Opening expertmeeting Dance Roads

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to this discussion about new relationships and connections between artists, dramaturges, critics and programme directors (or curators). My name is Marijn Lems, programme director, dramaturge and art critic – with this many (sometimes conflicting) functions, you can see why I was asked to give an opening keynote. You’ll notice that the one role I haven’t had in the arts field is that of the artist. Keep this in mind while I take you through some of my thoughts on the intersection between all these roles, and how they can feed into one another.

For the first 8 years of my career, I was a fulltime programme director for different theatres in The Netherlands and Belgium. I learned my trade the old-fashioned way: putting a year programme together of individual performances which were presented either one or two consecutive nights in the theatres I worked for, keeping in mind a balance between theatre, dance and performance, between the work of experienced artists and artists who were just starting out, between our own co-productions and purely ‘receptive’ work, work that we just presented. Of course, because I worked for theatres that co-produced new work, the lines between programme director and dramaturge were already blurry, and especially in evenings in which we presented young artists I had a more curatorial approach; showing multiple performances in one evening, contextualised by aftertalks. Still, when we applied for a subvention to start up a themed festival focused on current affairs in the first theatre I worked for, Theater De NWE Vorst in Tilburg, we were continually rebuffed; apparently, the times weren’t ready for a more politically coherent approach to programming.

How the times have changed. Nowadays, curatorship is all the rage. The term is bandied about in the performing arts world as the next big thing, the solution for making the performing arts widely accessible and societally relevant again. In the Netherlands, this has been partially caused by the relative success of festivals finding large audiences for artists that don’t reach half as many people when they are programmed by theatres without the festival context to prop up interest. Many theatres now churn out new festival-like formats every year, trying to bundle performances that don’t have built-in audience support in some sort of attractive way. When these formats are well thought-out, thematically coherent, supported by context programmes that actually deepen one’s perspective on the work or the themes that it focuses on and when they feature a good mix between existing work and specially-commissioned creations, they are mostly worthwhile. But in the rush to make every programme unique, the danger is that, in the end, we make it ever harder for the work itself to speak to audiences. In other words, by increasingly catering to the audience’s love of special events, we are no longer challenging them to be adventurous in their choices.

This problem can be exacerbated by a thematic approach to programming. Generally, when a programme focuses on a particular subject, marketing departments do their best to reach audiences that are already specifically interested in the themes that are broached. When done well, this can lead to a more diverse audience than you usually encounter at a contemporary performance, with the different perspectives leading to the possibility of context programmes in which a wide variety of subjects can be discussed. However, by abandoning an all-purpose approach to communication, theatres contribute to the splintering of audiences, in which everyone is only interested in things that already interest them. One of the greatest things about art is its ability to be about multiple things at once, and when we invite audiences based on one theme, and one theme only, we invite them to look at the work from a one-dimensional, self-serving perspective.

Furthermore, the actual selection of works can become skewed by the chosen theme as well. Will artists whose work doesn’t fit in with any of the subjects of different formats be at a disadvantage? By selecting themes that are part of public discourse right now, aren’t we forcing artists to think in terms of what is currently popular? By devoting more resources to commissioning works that fit into a certain theme, we have relatively less time and money to spend on works that artists have autonomously come up with. In other words, we should take a critical look at the possible chilling effects that a focus on thematic curatorship might have on the variety of works that are shown in our theatres.

Going back to what I said earlier about not being an artist, this is crucial to my views on and understanding of the task of the programme director. Primarily, a programme director should think on how he can support the work of artists, and present the performances he or she selects in the way that is optimal for that particular work. Of course, bundling performances in double-bills or thematic programmes isn’t automatically off the table, but one should be careful not to take the artist’s place and make a meta-artwork out of one’s programming, which serves one’s own vision. That would on the one hand make the individual artworks subservient to whatever the programme director wants to say, and on the other hand, it could easily lead the programme director to select works based on political or thematic content, instead of on quality (which I realise is a discussion in itself, which I will avoid for the time being). Considering the power a programme director wields in the ability to decide which works will be shown and which works won’t be, one should take this responsibility seriously and with a certain humility.

That having been said, as long as there’s balance, there is certainly a place for programmes that opt for a more curatorial approach. For two years, I was the co-curator of festival Something Raw, an annual festival that focuses on radical and experimental dance and performance. Together with my colleague Lara Staal, who at Frascati Theater is in charge of most of their themed events, we decided to give each edition of the festival a general theme (Pop Culture the first year and Posthumanism the second year). We discussed the prominence of this subject line for a long time, cognizant of the dangers of overdetermination, but felt that the themes were broad enough to avoid boxing in the perspective of our audience and artists too much. We also decided to only settle upon the themes after most of the programme was already done, so that we could still be lead by quality instead of thematic coherence. The themes were mostly important for the context programme, which included lectures, a reading group consisting of interested artists, and a symposium.

In my own programme at Flemish Culture House, I opted for a different approach. In trying to avoid adding to the enormous overload of events and performances in Amsterdam, I drastically cut back on the number of individual performances that we showed in a year. Instead, I made a small selection of performances, each of which was presented for a full week, supported by context programmes developed in collaboration with the artists themselves. In this way, we tried to combine the advantages of a sharp focus on a single artist and the deepening of perspective that a well-chosen context programme can have.

This is the division of labour that I believe in. Artists should be free to focus on their actual work without having to worry about the responsibility of developing a context programme as well. However, they should definitely be consulted and involved in the process of developing such a programme, so that the autonomous nature of the work is not compromised by the political or thematic choices of the curator. In this way, a happy medium can be reached that guarantees a focus on the work itself and still gives theatres a lot to work with to diversify and expand their audience.

I’m sure we’ll hear a lot of different opinions on these dilemmas today, and I’m very much looking forward to learning about approaches I haven’t considered. Thank you for your attention and enjoy the rest of the symposium.