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Interview with John Ashford by Lena Megyeri

Interview with John Ashford by Lena Megyeri

© Aadhar Gupta

Back in November at dunaPart Springback writer Lena Megyeri met our director John Ashford in Budapest. Published by the Hungarian magazine Színház in February 2020, we are now sharing the interview with you in English.

From broader issues on dance and cultural policies to views on specific dance scenes, in this interview John Ashford delves into why kinesthetic empathy, how funding cuts affect the artistic work, the enduring question of audience engagement and his interests in technology –such as VR– to test new ways to present dance performances, amongst other matters.

LM: In an interview you said that when you first became interested in contemporary dance, it was because you wanted to see things you hadn’t seen before. Do you still see things that you haven’t seen before today?

JA: Oh, yes, I do. It’s necessary to define contemporary dance, because people who are not familiar with dance often think that contemporary dance is a style. If you go to a dance institution where they offer classes to the public, you get a choice of jazz, contemporary, Latin, hiphop, so it seems contemporary is just one of the styles, but it’s not. Contemporary dance is a physical response to the way the world moves us now. And as long as artists are making an authentic response to the way the world is now – not necessarily in a political way - then I see new things, because the world is new every day, and the personal circumstances of the artists change daily. The things I see which are not new – which may be the majority – come from people who are fighting to release themselves from a formal training. That’s something you have to cast aside if you want to make contemporary work, because all that was made up in the past.

LM: I was lucky enough to attend Aerowaves’ annual Spring Forward platform a couple of times as part of Springback Academy, and at the platform we always talked about how there are certain recurring patterns and motives in the programme. Do you see any trends or motives in 2020’s selection?

JA: It’s tempting to see any kind of platform as if it’s been curated like a festival, but they are not. With Aerowaves, the selection results from the most open and democratic process we can engage in, which ends up simply with voting for a top 20. From that something emerges each year, which is to do with the collision of the interests of those presenters around Europe and what the artists are doing. Sometimes it produces very difficult works, but I think this year the programme is much more accessible and upbeat than it has been in the last few years. There’s a show which is about cats! Of course, it’s not like the cat memes of YouTube, it’s actually beautifully done and gets towards understanding animal intelligence. There are fewer pieces specifically about gender politics – that seems to be a period which we have just come through; and there’s much more dancing, which I’m hugely relieved about, because I think dancing is quite fundamental to dance! But that has been quite an unfashionable idea in the past ten years.

LM: That is something that you’ve probably noticed at dunaPart as well, that there are pieces with more dance.

JA: Absolutely. I think that Hungary never gave up dancing in the way Amsterdam, Berlin or Paris did, where people said, this is dance because I trained as a dancer. If I’m talking and standing behind a desk it’s still a dance piece – I think that’s absurd. When an architect plays the clarinet, it’s not a building, it’s music, he just happens to be an architect. For a while the desire to see dancing was regarded as rather old-fashioned. I think that’s wrong, and it’s also wrong to say ‘it doesn’t matter what you call it’, because you can’t have cross-disciplinary work without being clear what the individual disciplines are. At the moment I’m doing a lot of research around kinaesthetic empathy and neuroscience, and what I’m beginning to understand is that when you watch dance, you respond kinaesthetically, if not actually in observable movement. That seems to me to define dance as an art form, because of this unique medium of communication. At dunaPart I see a lot of dancing, a lot of enthusiasm, and I see things that I’ve never seen before.

LM: Who and what were some of your favourites?

