In 1996, a small group of European colleagues began meeting at The Place Theatre in London. They were sorting through video tapes sent in from young choreographers across Europe. A selection of those artists would then go on to be presented at The Place’s yearly Resolution festival in 1997, under the banner of Aerowaves.
Twenty-five years later, Aerowaves exists as a large Europe-wide network of 44 partners in 33 countries who select and present new artists in the annual Spring Forward Festival. Numerous projects have sprung up alongside this core activity, primarily Springback Academy and Springback Magazine, as well as live-streamed events, experimentation in new technologies and commissions for adapting work for young audiences. All administered by a light-footed administrative staff dispersed across the continent. How did we get here?
These early meetings were convened by John Ashford, founding director of Aerowaves, who had moved from the experimental ICA Theatre in London to The Place in 1986. Speaking in early 2021, Ashford recalls feeling a certain betrayal moving to dance after having programmed work where “dance, performance, text, design and choreography meet afresh as equals.” And yet there was a density in the moving body that he found compelling: “the physical skill of the performer, even if standing still, captured the attention in a way that many of the theatre experiments failed to do.”
He worked from the beginning with Anna Scott (now Arthur), previously project co-ordinator at The Place and now administrative director of Aerowaves. The two generally see themselves as complementary opposites: if Ashford has ideas, Arthur “makes things happen”. Her role encompasses nearly all of the management of the organisation – but will also come down to taking apart a sink to find something Ashford has lost (a contact lens being the most likely culprit). Arthur finds dance somewhat more democratic than theatre, and that dancers are “a bit more humble, some of the time, due to the amount of work they have to put in to be able to dance.”
The contemporary dance scene in the late 1980s in London differed sharply to what we might recognise today. There was very little demand or support, Ashford explains, for international work. The international work that was shown was primarily through the Dance Umbrella festival (founded in 1978) and was mostly American (Stephen Petronio was a regular). It was also trickier and more expensive to travel within Europe, and a stipulation by the Arts Council to spend their funding on local rather than international artists meant the team would search for private funding. If you managed to jump all those hurdles, you still had to find an audience.
In 1990, Ashford instigated a season called The Turning World at The Place to showcase, and increase the demand for, more varied international work from Europe. The programme ran up until the millennium and expanded to the Southbank Centre and Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Many of those programmed artists are now well established, such as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in Belgium, or Rui Horta of SOAP Dance Theatre in Germany, now an Aerowaves partner in Portugal.
Ripples across Europe
Due to the success of The Turning World, Ashford started receiving video tapes with grainy footage from younger, emerging European artists who saw there was broader demand for their work in London. Struggling to discern the quality of the choreography, Ashford and Arthur invited trusted professional colleagues from other European countries to London for a meeting. Ashford attributes a self-proclaimed penchant for “casting” as instrumental to this successful recruitment. Ashford found it a comfort to know that the tapes – normally filmed on only one camera at the back of the auditorium – weren’t “the end of the story”.
Eleven Aerowaves artists were subsequently showcased across Resolution in 1997. Each was presented as the first act in a triple bill before two UK artists, who brought a guaranteed supportive home audience. Arthur and Ashford differ on the name’s origins: Ashford recalls it being suggested as a means to get sponsorship from a big UK confectionery company with a similarly named chocolate bar. Arthur insists it was taken from the chewing gum ‘Airwaves’ – the ‘ir’ was then replaced with ‘ero’ to imply ‘euro’.
“I’m usually so careful with names,” explains Ashford. “I justified it in terms of a ‘ripple effect’ – which was a fashionable idea at the time – which justified not having a big dance audience because there’d then be a ripple effect.”
But what was in it for these transcontinental colleagues apart from advising Ashford on which artists to programme? Well, they too could put the selected artists on in their own venues. And so the idea of work being shown across Europe by Aerowaves partners was planted and subsequently allowed to grow through an invitation by Aerowaves partner Marianna Kajantie to Helsinki the following year to continue those discussions. Ashford and Arthur pitched up with flight cases filled with tapes (the cases nabbed from Richard Alston Dance Company) to their new location: a formerly Soviet-occupied vivisection laboratory on an island ten minutes from the harbour, the cages for the animals still in situ.
A format began to take shape: the selection meetings took place in new locations each year, and the selected artists continued to be programmed in Resolution while simultaneously being showcased to presenters from all over Europe. The list of invited partners grew: partners would remain involved with Aerowaves for as long as they wished, on an equal footing with each other, and each representing their local scene.
The bones of the selection process have remained largely the same. Ashford would watch all the videos to get a full overview, and select extracts to show to partners. In the early days, he would then select the artists to put on at The Place based on the discussion, but this evolved into a vote by partners to arrive at the final list. The number of applications has grown exponentially: from 11 artists selected from 262 videos in 1996, to 20 artists from over 700 submissions in 2020 (the number of selected artists increased to 20 in 2009). The submission format has moved from video tapes to DVDs and now onto online links. Processing that number of submissions and maintaining the network soon became a full-time job, and so in 2009 Ashford and Arthur left The Place to focus fully on Aerowaves.
Over the years, an ‘Aerowaves style’ has often been attributed to the organisation, a point Ashford finds very interesting; “that a group of 44 people from 33 countries can make a selection which is very clear artistically.” Consequently, there is a self-fulfilling loop of works not being selected and artists on the fringes subsequently not finding it worthwhile to apply. This has been raised to Ashford in particular in the UK by artists working in South Asian dance and hip-hop communities, although the network is focused mainly on contemporary dance.
