Euronews in Greece interviewed John Ashford27 April 2022
On the occasion of Spring Forward festival in Elefsina, John Ashford has been interviewed by Euronews in Greece. We are publishing a translation of the interview with John Ashford.
Here you have the original piece in Greek.
Aerowaves is the main hub for new works of contemporary dance in Europe. How and why did you decide to launch it? After 26 years how do you assess the course of this initiative?
Is it really 26 years? You are right, although this year we are celebrating 25 Years because we first presented dance under the Aerowaves banner in January 1997. But yes, the first meeting of the Aerowaves Partners was the previous October in London. We have met every year since in a different town or city, always when the clocks go back so everyone remembers when it is and we get a full house. Last year it was at Eisenstadt in Austria where, despite Covid, over 40 of us met for three days and selected from 600 videos the 20 pieces you can see in Elefsina.
The form of that Burgenland meeting was not so different from all those years ago when 22 of us watched 262 VHS videos from 24 countries and selected ten of them for performance at The Place Theatre. The important thing is that we are not just watching videos, either now as pristine files on 4K 65” screens or back then as fuzzy distant misrepresentations on 22” cathode ray tubes. We each bring specialised knowledge about the works, many of which we have seen live, and we have grown over the years to trust each others’ enthusiasms. Aerowaves kicked off because travel was difficult: trains stopped at borders, Eastern Europe was beyond the EU, and compulsory return flights anywhere were only just affordable if you pretended to be a tourist and stayed a Saturday night. So what you call a hub was essential since covering the burgeoning European dance field through individual travel was an impossibility. We added Partners from new countries when there was an independent scene for them to represent, and gradually they also started inviting the works we had selected. None of this was funded. We all paid our own way because we wanted to. If no-one came up with an invitation for the next meeting, we would stop because the network would have outlived its usefulness. This October our 27th meeting will be in Rome. Aerowaves Partners stick around, and I’ll be reminiscing with four of them who were there at the first meeting during a talk in Elefsina – but don’t worry, we’ll be covering the 25 Years in 25 minutes.
Why this network is so important for the world of dance? Where does it stand now?
If Aerowaves now looks like an institution, that’s thanks to funding from the EU through Creative Europe. Beginning in 2010, this has increased significantly every year, and is now secure till 2024. But the staff remains just three of us working from home because we want to get the most money to the artists. The funding means that we can support 24 Partners to present nearly 100 Aerowaves performances across Europe. New opportunities are opened for the independents, not only for those selected, but also for those who don’t quite make it since the hub and hubbub of our meeting rapidly spreads word around the network with resulting invitations to residencies and so on. The artists learn from cross-border performances in countries where their reception may be very different from that at home. Aerowaves remains the only non-national dance platform, with the notable exception of the biennial Ice Hot for the Nordic countries, and the Tanzmesse may be moving in our direction. I hope we have maintained a reputation for fairness amongst artists, and our selections never cease to surprise and bewilder other dance promoters.
In 2011, Aerowaves started a festival called Spring Forward. What was your motive behind developing a festival? What does it feature?
The first in Ljubljana, on a wing and a prayer and thanks to much generosity. The idea was to create a calendar counter-balance in the spring where our Partners could see live performances of the choices they had made in the autumn. Then they would have the most secure evidence when
deciding which to present. Professional colleagues wanted to join, and now we have to limit their number to one per institution. This opens up many more performance opportunities to the artists. The mix produces an audience characterised by its curiosity and generosity as they walk together from venue to venue, making new friends during Europe’s most rewarding informal dance conference, never a trade fair. Nothing is longer than 40 minutes, so if one is not to your taste, there will be something completely different immediately following. And then there are the parties where you can meet the artists – this is a festival, after all.
What does this platform offer to dance people and to the public?
It’s very important that we professionals sit with a real audience, both the dance-going public and those for whom it might be a first-time experience. We will know if they are bored, and that informs everything we do. But equally, our combined concentration on the work may lead them to understand it in new ways. And if we all enjoy it – what a pleasure! For those in Elefsina or visiting from Athens, it’s the kind of unique event that you should expect from a Capital of Culture.