JA: I loved Adél Juhász’s graduation piece from La Manufacture, László, in Sín’s showcase programme. It’s actually two pieces together, and in the first one she’s spinning throughout. I see many pieces with spinning, but she approaches it internally in a way I haven’t seen before. I think she’s fantastic, an absolute force, and she’s only just beginning to make work. I always love Hodworks and I think Mirage is a particularly good piece. I enjoyed Masterpiece, the duet by Emese Cuhorka and Csaba Molnár, and Jenna Jalonen and Jonas Garrido Verwerft’s duet BEAT I just wish to feel you. I’m very pleased that we selected this performance for the Aerowaves Twenty20, it’s a fantastic piece of work. I loved the absolute equality of this small woman and that manly man. There were not many pieces at this platform where men and women are dancing together, so this was one of the reasons why I enjoyed their production. I’m just never much interested in anything that is single sex, because that’s not the way of the world. But I was also really interested in Lili Stern. She’s only twenty, and I think it’s illuminating to see what the world is like for her. Her examination of the pressures upon young women and their body image and the anxiety it produces was very clear without being didactic. When I read about how a fifteen year-old girl committed suicide because of bullying and criticism of her appearance on Instagram, I can’t believe what’s happening these days. When I see Lili’s piece, I kind of understand more of that Instagram world, and how the constant observation and comparison with unattainable archetypes is very disruptive.

LM: Do you see any national characteristics in dance – both in Hungary and in general?

JA: When I see all this work at dunaPart, I get a pretty clear idea of the cultural identity of young Hungarians. I know that the dance training in Budapest is producing very good dancers, especially men. It’s amazing in limited financial circumstances how well produced and finished everything is. Because I go to other countries and I find work which seems to me a work-in-progress, but it’s not, they think it’s finished. And what’s also interesting is that because of the limitations placed on the independent scene here, a lot of dancers go to work abroad, and they bring back influences. I see the same thing in Greece or Portugal, where there’s a lot of life in the dance community, but not really enough to sustain careers, so people have to move around Europe. Where it gets less interesting is actually in the centres, like Berlin or Brussels: hotpots where it’s the same work all over. There’s a kind of common consensus of what’s important; a global view rather than a view of the world through a specific cultural history and identity. So that’s what interests me here.

Jenna Jalonen and Jonas Garrido Verwerft’s in their duet 'BEAT' I just wish to feel you. © Domolky Daniel

LM: Do you see any effect of the political situation and the funding cuts all over Europe on the dance scene already?

JA: Yes, very clearly. During my time here I also had to finish reporting on the second year of our annual grant to the EU. One thing which has become very clear over the last few years is that more and more artists begin or sometimes go on as soloists. It’s obvious why: you don’t have to pay yourself, you can go into a studio whenever it happens to be there – hopefully free; you don’t have to pay anybody else, and you can take as long as you want, and do it wherever you are in the world. This year we had 600 applications to Aerowaves – I watched them all – and 234 were solos. Now, recently in Spring Forward in Sofia and the year before, half of the programme was solos. It’s very hard to arrange a weekend where half of the works are solos and maintain people’s interest. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that the solo form is different: the primary theatrical relationship is directly with the audience, not between the artists within a work. Having so many solos on the platform and throughout the year with our 24 partners, who guarantee to put on 3 pieces, had the effect that our audiences actually halved, which was very hard to present in our EU report. This year in Rijeka, there will be 6 solos on the programme, which is about a third, a representative proportion of the applications. There will be more group works which will inevitably attract larger audiences into larger theatres. So the effect of funding cuts is not that less work or less good work is being done, it’s just that the scale is getting smaller and smaller.

LM: Speaking of the audience, it’s clear that contemporary dance’s audience is not very big. How do you think is it possible to improve that, or is it important to improve it at all?

JA: It’s important for the artists to have an audience. My anxiety on a nightly basis when I ran a theatre was that there were not going to be enough people there. In the end I’m interested in the artists and providing them with what they need, including an audience. It means you have to keep extending and educating your audience, bring in new audiences and constantly fight the cause for this very specialised, tiny art form. After many years of doing that I haven’t actually given up, but it’s kind of crazy to expect a big change. Because contemporary dance is difficult – if it’s doing its job properly. First of all you have to find ways of persuading the audience to leave at the door most of their conceptions about what happens in the theatre, because they expect to be told something in a single meaning, see characters and plot development. So they are already out of their comfort zone. And in the end, it’s a only a small number of people who get it. The job is to have them bring their friends! There are some really big successes in terms of audience – Theatre de la Ville in Paris is always full; Sadler’s Wells is always full. The big capital cities do really well with dance audiences, especially in Europe where there’s a mixture of nationalities. But it’s rarely going to be celebratory, and it’s never going to do the business like ballet.

