AEROWAVES AT 25.
What hasn’t changed since those heady early days of dance discovery? Young artists are still eager to travel, especially now that the pandemic has made travel as restricted as it was back in the early ’90s. Our Partners remain experts exercising generosity of judgement, still individuals rather than institutions, determined that their network will survive with or without funding. They always meet when the clocks change in October. Their selection principles and procedures are constant, refined from year to year, but guided at each meeting by the exact same criteria I proposed at the first in London:
- The work is propelled by a good idea
- Choreographed with an originality motivated by this idea
- Which has the confidence to omit the superfluous
- With a clear and sturdy structure
- Danced with clarity, verve, commitment and assurance
- That will look good presented under limited technical conditions
- From a company that has not toured much abroad
- But whose experience might be enriched through Aerowaves
- And that will have a future
And what has changed? Well, my role has evolved from ‘Benevolent Tyrant’ of an anarchic network to Founding Director of a Platform supported by the EU through Creative Europe. For the next 25 years, Aerowaves will move its base from London to Dublin and engage new leadership. This is not simply because the UK chose to leave the European Union. It was offered the opportunity to stay as one of the 40 countries that collaborate through Creative Europe. It refused, and sought a ‘domestic alternative’, an ignorant folly now abandoned. So it is right that Aerowaves relocates to Ireland, a country that is an enthusiastic supporter of European values and exchange.
In the end, it is a matter of cultural identity.
That put me in mind of a piece I wrote at the turn of the century as Aerowaves was about to embark on its fifth season. Reading it now, I see that much has changed – and much hasn’t. Read on to turn back the clock…
It’s a good title, simultaneously invoking awe and resignation, respect and irritation, hope and despair. It belongs to a stream of work at the Polverigi Festival in Italy near Ancona, recently come of age in its twenty-first year. I’ve been present most years at this remarkable survivor of the European avant-garde, but not at the first, because I was living in Tokyo.
‘May I help you?’ My heart sank. I was quietly trying to work out if the characters written on the sign of the railway station corresponded to the ones on my map, indicating Shimbashi. Everyone in Tokyo was learning a language called American English, because that was good for business, and they wanted to practice it. ‘May I help you?’ was the opening gambit, well articulated according to Lesson Four, Tape Two; but experience had told me that Comprehension was usually a bit less advanced. I could try out my dreadful Japanese, but that’s not what was expected. I could answer in English, but it would not be American, and so whatever I said it would throw up the second disappointed question.
‘Are you from Europe?’ I had to come to the other side of the world to be asked the most important question. The first time it had come up, I answered resolutely ‘No, I’m British’; but now I had learned better and responded with the dutiful ‘Yes’. Ah! Europa, from a distance the boundaries of hatred are less vivid, suffused within a land of abundance, ringing with common achievements; and compared to Japanese, the languages are just dialects.
‘Where from in Europe?’ Great Britain… no, too imperial; United Kingdom… hardly, what with Northern Ireland; the UK… sounds like the other bit of the US; Britain… but I didn’t feel remotely Welsh or Scottish; England… but I didn’t play cricket or know anyone from Newcastle; the British Isles… more a place where seabirds live than people…
‘London’ (pronounced Ron Don to avoid confusion). So there it was. I made an early discovery of my cultural identity. I was a European Londoner. And yes, it was Shimbashi because suddenly I recognised the old steam railway engine parked in the middle of the road, a rare distinguishing feature in Tokyo’s manicured sprawl.
It took a good few years to learn the lesson of that conversation in Japan. The assumption that everyone in Europe spoke English was a bit before its time, but most now recognise the necessity for a common language, and English seems to have just about won out over American.
Constant visits to Polverigi persuaded me that the neighbouring cultures of Europe needed to get to know each other better, and particularly that those British Islands should be paddled closer from mid-Atlantic. Dance offered the medium of least resistance.