And yet “if anyone came to our meetings, they would realise we’re interested in a wide range” he explains. Videos of live performance – not screendance – are selected that “tell him something new about the world”, and a balance is struck across geographical reach (emphasising both the centres and peripheries of the continent), gender, and numbers of people on stage.
For Arthur, works shown in the early days of Aerowaves were more “rock ‘n’ roll”. In Aerowaves’ 25-year history, Ashford has noticed an increasing “academisation” of the form as artists have moved into universities and away from trying things out physically in a studio – an investigative process that can sometimes forget the audience at the other end. And while dance early on in his career generally involved the single choreographer being flown into rehearsals in order to give his piece to the dancers, now Ashford observes that when the choreographer arrives at the studio, she begins a period of research with dancers who she lists as her collaborators. Work by the former might be in service of an idea, whereas now trust and the relationships between people may come to the fore. “If Aerowaves has been influential in giving greater visibility to that work, then that’s a good thing. I prefer bands not singers,” muses Ashford.
The EU catches up
When Aerowaves first came into being, the EU flag had 12 stars, for 12 countries. Aerowaves already counted on more than that, so they made the decision not to apply for EU network funding, as it would have limited who could apply. For Ashford, this meant the network grew organically between individuals (not institutions), forming a basis of trust which he believes is particularly important when an artist’s career hangs in the balance.
Aerowaves received its first network grant from a larger European Union in 2010. That Aerowaves grew at the same time as the growth in low-fare air travel and a concurrent ease of accessing opportunities abroad, is hardly coincidental for Ashford. It has also signalled aesthetic shifts. Once, Ashford felt he could recognise where a dance piece came from – Finland at one point produced “glacially perfect technical trios” – now he can only recognise the theatre the piece is filmed in.
While the selection process has stayed the same, the need for partners to see the work live became more pertinent. And so the Spring Forward festival to showcase the Aerowaves Twenty came into being, the first edition in 2011 in Ljubljana.
Like the selection meeting, Spring Forward is hosted in a different city each year by one partner. Until Aerowaves secured further EU Platform funding in 2014, the first few iterations involved a certain amount of scrambling for funds and a reliance on partners’ generosity. For instance, after plans in 2012 to go to Puglia, Italy, fell through, partner Roberto Casarotto from Operaestate Festival Veneto devoted their B Motion festival to Spring Forward.
Planning Spring Forward is a balancing act between presenting the selected artists and working with the local partner’s engagement remits. Though it is primarily an event for dance professionals, Ashford insists on members of the public attending the festival. Not only is a room full of professionals daunting for an artist, it is also unrepresentative of the general public.
And it is a walking festival – with over twenty performances scheduled over three days, delegates move en masse between the city’s different theatres. It provides that vital break from sitting in a cramped theatre all day, and ample time for networking, conversation and reflection. Spurred on, perhaps, by Ashford’s own quick walking speed and incredulity at the thought of sitting still in a bus in traffic when a walk would get you there far quicker, eyes refreshed by distant views.
Growing arms and legs
Cut to the present day, and the well-oiled Spring Forward showcase sits amongst a cacophony of other projects that Ashford is equally passionate about. Springback Academy was the first offshoot (“inevitable to me,” states Ashford, founding Theatre Editor at Time Out magazine, “surprising to everyone else”) and is looked after by Oonagh Duckworth. An idea stolen from Ashford’s own time at Resolution, emerging writers are mentored by experienced critics as they review the Aerowaves Twenty.
Placing reviews of platformed artists’ works next to their listing on the Aerowaves website could, however, have unintended consequences. Against the backdrop of a steady decline in print journalism and a general lack of editorial guidance in online publications, Springback Magazine was launched with Springback mentor and experienced dance writer Sanjoy Roy as editor. The magazine platforms the work of Academy ‘graduates’. Its gaze extends beyond the Aerowaves network, writing about other similarly experimental and emerging artists across Europe – its purpose editorial, not promotional.
Writing can be a lonely experience, and the Academy has proved a fruitful ground for writers to meet each other and discuss the works seen and their own practice. This evolved into Springback Assembly, a series of gatherings that take place at other dance platforms, such as NID Platform in Reggio Emilia, Italy, in 2019 and ICE HOT Nordic Dance Platform in Reykjavík, Iceland, in 2018 and also, increasingly, online. It is Ashford’s hope that this community will, like the partners before it, grow into its own unique network.
Aerowaves has proved no stranger to new technologies, either. Initial experiments in livestreaming the festival began in earnest at the Umeå Spring Forward in 2014. In trying to find the right balance between disseminating the works and keeping the audience’s attention, this morphed into different formats. Collaborations with filmmaker Enya Belak saw the ‘Meet the Makers’ series emerge at the 2017 Århus festival in Denmark, and Springback Live at ICE HOT in 2018: a daytime TV show, but for dance enthusiasts.
What next for a touring network of contemporary dance in a century that has seen Europe grapple with surges in nationalism, while the climate emergency has become ever more pressing? For Ashford, Aerowaves needs to uphold its global responsibility to reduce its carbon footprint while nonetheless defending artist mobility. Experiments with Virtual Reality have raised the possibility of touring in a more sustainable way while also focusing on local communities.
There was never a ‘grand plan’. Aerowaves has always been “a response to the actualities of the situation of the artists and partners” and those artists have always been emerging artists – dealing with “acorns rather than forests,” states Ashford. The organisation’s future successes and failures will be determined by how it continues to support these artists in ever-changing circumstances.
Does dance ever fail? “Yes,” replies Ashford, “and thank goodness it does. It is always on the edge of risk.”