LM: In Hungary, there’s a big gap between the more mainstream companies and the independent scene. Is it the same in the UK?

JA: I think it’s more fluid. From what I understand here, the independent scene is the independent scene, and you stay in that bubble until you stop making work at fifty. I think in the Amsterdam – Brussels – Berlin – London – Paris axis there’s a hunger amongst a large number of dance producers to allow artists to grow up through that system until they become global touring companies. I would offer one example. When I was working at The Place 15 years ago, there was a dancer who came from Israel and I saw his first duet and said: Hofesh, would you like to make something else? And in the first three years his company came through what we called an ‘escalator scheme’, going from making a piece for the 300 at The Place to making it larger on the stage of Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank and then to Sadler’s Wells main stage, accumulating dancers all along. It was all within one production. In Budapest I sense there are different categories and walls between them. I think that’s an obstacle, that’s why people go abroad. Maybe they want to work abroad, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t have to leave your country in order to be able to make work.

VR experiment at the Aerowaves partners meeting at Tanzhaus Zurich, november 2019

LM: What are your thoughts about sustainability? Jérôme Bel recently decided not to fly with his company, but Aerowaves promotes touring.

JA: I think about this a lot, and it actually relates to the previous subject of kinaesthetic empathy. Everyone has to consider every aspect of what they do now. What we have to do is clear. There are no more questions about climate science, or how the world has to change. It’s clear – it’s a political matter. And everyone has to help change the political climate. What interests me – and I may be completely wrong – is technology in transition. At the moment we’ve got flatscreen video recordings of dance performances, but we may move on to virtual reality, 360 degree recordings of dance performances, with headsets, and eventually to holography. I did an experiment at our Aerowaves annual meeting in Zurich: the idea was to take the simple task of virtual presence by putting a 360 degree camera in the front row of a dance performance, and then test how effective it was to replay that in a social context which mimics theatre performance. I showed a piece on a Friday to our partners there, and on a Sunday I put 30 of them in a circle with headsets on and showed them the recording of what they had seen on Friday. What interests me is the limited vision of VR, which is about 120 degrees, which means that you’re obliged to move. When you’ve got a headset on, you virtually sit in the front row and you have to move. My interest was in discovering whether that movement of the watcher gets anywhere close to the kinaesthetic experience of actually being in the theatre watching live performance. If it does, then that means that it’s not necessary for all our 200 guests to fly to Rijeka for Spring Forward. You can have 30 people in Paris, 30 in Berlin, 30 in circles, interacting, having a great time, talking to each other, their friends, having snacks, putting their headsets on. And you can create an interest in a social event around dance and save travel. That’s the first step that I’m working towards, and the second step is of course that you have to look into train travel. It’s much more expensive, it means more hotels, because people are tired after travelling for ten hours on a train. I don’t think it has to be as extreme as Jérôme Bel saying that he’s only going to rehearse by Skype, I don’t think he can sustain that. You have to have human beings in the studio. But it may be that artists will be less able to work in other countries and less able to travel in order to rehearse a piece in a different city. And that might mean that the scene becomes more localised. But that’s OK, I like different aspects of different environments, different languages.

LM: What’s going to be the effect of Brexit on Aerowaves?

JA: That’s very clear. We already have in Dublin a business called Aerowaves Europe, and during the transition period of Brexit over the next year, we will move our base to Ireland. I’m in the firm belief that an organisation like Aerowaves should make decisions based on artistic criteria alone, and so we cannot promise to benefit any single country and must seek supranational funding. That will be the EU, so it should be managed from a country which is enthusiastic about its membership of the European Union, not one outside it which will be divided by the issue for the next decade. Personally, I shall lose my European Citizenship on 31 January which genuinely saddens me; but on 1 February I shall be on a plane to a dance platform in Tokyo - working out how I can offset the carbon.

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