A dance platform that creates performance opportunities for emerging choreographers has built its success on bridging divides and developing an international network. Rachel Elderkin finds its nomadic format is key
Twenty-one performances in less than three days is a marathon of dance. Yet, every year during Aerowaves’ Spring Forward festival, partners, programmers, producers and other industry delegates watch their way through this brain-melting array of dance and performance.
This year, Val-de-Marne’s La Briqueterie in France hosted the programme over the first weekend of April – a week after the initiative’s founding country, the UK, was initially set to leave the EU. That particular debate may still await a resolution but, at a time when our world seems focused upon borders, there’s a certain irony that this festival has built its success on working across them. Established in 1996, Aerowaves has grown from a small artists’ network of just 12 people to a Europe-wide platform reaching from Iceland to the Algarve, the Urals to Norway. “The fundamental concept of Aerowaves has always been that it’s cross-border – and that means country but also cultural borders,” says John Ashford, the network’s founder and artistic director.
In an approach that reflects the artistic and cultural fluidity so central to the network, Aerowaves does not tie itself to any particular location. Its autumn meetings and spring festival, that now attract practitioners from 45 countries, are held in a different European city each year. That kind of engagement is valuable to any city’s art scene but particularly those still establishing their roots.
“In the cultural landscape of Paris, we’re a tiny event, blown away in a weekend,” Ashford says. “But last year we were in Sofia, where the infrastructure for dance is non-existent. That work wouldn’t have been seen in Bulgaria otherwise.”
Not only is this a platform that strengthens connections and encourages exchange between countries, but in those with a less developed dance scene it could easily be seen as pioneering. Since the platform in Sofia, those partners have been able to move to a centrally located studio and dance is now more firmly established in the cultural scene.
For Ashford, the opportunity to work in a different dance culture every year is what drives Aerowaves; in his words, “moving keeps this thing alive”. The same rings true for the artists involved. Each year Spring Forward introduces 20 new artists to the Aerowaves network, selected from nearly 600 applications in as democratic a process as possible. The opportunity to perform across borders is invaluable to the ongoing existence of a work.
For Marta Alstadsaeter and Kim-Jomi Fischer, selected for this year’s Aerowaves Twenty, the opportunity has proved a vital conversation opener. “It’s this tool to get to know people and to go places, that somehow gives life to the work; it’s present, it’s on people’s minds,” says Alstadsaeter. To new makers, that’s often the drive needed to continue on a creative journey.
Ashford points out that exposure also pushes artists’ development. “It seems very useful to take a new work out of context and put it across borders in a place where those artists don’t know anyone in the audience. Feeling the response to that show, getting feedback, and understanding that something intended in one context has a completely different implication in another takes these artists out of their niche. It makes them think bigger.”
This year’s artists have yet to see what impact Spring Forward might have, but for a number of previous participants it has proved the catalyst to their choreographic career. Artists Igor Urzelai and Moreno Solinas, who put on work at Spring Forward in 2015, are now well-known names on the contemporary dance scene and perform extensively across Europe.
Pietro Marullo, who performed at last year’s Spring Forward, has presented his work across South East Asia thanks to connections made at Aerowaves. As Ashford observes, the festival “isn’t just about putting something on a European platform, it’s about getting artists’ work out there”. If “out there” now includes South East Asia, to Ashford that’s another positive step in the development of dance and the platform’s search for artistic excellence.
Each year at Spring Forward a work from Asia is presented alongside the Aerowaves Twenty, making up the 21 performances that partners and guests watch over the festival weekend. “Bringing these works into the platform takes you to a different time and cultural dimension. There’s an utterly different approach to what dance is and to what we’re seeing from European artists. It’s good to have that kind of reference point,” Ashford says.
Dance, like any art form, needs that exchange of ideas and influences to keep it moving forward. For Aerowaves, reaching beyond its existing network continues the spirit of artistic and cultural exchange it has fostered since its foundation. Ashford is positive that, when its current grant from the EU comes to a close in 2021, Aerowaves will continue to champion the growth of contemporary dance across Europe.
