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Spring Forward: the festival launching new dance artists across Europe

Nass, by French company Compagnie Massala. Photo: Yana Lozeva Nass, by French company Compagnie Massala. Photo: Yana Lozeva
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Opening doors for emerging choreographers around the continent, Spring Forward is a chance to showcase work and foster connections. Donald Hutera explores the project’s growth from a small network of artists established in 1996 to an annual festival representing 40 countries

For several decades John Ashford has had a mission, but also the vision and stamina necessary to sustain it: to create “a hub for dance discovery in Europe”.

Ashford hasn’t accomplished this in isolation. The network of partners he has gathered hail from 33 European countries. Each an expert in their geographical area, their collective purpose has been to facilitate cross-border performance opportunities for emerging choreographers, and thereby activate connections between contemporary dance artists, programmers and audiences.

John Ashford
John Ashford

Aerowaves, as the network is called, started 22 years ago. “There was, at the time, no other network for specialists in independent dance across Europe,” says Ashford, a septuagenarian whose knack for entrepreneurial wizardry might well mark him as the Gandalf of the dance world. “We began as 12 people, each in a different country. Now we’re 42, so it looks like we’re still fulfilling a need.”

A key event in the Aerowaves calendar is Spring Forward, an annual dance platform held in a different city each spring since 2011. Host countries to date have been Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, the Czech Republic, Denmark and, late last month, Bulgaria, with France, Croatia and Greece already lined up for future years. In each location, the network’s members, as well as dozens of industry delegates and interested guests, devote three days to watching 20 dance-based works. The selection is made by the members themselves after sifting through hundreds of applications via a process that’s as rigorously democratic as possible.

“Twenty dances in a packed weekend is an odyssey,” says Ashford, “but it’s only 4% of the applications we receive, and we want to introduce as many new artists as possible each year.”

Most dance platforms exist to promote the work of a single country. Spring Forward, Ashford claims, “is unique in that the works are selected not because of nationality, but because of artistic excellence alone”. And, because the roster of dances is meant to represent the best and brightest European-made work currently available, the potential for talent-spotting is enormous. If the actual results can range from unexpected gems to occasional disappointments, there is no denying the contrast-and-compare sociocultural value of experiencing such a panoramic showcase in so short a time frame.

The most recent Spring Forward in Sofia was co-produced and hosted by Derida Dance Center. This wasn’t just a canny boost for dance in a city – and country – lacking a high international dance profile. The same organisation also persuaded the Municipality of Sofia to cover half of the costs for Spring Forward, available in part because Bulgaria is hosting the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union.

The programme was built around performances spread across five venues: Nikolay Binev Youth Theatre, the Russian Cultural and Information Centre, the Modern Theatre or Theatro and two spaces in the National Palace of Culture – the Azaryan Theatre and the Lumiere Cinema. For platform completists, this entailed approximately 45 kilometres of blood-stirring, brain-cleansing guided walks between venues. That these fleet-footed treks afford ample opportunity for on-the-hoof meetings or impromptu conversations is a key part of Ashford’s strategy.

Opus, by Greek choreographer Christos Papadopoulos. Photo: Yana Lozeva
Opus, by Greek choreographer Christos Papadopoulos. Photo: Yana Lozeva

The stages in Sofia were dominated by solos – nine, to be exact. This wasn’t due to any programming bias, says Ashford, but was simply an indication of “whatever the partners find the most engaging choreographically”. He adds: “It just so happens that some of the most interesting and detailed work was constructed by choreographers on themselves.”

The impact Spring Forward has on artists can be significant. “There are many supplementary opportunities and benefits to having such a spotlight thrown on you,” says Ashford. “A show that’s very popular could be scooped up and get a dozen more gigs. And if you’re from a smaller company there’s something about being in that top 20 which releases opportunities, like residencies or commissions.”

Ashford is pleased with the way Spring Forward itself has progressed. “We began with masses of goodwill but very little money in Ljubljana. A big step ahead was being invited to Umea in Sweden as a part of the European Capital of Culture in 2014. We had a generous budget, and were able to spread the word – about ourselves and the artists – with both a live stream and an ongoing project for writers, called Springback Academy.”


5 things you need to know about Spring Forward

1. This peripatetic contemporary dance platform has moved across Europe to a new location every year since 2011.

2. There were 624 applications from artists for the 2018 edition in Sofia, of which 505 were eligible.

3. The final roster of 20 productions, each between 15 and 40 minutes long, was selected by 42 dance experts from across Europe.

4. Their choices were not based on any national or representational criteria, but on talent and potential alone.

5. The European Union will continue its support for Aerowaves and Spring Forward until October 2021.

There was more in the offing. Starting in 2015, Spring Forward could literally afford better forward planning thanks to the security of a grant from the European Union. As Ashford summarises: “Three years ago guaranteed outcomes became a reality. Approximately 70 dance performances are now on offer through the Aerowaves network, funded annually by the European Union until 2021.” Under these terms, 24 network members are required to programme three works from the Spring Forward showcase during a given year, with Aerowaves itself matching half the direct costs up to 7,500.

The remaining Aerowaves members – not part of the grant, but still belonging to the network – are free to programme whatever they wish. So, too, are any Spring Forward delegates who aren’t part of the network. Some of the latter, as Ashford testifies, “become more generous than our partners”. He cites by way of example the six Spring Forward shows each presented by both Theatre de la Ville in Paris and the South Korean dance festival SiDance, and the 10 Aerowaves choreographers commissioned to make new work for the German state company Tanzmainz purely as a result of one keen representative attending every Spring Forward thus far.