Nowhere else in Europe can you see such a variety in 20 young artists over a long weekend. It takes the pulse of the continent amongst those who move from head and heart; those who, as yet, have made none of the compromises that may come later with the demands of international co-production and touring. Where else will you find a duet from Georgia sharing a platform with a marathon fandango, silent house music passed through a kaleidoscope, black lives matter, a mediaeval dancing plague, an authentic deep fake, and a hole in space? Not to mention our special exchange guests bringing their work from South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
After so many years in this industry, do you still get surprised by artists and works that you see?
Yes! Emphatically. Again and again, because what interests me is contemporary dance. Some people think that’s a style, a series of set moves, something you can learn along with ballet, tap and jazz to help keep you fit. Of course, to become a professional you must study historical styles of the masters like Graham and Cunningham, but that’s not so that you can move like someone in the 1950’s. Dance is made by artists in a studio discovering the new ways the world moves them now. Over a period of months, either collectively or assembled by the vision of the choreographer, they bring that to the stage, news from the front line. If it’s authentic, of course it will be challenging or surprising. And then there’s the delight at seeing a dancer for the first time whose kinetic intelligence and charismatic fluency will place them at the forefront of their profession. And, by the way, that profession is a career in the arts – not industry, although many now do use that term. The conditions under which arts are created, and the criteria appropriate to judge them, are utterly different from those of industry.
Are there any trends, patterns or motives in this year’s selection?
Not really. One of the great things about Spring Forward is that you don’t have to listen to people like me boring on about their curatorial concepts with philosophical justifications for their artistic choices, trying to use the work of others to prove their point about the world as they see it. At the end of the Aerowaves meeting, we vote. That is the selection, the top twenty. It’s not curated, it’s a consensus, a montage. But I will be listening to the young Springback writers in discussion on the last day when they reflect on what they have seen. Maybe they can make sense of it all.
Which are your favourites this year and why?
As the Director of the Aerowaves network, I can’t possibly have favourites amongst the Twenty22. No, no, no. But I can single out the work of seven dancers that we have commissioned with Japanese choreographer Hiroaki Umeda as ‘curator’ called Movers Platform. Over the last few months. Hiroaki has been working remotely with two dancers from Tokyo, two from Seoul and three from Athens, using video recordings from their studios and Zoom encounters to bring out the best of their new movement ideas. They will meet for the first time in Elefsina, and Hiraoki will then weave their moves together as solos, duets and group moments for a show down by the sea shore. It’s a one-off, a moment in time, a unique combination of talents and cultures that defies recording or repetition.
And I know that I will be joining the standing ovation that will greet the conclusion of the glorious ‘Gran Bolero’ from Jesus Rubio Gamo and his twelve Spanish dancers, an Aerowaves favourite that we have invited to close our 25 Years celebrations. These dancers’ defiant and constant circling of the amphitheatre to Ravel’s extended classic will tell joyful stories of individual and collective triumph over adversity, and bring a climax to the Festival that strips humanity to its essential optimism.
What is the situation right now in Europe, concerning dance? How are things going?
Big question. How long have you got? Let me just say that, seen from the perspective of 25 years ago, the development has been astonishing. From a handful of modern dance flagship national companies and just a few properly equipped studios, we have built a Europe-wide infrastructure for independent dance. That takes the form of the ‘software’ provided by networks, residencies and production funds, and the ‘hardware’ of specially constructed landmark institutions. From places like Lavanderia a Vapore in Turin to the recently opened and lavish Dance House in Helsinki, dance claims its rightful and permanent place of recognition amongst the performing arts. It’s a tribute to its relevance in these times, its inclusiveness and fluidity in crossing borders – and, frankly, to the generation that built it. I look forward to hearing of proper facilities to serve Athens’ vibrant dance scene which continues to produce distinctive works of international importance, against all the odds.
In your opinion what does European contemporary dance need right now?
