that can also involve collaborations. Examples are interviews filmed between a visual artist and a choreographer, or a playwright and a choreographer.

“Springback is a bit of a work-in-progress, it’s sort of invented as we go along. Hence this year why it seemed a good idea to get the second and third generations to practise their mixed media skills, interviewing and editing on iPhones. We’re involving them at every stage of the development of the project, chiselling it out according to their needs and then thinking, well, what can we now get them to do that helps our audiences and our artists?

“After the festival we sent a survey out to our writers for them to fill in, to criticise how it all went. So I suppose they are our raw materials, for both guiding us in what we have to do next and inspiring us in what should happen.”

5 programmes for critics

1. The International Association of Theatre Critics has run seminars for young critics for many years. Many major festivals across the world have subsequently copied the idea, although few programmes have proved sustainable. 

2. The Union of European Theatres has created a stable of young critics who meet regularly at its festivals and report via its website, including the Young European Journalists on Performing Arts programme.

3. The daddy of them all is the National Critics Institute two-week summer workshop run at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. This is US-oriented, but there is a regular presence from UK critics.

4. Although not strictly international, The Stage launched its nationwide competition The Stage Critic Search in 2015 to discover and promote talented, emerging theatre critics. Open to anyone over 18, the winner is awarded £1,000 and the chance to review regularly for The Stage.

5. The UK’s Critics’ Circle is the world’s oldest professional body for critics, with sections for drama, dance, film, music, visual arts and books. There is an active remit for emerging writers and joining the Circle’s drama section also links you to international critics via its affiliation to the International Association of Theatre Critics.