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“The question is: Will there be business as usual?”
Within the framework of the International Visitors Programme of the cultural funding organisation NRW KULTURsekretariat and in cooperation with Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen, CircusDanceFestival had planned to invite eight professional visitors to North Rhine-Westphalia during the festival: Curators, Journalists and Networkers from a.o. Canada, Australia, Sweden, France and Great Britain. Obviously they were not able to come to Cologne this year, but we organised a common with two of them for an informal online talk about the current situation: Andy Beecroft (Adelaide, Australia), Stéphane Segreto-Aguilar (Paris, France) and Lilja Kopka (Recklinghausen, Germany), Jenny Patschovsky (Köln, Germany), Eva Lenhardt (Wuppertal, Germany)
Katharina What is the situation in your institutions?
Andy Beecroft manages the market place "Honey Pot", an industry platform for programmers and producers attending Adelaide’s Fringe Festival in Australia. Being sort of similar in size and background to Edinburgh Fringe, it is a festival with a strong focus on circus, physical theater and theater - the biggest Fringe in the Southern Hemisphere and in Australia. With the format "Honey Pot", the festival curates an invited market place where around three hundred professionals around the world come to see shows, meet artists, and are part of various network meetings.
Andy The festival literally finished on March 15th and we were fortunate to be one of the last big festivals to happen (possibly in the world). We closed down our office after the last weekend due to the restrictions of social gatherings, and a lot of artists who would have gone on to other festivals were unfortunately displaced. Post Fringe, where we would normally report and reflect about the latest edition, we had to re-adjust as an organisation and as a reaction to the current situation. We are talking a lot to our artists about how we can sustain the year around the work they have lost. We implemented a digital platform called FringeVIEW for the month of May, which is essentially a free registered platform where artists are able to host their work. Completely free to them, they receive 100% of all online ticket sales. Like a lot of festivals around the world and in Australia, we are kind of re-adjusting our focus on what the next iteration of our festival might be. So I guess like a lot of people we are in the unknown-known in a way.
Lilja Kopka is a curator at Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen, a festival that has a long tradition of presenting performing arts. It started right after World War II, seventy-four years ago. With the latest change in the artistic direction in 2018, Ruhrfestspiele puts a stronger focus on contemporary circus and dance. Both genres became important pillars of the festival program.
Lilja Our festival - usually - takes place for six weeks, from the 1st of May until mid-June. On March 25th, we decided to cancel this years edition and tried to work out possibilities to do a smaller version of the festival in autumn. But these plans were stopped as well, because as an international festival, we need a certain planning security, which is currently not given. As the international visitors program cannot take place, I am happy to at least meet here today to exchange. The CircusDanceFestival in Cologne got in touch with us to bring people from around the world to both festivals in Cologne and Recklinghausen. We shared the idea to shed some light and focus on the culture in North Rhine-Westphalia here in the West of Germany, which has a lot of potential – and a lot of untapped potential as well. There are a lot of things starting to happen, like for example the festival in Cologne with its very first edition, and we wanted to give our support, to cooperate and share experiences. I think it is an interesting time to see what both festivals are parallelly trying to build up here with putting this specific focus on contemporary circus and on dance.
Jenny Patschovsky is part of the CircusDanceFestival team from the beginning and responsible for the international visitors programm, the German circus curators meeting and the local networks. She is chairwoman of the BUZZ Bundesverband Zeitgenössischer Zirkus (federal association of contemporary circus in Germany), which is involved in the artistic and structural development of this genre.
Jenny At the moment, I am mainly busy collecting the problems and needs of the contemporary circus scene and passing them on to politics and administration. We take part in writing statements and letters of demand for immediate aid for the artists. And I wonder what chances and possibilities the current situation offers the contemporary circus. And if there will be a new focus on local artists that can give a boost to the development of the German circus scene.
Stéphane Segreto-Aguilar is a network thinker with an European mind and he is curious about the developments of contemporary circus in Germany. He is the coordinator of Circostrada, the European network for circus and street arts. For him, Cologne, not so far from Belgium and the Netherlands, has a specific geographical and strategic position for the contemporary circus field. The positioning of the festival between circus and dance is dear to him as he was working in the dance field a few years ago. He sees the festival as a good political and advocative strategy to gather new audiences, gain new media attention, as well as political support in Germany; Cologne could be an ideal place to see circus grow in Germany.