At The Place Theatre we started a season called The Turning World, inviting over a hundred companies during a decade, most from other European countries. Cheaper air connections between capitals and easier communications were shrinking the continent. And everybody wanted to perform in London. The biennial Spring Collection offered a showcase of British work ready for the world: last month 250 promoters watched 21 events over a weekend, and now the bookings are beginning to roll in. Yes, one of the companies choreographed by an Associate Artist of The Place will be going to Polverigi, London-trained Luca Silvestrini turns out to be a local from just up the road in Iesi. Ah! Europa…
Three years ago, experience and research finally threw up Aerowaves, a scheme which draws upon that vision of Europe’s cultures which can only be seen from a distance, a satellite view of what moves people in this corner of the earth. I’m a European Londoner and Aerowaves has partners in an A-Z of cities from Athens to Zurich – now in a total of 28 nations stretching from Lapland to the Algarve, from Galway to the Urals. This veritable dance council of Europe recognises no political boundaries, and welcomes observers from networks in Asia and Latin America. It is made up of enthusiastic specialists who, like me, initially entered the arts because they promised an enjoyable alternative to proper work. Amongst this consistent group, the youngest is 24 and the oldest 56. It is the job of Aerowaves partners to broadcast the opportunity amongst all younger dance companies in their regions, and to encourage those to apply who they believe will benefit most from showing a short work in London. A trawl of new dance activity is thus genuinely and uniquely made throughout Europe.
Each application is accompanied by a video of the work to be presented. Around 250 videos arrive from 25 countries each year. I have the rare privilege of being able to watch all of them. 25 partners meet together over a weekend (in London, Helsinki, Gent, Luxembourg, Budapest…) to consider these applications following a pre-selection process during which they are closely consulted. Despite their cultural differences, the partners come to a common agreement through video example over the ten companies they recommend for invitation to London. The need for agreement welds them into a group of new friends, sparking debates that would never arise through the more abstract agenda of a conference.
Those ten dance companies perform once each over five weekends in January at The Place Theatre alongside British artists in the triple bills of the season Resolution!, many then going home with that useful tool, an English-language review. These emerging artists benefit from the experience of performing their work in a new cultural context, usefully clarifying their difference. And in meeting each other and their British counterparts, they are able to exchange common experiences. Audiences respond with growing enthusiasm to these very varied pieces, each of its own high standard, and the weekend series has rapidly gained a following within the season.
Showing such work in London does help us know our neighbours better, since this little island is in danger of drifting out into the Atlantic again. But Aerowaves has brought other unforeseen benefits. Partners have carried news of the companies they enjoyed, and invitations to other countries have followed. Radical dance has spread like wildfire across new European territory. Young companies need no information pack, marketing materials or education programme to persuade Aerowaves partners that they are in the vanguard of dance thinking and moving. Six Aerowaves companies are now regularly presented in Amsterdam by DWA during the festival Julidans, and seven other Aerowaves partners are currently planning Aerowaves events of three or more companies – and not necessarily those selected for London. It is right that different choices are made since Aerowaves seeks to promote cultural distinction rather some dreary European conformity.
The balance between the formal structure of the network and its potential for informal adjuncts gives the partners a genuine sense of ownership. At least fifty companies get their work known across Europe. London audiences are offered a lightning sketch of the life of the continent. The Place Theatre forms early relationships with companies previously unknown that might later appear in its international seasons. And the scale of finance is modestly in keeping with the early achievements of the companies presented. Aerowaves is free of any direct funding, and thus is an idea that remains bright, undiminished by the drudgery of consultation, committees and reports. If it ceases to offer the pleasure of discovery, if it ever becomes a task, or if no one is prepared to take on the responsibility of organising the next annual meeting, we’ll stop it.
Ah! Europa. A war zone, a resigning European Commission, the threat of a Benetton in every town, and Britain poised primly on the edge of a single currency. As usual, at least the arts are ahead of the game.
John Ashford, The Place Theatre Director, 5 December 2000
PS. The words ‘development’, ‘strategy’, ‘access’, ‘initiative’ and ‘scheme’ do not appear amongst the 1400 of this article