Photo: Robbie Synge and Lucy Boyes, Ensemble. © Amy Sinead Moran
The idea behind Aerowaves pivots on that double meaning. John Ashford – founder of Aerowaves, writer of that tagline and once dubbed “the Gandalf of the dance world” for his lateral-thinking wizardry and wise-elder presence – formed the network when he was director of The Place Theatre in London. The Place, which turns 50 this year, was effectively the birthplace of the British contemporary dance scene, and by the time of Ashford’s directorship its theatre was known for presenting new work by young British artists and independent companies. Then, Ashford began receiving videotapes from artists with a similar profile from elsewhere in Europe.
“In those days,” remembers Ashford when I meet him in his favoured Austrian café, close to his home in north London, “VHS tapes were expensive, and often very fuzzy!” It was an era before digital video and download links, but the tapes arrived in sufficient numbers, with enough artistic quality and geographical range to catch Ashford’s attention. “It occurred to me,” he explains, “that if an artist in France, Portugal, or Denmark were each sending one precious videotape to me in London, and if I had trusted colleagues from those places I could draw on for advice, then together we might become a kind of network for information and presentation.”
In short, he saw dots on a map, and thought of a way to join them up. The picture they built up would become a representation of dance across Europe. That was the founding idea of Aerowaves, and it first materialised as a series of works by emerging European choreographers, performed at The Place in London. Soon though, Aerowaves began to mobilise: the partners whom Ashford had invited to pool advice and opinion began presenting the works in their own venues and countries. The hub decentralised into a circuit, and the artists’ work began to move – to dance, indeed – across Europe.
AEROWAVES HAS GROWN from 70 artist applications and partners in 12 countries in its first year, to 600 applications and partners in 33 countries in 2018. This partly reflects the growth of a European contemporary dance scene itself (facilitated, Ashford drily observes, by the rise of budget air travel). With Aerowaves specifically, Ashford thinks a few factors were crucial to its early development. First, it wasn’t a grand scheme that he invented but a practical response to a need he encountered. Individual European artists were sending him videotapes, and he found a way to reply, not on a case-by-case basis but by building a new framework. Second – surprisingly – he considers the thirteen years that it was entirely unsubsidised as a valuable period of development. The network expanded organically by personal invitation to individuals whom Ashford felt were valuable to it.
“I’m good at casting. I know how
different that is from interviewing.
It’s about working artistically,
not just institutionally
“Under most national and European funding programmes, I don’t think that approach would be welcomed now,” says Ashford. “The relations would need to be between institutions, not people.” Yet for Ashford, personal and intuitive connection remains crucial to Aerowaves’ culture.
“I’m good at casting,” he says. “I was once a theatre director, and I know how different that is from interviewing. It’s about working artistically, not just institutionally. I think that’s why the Aerowaves partners survived.”
Third – and perhaps even more surprising – when Ashford could have received EU funding, he refused. “At that time the EU was still twelve member countries, but Aerowaves had already spread across Eastern Europe. So I said no, because I believed it would divide West from East, the funded from the unfunded.” It was a principled decision that paid off later. “We didn’t apply to the EU until it was as big as Aerowaves,” he says, breaking into a grin. “They had to catch up with us.”
Funding did, of course, consolidate Aerowaves’ position. The basis of its model had been to select 20 artists (the “Aerowaves Twenty”) to support each year. When they received EU funding in 2011, they initiated the Spring Forward festival, where at least ten of these artists are invited to perform at an international platform, hosted by a different European city each year and attended by key international programmers.
It was a major step forward, but it was at Spring Forward 2014 in Umeå, Sweden, that Ashford made a quantum leap. Back in 1999, while still a director at The Place, he had initiated a scheme – still going strong – whereby aspiring dance writers, guided by experienced professionals, would attend a season of new choreography and both the professionals and the newcomers would write reviews. It was a way of bridging the gulf between mainstream press and the growing but hugely underreported independent dance scene. “Basically, I nicked the idea from myself,” he says, “and tested it out at Spring Forward.”
The result was sufficiently encouraging for him to formally launch the scheme at the following Spring Forward in Barcelona, casting Brussels-based Oonagh Duckworth, a programmer, experienced writer and former dancer, as its co-ordinator. Writing mentors included Donald Hutera (The Times) and myself (The Guardian) from the previous year, and together we selected 10 writers from applications across Europe to review the festival for online publication.