“Whatever happens, we will go on,” he says. “Nevertheless the EU give us a huge amount of support. Right now we guarantee 75 performances across the selected artists [each partner takes three separate pieces, dependent on what best fits their needs]. Without EU money we couldn’t do that.”
The EU’s Creative Europe programme is Aerowaves’ core source of funding, currently running from October 2017 until September 2021. Evidently, this is essential to the platform’s continued growth and its ability to support dance artists in sharing their work across Europe.
1. There were 739 applications from artists for the 2019 edition of Spring Forward in Val-de-Marne, Paris – 597 of which were eligible.
2. Spring Forward 2019, hosted by La Briqueterie CDCN, took place within the 20th Biennale de la Danse du Val-de-Marne.
3. Since 2014, Aerowaves has run a critical-writing project alongside Spring Forward. Each year 10 emerging dance writers are mentored by professional journalists and review at least two works over the weekend, followed by an opinion piece.
4. Aerowaves founder and director John Ashford was a former theatre critic for Time Out and ran the performance programme at the ICA before becoming director of the Place theatre from 1986 to 2009.
5. Aerowaves launched Springback Magazine in March 2018. This online magazine reviews works around Europe by correspondents in a growing number of cities. All the writers have been through the Springback Academy programme.
However, out of Aerowaves’ 43 partners from 34 countries, only 24 are part of the EU-funded platform. The external partners, alongside other programmers not in the network, still attend the festival and programme works regardless.
Consequently, Ashford remains confident in the strength of a network that has continued to grow and transform over the last 23 years. Is he worried that Brexit will have an impact on the UK-founded, but European-wide platform? “Aerowaves may have been founded in the UK but it has since worked across Europe – it really is a European network in the ownership of its members,” Ashford replies. “Many are in the EU but others, like Norway and Switzerland, are not. We make no distinction. Its politics are the politics of performance, not the EU.”
The Aerowaves network, he says, is a network about people and not institutions. That identity is neatly summarised in an email he received from a 2014 Aerowaves artist shortly after this year’s Spring Forward. For that artist the weekend in Val-de-Marne was an opportunity to “dive into three days of dance and collective reflection”.
That sense of shared experience and discourse around dance is at the heart of Aerowaves. At most Spring Forward festivals, all the selected artists are present across the event, attending and supporting each other’s work. It’s the kind of environment in which opportunities and collaborations can arise; a place to be open, to share and to cultivate an art form. In Ashford’s words, “it is a friendly meeting of minds and artists across borders”.
“In a political sense that is how dance is at its best,” he says. “That currency of exchange, on the stage or off it, is part of the defence of European values.”
When the notion of European identity is under question, here is a platform that champions collaboration and an open exchange across borders – that is about art and shared interests and not where you come from. “That’s what contemporary dance does,” says Ashford. “To quote Oona Doherty [a former Spring Forward participant], dance uses ‘kinetic empathy’ to get us to understand the way the world moves us now.” To art, the notion of keeping everything within its country of origin seems not only regressive but, ultimately, damaging. How can we progress without the influence of others? How can we keep adapting, interacting with and questioning the world we exist in? In art it’s surely a benefit to have a richness of influence, to exchange and share. That notion is more central to the everyday world than many might want to believe.
Aerowaves exists within a landscape of exchange and fluidity across borders. So does Ashford have any reservations about its future? “It’s kind of unstoppable,” he says. “We’ve created something that is part of the landscape now. The conditions around that might change but, if we have the opportunity, we will continue to build on what has worked. We will always listen to the artists and their needs and see where that takes us; they are at the heart of this.”
Artistic director: John Ashford
Founded: Aerowaves in 1996, Spring Forward in 2011
Number of performances: 21 each year at Spring Forward
Dates: April 5-7, 2019 (ninth edition in Val-de-Marne, France)
Number of employees: Two full-time, two part-time, plus up to 20 freelances on Spring Forward
Spaces/venues: (2019) Six
Participating companies: (2019) 21
Shows: (2019) 21
Countries represented: (2019) 42
Funding per annum: £432,120 from Creative Europe (Platforms strand), partners contribute £108,000; Spring Forward costs £216,000
Key contact: Anna Arthur, general manager: firstname.lastname@example.org