Gone are the days when artists can scuttle across Europe and back on a cheap flight for one of six quick hit performances over the course of a year. Tours must be in well-planned loops travelling by train or electric vehicle with considered connection to local communities – yes, it can be done, ask them in Sweden how to do it. Don’t oblige artists to sustain a living by having to invent a constant stream of new projects. Their research and development may be embarked on during a loose chain of studio residencies across Europe, if that’s what they want; but equally let them work in their home towns, no longer putting at a disadvantage those with family commitments. And that’s where the primary producer will be too, representing the views of the immediate audience, engaged in a long-term development plan with the artist. Let’s put to rest the myth of ‘Co-production’ and call it what it is: co-financing, and nothing wrong with that.
Who makes the unpopular decisions resulting from funding fewer works better? Let’s safeguard peer review where the intrinsic value of the artwork is paramount, where its potential is assessed by expert judgement of the work itself, not by bureaucratic criteria applied to the technical merits of the application for it. Art cannot be properly assessed by instrumental metrics, ‘outcomes’ and ‘deliverables’, since its consequences are often long-term and wholly unexpected. Dance artists can deliver social and educational services alongside their work, but they should not be obliged to do so. Those who are good at it will want to, but these additional activities should be funded by the appropriate agencies, not to the depletion of the culture budget. I could go on. Enough?
For years, we see dancers and choreographers from the European periphery leave their countries and go to the European dance center (Amsterdam, Paris, Paris, Brussels). Is this changing right now?
The flow between periphery and centre creates a useful tension. Much has been staunched by Covid, and I can imagine that as we reconstruct, there may be a new emphasis on localism.
Personally, I would wish to formalise the best effects of this tension into a kind of ‘Super-Erasmus’ scheme. Let’s say a choreographer from Athens is well funded for a research residency over six months in Brussels, on the understanding that they will return to Athens and make a new work which will also be properly funded. The choreographer will certainly bring back experiences that will percolate into the local scene, and the new work made in Athens may well include some artists from Brussels. Their experience of Athens will also influence their development, which they will in turn take back to Brussels. Since the new work will be international in nature, it is likely it will achieve international performances that would not transpire if it had been exclusively local. Of course, it can also work in the reverse direction: a choreographer from Brussels comes to Athens for six months and takes artists back home to make a new work.
If three peripheral cities and three central cities were somehow woven together and local partners committed, it could make a very persuasive project for EU funding. Thanks for asking – I’ve only just thought of this!
Have you got a clear picture about Greek dance? About Greek pieces, Greek choreographers and dancers?
Technically brilliant, passionately committed, intellectually rigorous, unpredictably diverse, I love it. But here I would rather listen to the artists themselves, and I’ve got 16 of them lined up to speak at Spring Forward including Anastasia Valsamaki, Euripides Laskaridis, Christos Papadopoulos, Linda Kapetanea, Apostolia Papadamaki, Alexandros Stavropoulos and Patricia Apergi. Tell me what unites them? Right. All formerly Aerowaves artists.
A major and constant problem for contemporary dance scene is audience. How can you keep extending it?
Contemporary dance is most at home on the sprung floor of a studio theatre, or more recently in a museum or in response to a specific site. That’s where its intricate detail and intimacy of expression is most visible. We can see the dancers’ individuality, their human imperfections, their exceptional concentration and trust of others, the flicker of a finger, we know what they are thinking. But I agree, if there are 200 seats and only 60 are filled, that’s a problem. One way to tackle this is to graduate to the main stage, but in such an auditorium the detail is often sacrificed for grand sweeps and epic gestures. Audiences love perfect choral unison. The resources required are available to only a few, and many don’t even want to go there. Why should they? Well, I’ve observed an irksome constant at dance performances: for some reason, if there are a lot of bodies on stage, you can predict there’ll be a lot of people in the audience. Bad news for solos locked in introspection, and inevitably we’ve had a lot of them during Covid.
Marketing and established techniques of audience development and inclusion can help a lot, of course. And producers should do more to represent the interests of their audience when they have commissioned a work – yes, both before and during its making. But artists are at the root of it.