Stéphane It is tricky to answer how the situation is and will evolve, because I think whatever I can say now will change again tomorrow and that next week we will have a totally different conversation. I am trying to use my European hat while observing this situation. I have been seeing a lot of performances displayed online and spread digitally; there are also some artists who decide to create new works for online purposes. We can argue whether it is a good or bad thing, but it is just happening. Even though it helps, individually, to take things out of your mind and, in a way, for artists to keep on working, there is a fundamental question that needs to be asked: How do artists get paid when showcasing their work online? Many circus artists work multiple jobs simultaneously in order to make a proper living - from teaching in schools to being yoga coaches –, but right now, most of their income sources are compromised, especially because festivals are cancelled and venues are closed. And right now, we have to make sure that the most fragile don’t fall through the cracks, otherwise we might see a loss of diversity and richness in the field. And, on top of that, we also need to really review and rethink some parts of the creation-production-touring triad, because we know – we knew – it is not really sustainable.
Katharina From your viewpoint of today, do you think the current situation will have any positive developments?
Jenny I am somehow happy about the situation that a lot of people are re-thinking at the moment what art can be for society. So, there is a lot of discussion about how are we producing, how are we receiving art? I am wondering if there is now, for us in Germany, also the chance to bring the contemporary circus into this discussion. Circus specifically uses the body, and in this situation where we are so immobile – not moving any more, sitting all the time in front of our laptops and only moving the eyes – I think it's time for circus in the future, and I hope we will talk more about this and that it brings us to some new discussions about the importance of art.
Stéphane I think every crisis can be an opportunity, and we need a mix of individual and collective responses to make it through. I don't think we can know if it will have positive or negative effects, probably both. The image I have in my mind is this one: Before the pandemic, many were running on a bike, fast and not knowing in which direction they were heading; right now, some people are saying that we should get off the bike and just pause and think, while others want to stay on the bike and run again as fast as they can. And I’m thinking: It is really more about the direction than the speed. We all know that beyond the Coronavirus pandemic there is another, bigger crisis: The climate change. I do hope that solidarity schemes and international cooperations will help solve the current crisis, and give us new tools to address the climate change crisis. If we don't take this as an opportunity, we are basically doomed! So, in a nutshell, we have to do it!
Katharina How do you imagine the future?
Lilja We are starting to plan the Ruhrfestspiele for 2021. We started out trying to go on with it as we would normally do, but at the same time, the longer this crisis goes on, our discussions grow longer and you feel like: Ok, can I actually program a festival like I would usually do? What will be expected from us as an organization, what do we have to keep in mind concerning distance? You think about what you would like to do if it's business as usual, but the question is: Will it be business as usual? We don't know yet how much will have changed, and we also have to consider how much we all will have changed.
Andy I think the international aspect of what the next year holds for festivals is kind of unknown. As a festival in Adelaide, we are definitely looking towards scaling down our festival next year. Purely because of the financial hits that we are potentially taking at the moment, as well as the ripple effect, which is obviously going be felt for the next year or more. Artists being able to put together work to tour internationally is probably going to take a lot longer to settle, as opposed to working locally and with communities. So, kind of growing and re-engaging our local organizations and communities and making sure that they are able to sustain themselves in the coming months, is probably something at the forefront of our minds at the moment. I mean international travel and international engagement with artists is definitely going to be more difficult and more hindered. I think it is going to take a while to regroup as an international audience.
Tim Let's talk about art itself: What did you saw lately that stuck to your mind?
Lilja The last show that I saw before the outbreak of the Corona pandemic was Robert Lepage’s "The Seven Streams of River Ota". I saw it in early March in London. It is a show that is about 25 years old and they did a revival. It is like a seven hours monolith, a large show. And just this sitting within a theatre with this large number of people for seven hours and all experiencing it collectively, that was an amazing experience in itself. All these digital artistic offers right now, watching performances online etc., that is great, but I am really questioning it more and more the longer this situation continues. It is just no substitute for being in the room and experiencing a performance live and with the people around you. For all the performing arts, you really have to have this collective experience with the performers and also with the audience. And that's what I realize I am missing most at the moment.
Many thanks also to Eva Lenhardt from the International Visitors Programme at NRW KULTURsekretariat who hosted this talk.