Brother, by Portugese choreographer Marco Da Silva. Photo: Yana Lozeva
Brother, by Portugese choreographer Marco Da Silva. Photo: Yana Lozeva

For Ashford, the future of Spring Forward is full of promise and creative productivity. “Last year in Aarhus we started a video series called Meet the Makers, as well as an exchange with Taiwan,” he says, “and this year in Sofia we launched Springback Magazine and an exchange with South Korea.” He also mentions children’s dance initiative Offspring, overseen by five Aerowaves partners, and the presentation of dance in non-dance settings under the banner Aerowaves Away.

Aerowaves covers geographical Europe, and its membership is somewhat fluid. “It can become any number,” Ashford says, “depending upon the strength of the growth of Europe and of countries not yet represented.” Currently, there are two representatives in Switzerland (one each in the German and French-speaking parts of the country) and Belgium (French and Flemish respectively). Recently Serbia was taken into the fold, while Ukraine, Bosnia Herzegovina and several others were turned down mainly as their dance communities were deemed to be “still developing”.

How important is the EU to Aerowaves? Crucial, says Ashford. “We cannot go to any individual country to ask for funding. They’d ask: ‘What’s in it for us?’ And we’d have to say: ‘We don’t know…’ Only the EU can answer those questions. It’s a significant supranational body. Virtually no other sources of subsidy are open to us, especially so long as we keep on insisting that our artistic choices are free.”

Ashford notes, with a tinge of acerbity, that attendance at Spring Forward from the UK has slipped from 30 representatives to 15 since Brexit kicked off. His conclusion? “For all the talk about ‘let’s strengthen our contacts with Europe’, half the people seem to think that’s no longer interesting.”

Although the network was instigated within the UK 22 years ago, it seems increasingly likely that the operating base will eventually shift elsewhere. This won’t make much difference, Ashford suggests, given that Aerowaves is to all intents and purposes “under the ownership of its members”.

Spring Forward 2019 will take place in Val-de-Marne, Paris, from April 5-7

Profile: Spring Forward

Artistic director: John Ashford

Founded: 2011

Dates: March 23-25, 2018 (eighth edition in Sofia, Bulgaria)

Employees: Full year – three; seasonal – 12

Spaces/venues (2018): Five indoor, zero open-air

Participating companies (2018): 21

Shows (2018): 21

Audience/delegates figures (2018): 209 (guests plus Springbackers)

Countries represented (2018): 40

Total budget (2018): £140,000

Funders/sponsors (2018): Creative Europe – European Union, Municipality of Sofia

Key contact: Anna Arthur, manager, anna@aerowaves.org

Website: aerowaves.org

Springback: How young dance critics are nurtured alongside creatives

Marie Pons, left, participating in a Springback panel as part of the Spring Forward festival in Pilsen, Czech Republic, in 2016. Photo: Vojtech Brtnicky
Marie Pons, left, participating in a Springback panel as part of the Spring Forward festival in Pilsen, Czech Republic, in 2016. Photo: Vojtech Brtnicky

A graduate of the Springback Academy, which mentors hopeful arts journalists, Marie Pons explores the other opportunities at the festival

As an annual festival, Spring Forward regularly attracts a few hundred industry delegates – producers, programmers, curators and other representatives of dance houses and organisations from Europe, Asia and North America.

Running parallel to each event is Springback Academy. Since the pilot in Sweden in 2014, this mentoring and development programme has dedicated space and time to a select group of young people from across Europe who together embark upon the possibly crazy idea of becoming media-savvy arts critics.

During three days of intensive dance-watching and writing, 10 budding critics are guided by four professional counterparts. Each mentor is matched up with two or three younger charges, and a high-pressure (but fun and rewarding) working relationship is quickly established.

The mentors share experiences and viewpoints, but also, more practically, edit the reviews their respective mentees are required to turn out overnight. Nor are the mentors off the hook. The goal is for all 20 or so dance works presented during the festival to receive at least two short (140-word) reviews from both a mentor and mentee. Note that although English is the common language of this festival, it may not be the mother tongue of most Springback writers.

Springback can be quite a learning curve. What drew me to apply for it was the necessity to meet others like me – trying to write about dance but unsure of how best to go about it. Writing can be lonely: you’re faced with your own impressions and whatever set of analytical tools you might have acquired.

Springback is first and foremost a place to learn the nuts and bolts of dance criticism, or to hone existing skills. Accepted from more than 100 applicants into the 2015 programme in Barcelona, I met nine fellow Springbackers from as many countries.

Our three days together were spent not only seeing and reviewing shows galore, but also exchanging ideas and concerns about issues and struggles common to all of us, whether we lived in France, Spain or the UK.

What a relief to voice our curiosities and doubts, ranging from ‘What does the emerging dance scene look like in Croatia?’ to ‘Do you actually get paid for what you do?’.

When you’re just starting out in the industry, exploring such questions with others – and on an international scale – is exhilarating and gives a real boost to many of us to persevere.

In this regard, the birth of Springback Magazine in Sofia at the end of March was a milestone. This is the online publication to which Springback graduates can now contribute all year.

I’m proud to be one of three associate editors, each of us responsible for a different strand of coverage – audiovisual, text, social media – overseen by the chief editor, the UK’s Sanjoy Roy.

By browsing through the magazine, readers might get a handle on how a piece is produced in Greece, what’s shaking the Belgian dance scene and what trends can be spotted in Helsinki or Vienna. To have such a platform to examine dance in depth seems vital at a time when the very notion of European identity is falling apart.

Marie Pons is a French journalist. springbackmagazine.com

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

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