Springback, as the programme was called, touched more of a nerve than anyone imagined, and has expanded in scope every year since then. At the 2016 festival in Pilsen, Czech Republic, there was a new intake of 10 writers; but many of the 2015 class also returned, eager for more and – it was clear to see – to stay connected with each other. It happened again the next year in Århus, Denmark. Here was a generation of talented people all linked to contemporary dance and performance but with different backgrounds, skills and interests, who often felt isolated in their own regions and were evidently delighted to be able to join forces with others from all over Europe. Crucially, they were also asking for more of the kind of guided programme that Springback offered – that is, not in dance (there are other programmes for creation, management, promotion, production and so on) but about dance: reflecting upon and communicating about the art form itself.
THE DOTS WERE ALMOST ASKING to be connected. All Ashford had to do was to find the means. So it was that Springback Academy – as the intensive weekend writing programme at Spring Forward was called – evolved in three interconnected directions. Springback Assembly, initiated at the 2018 Ice Hot Nordic Dance Platform in Reykjavik, is essentially a hub where members meet, think and share ideas within a programme of invited speakers and workshops; a kind of annual summit that takes place alongside a European dance platform.
But just as the writing programme both nurtures writers and produces media coverage, Ashford has always wanted to tie personal and professional development to real-world outcomes. At Spring Forward 2016 and 2017 he had already begun experimenting with other forms of communication: live panels discussing critical issues, video interviews with artists. At Ice Hot 2018, he extended that to what he called Springback Live, a live-streamed dance-based chat-show with interviews, featurettes and rapid-fire commentary on the festival programme, with Springback Assembly attendees as its presenters.
Also launched in 2018 was Springback Magazine, an online contemporary dance publication to which the growing network of Springback members can contribute. Its editorial associates are also drawn from Springback members, and Ashford invited, or perhaps cast me as editor. Where the Academy, Assembly and Livestream are clustered around particular events, the Magazine provides year-round continuity. Again, it serves a double purpose, providing practical training in writing for publication as well as coverage of European contemporary dance. Unlike many online arts publications – certainly since the collapse of traditional media in the digital era – Springback Magazine places a premium on editing its content, and pays a fee to both contributors and editors, in the conviction that this will better develop the writers, serve the readers and ultimately the field. Crucially, it is not a promotional tool (both its editorial direction and its brand are distinct from Aerowaves), but a means to develop the culture in which Aerowaves operates: dance across Europe.
“SO NOW,” says Ashford, reflecting on a picture he did not foresee but helped to create, “we have two parallel ecosystems: Aerowaves and Springback. What I find fascinating is that if you look at the Magazine for example, you start getting a view of developing performance and dance in Europe which is unique to that publication – and actually to Aerowaves too. Because although Springback contributors and Aerowaves producers scarcely meet, they seem to belong to the same world. They have the same kind of attitude, characterised by generosity, an expert knowledge of their subject, and a fascination with the way the world moves our current generation of dance artists. It’s a way of recognising how art can be important to the world through this very particular manifestation of it, at a time when that kind of manifestation might become increasingly under attack.”
“Art probably cannot change the
world, but political subjects can
change both the world and art
Ashford had recently returned from a symposium in Budapest on the expression of freedom and mobility, organised by the European Dancehouse Network, and he was thinking in part of the creeping ideological control of cultural funding in Hungary. But only in part. He was thinking also of the rise of Salvini in Italy, the spectacle of Brexit, the imminent snap election in Spain and of course the forthcoming European Parliament elections. For between Theresa May, Luigi di Maio and indeed the month of May 2019, Europe itself is foundering among a great many maybes.
Identitarian nationalism is certainly central to that, as are the interlinked fields of migration, austerity, capitalism, globalisation, technology, environment and climate. Those are huge issues, but perhaps the key word here is interlinked. For to begin to apprehend them requires joined-up thinking; connected networks, not separated nations.
And that is what Aerowaves and Springback are: networks of connections between people of different nations, languages and cultures, whose own lives and heritages are irrefutably mixed and frequently migratory. Of course, such networks do not “answer” the big issues, but they are founded on transnational exchange and co-operation – patterns that must, particularly at this pivotal time for Europe, be a route towards the future.
It’s fitting, then, to end not with words from Aerowaves’ founder, but from one of the new generation of Springback contributors. Yasen Vasilev, based in Bulgaria, also attended the Budapest symposium, from which he wrote: “Contemporary dance is seen as elitist, distant and disengaged […] We need to open up our work to the world beyond our professional community and think of ourselves not only as artists but also as political subjects whose actions support or challenge the frame we’re operating in. Art probably cannot change the world, but political subjects can change both the world and art.” It is an apt outcome: a call to connect the dots not only to reveal a picture, but also to mobilise it.