Immediately you decide to call your new piece ‘Larsen C’ as Christos Papadopoulos just did, for instance, you instantly engage the interest of a whole new public attuned to the climate emergency, and loose nothing.
Even in these days of Likes and star ratings, people go to see films or concerts because they read reviews. National newspapers still employ full-time critics who build up a body of experience over years and loyal readers who trust them and follow their recommendations. But where are dance critics now? Gone with the fax machine, no longer a profession, lost with the decline of print journalism. Unedited dance writing on line is no substitute for the public critical discourse that all art forms need to reach a wider audience and draw newcomers to their performances. That’s why Aerowaves started Springback Academy which attracts ten young dance writers a year. They will come to Elefsina from all over Europe to study with seasoned critics of The Guardian, the Times, The Scotsman and the New York Times, writing nightly reviews. Many of them will then join the paid contributors of Springback Magazine, a publication edited by Sanjoy Roy of which I am immensely proud, and which I believe extends the territory of dance and its audiences as it yearly gains in authority.
What is the future of dance? Will technology change things?
Aerowaves was the first to move a complete festival on line when Covid forced us to abandon Spring Forward as a live event in Rijeka. We dressed up videos of the twenty works with tricks and treats and filmed introductions from the city and its theatres, ending each day with a Zoom hangout in The Foyer. We gathered an audience over three days which numbered 200 at any one time, a triumph, actually. But it was a novelty, and soon people became disenchanted at watching dull dance on a flat screen as a solitary experience in their homes.
So our production team started developing an idea I’d had – now called Springback Ringside. We make a stereoscopic recording from the front row of a dance performance, and then play it simultaneously to an audience seated in a circle wearing VR headsets. The illusion of being there is not yet perfect, but it is very involving, and afterwards the audience can question the artists directly in real time on flatscreen Zoom, making the whole experience feel more like a live event. Ringside is not attempting to replace a visit to the theatre, but it can engage audiences that would otherwise never see dance. Thanks to a special and rare grant from Perform Europe, we’ve just been showing ‘Babae’ from Aerowaves artist Joy Alpuerto Ritter in a remote Croatian mountain village of 5,000 inhabitants, for instance; and then we find that it can also enthral kids in South London schools.
The technology will quickly improve since there is a vast amount of capital going into VR and AR. The headsets we use are Pico, recently bought by TikTok, and Apple will market its first device next year. Some choreographers, especially in Taiwan, are experimenting with the virtual as a creative interactive space. But if there’s a flesh and blood dance experience within striking distance, that’s where I’ll be.
You discovered many talents, who became later well known artists. You were a very successful dance producer in the Place. What was your asset? Is it an issue of background, of intuition?
Background? No. I came from a Degree in English Literature, and first-off was a theatre critic and editor for Time Out magazine. Then I worked as a manager and director in the typical British ‘talking head’ tradition of plays, new plays certainly at the Royal Court, but within that tradition of naturalism. I took on the direction of the theatre at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) at the moment when experiments in form were being pioneered by independent theatre companies, the Fringe – around the world, but especially in the UK, influenced by the new aesthetics of performance art. My policy was to promote theatre where ‘Performance, text, music, design and choreography meet afresh as equals’. Maybe that’s now called Physical Theatre. And so I met choreographers and dancers, and became fascinated by the density of allusion when the body speaks of those things that are beyond words. These artists packed into ten minutes what my theatre friends might say in an hour. I trained my eye by going to see dance performances, night after night after night. Nothing reflected more immediately and forcefully upon the changes happening in the world around me. It may now look clever to have put on Akram Khan at 16, to offer DV8 and Hofesh Shechter their first commissions, to find Wayne McGregor’s solo when he was a community dance animateur, invite the first works of Sasha Waltz and Wim Vadekeybus. But I then I put on a lot of dance, years and years of it. These choreographers were set within a sea of others, now forgotten. But I stand by them too – every ripple changes the beach.
This year in Elefsina we are pioneering a new idea: Startup Forum. We’ve identified 11 talented younger presenters from across Europe who want to develop their producing skills and instincts. They will set a course through the festival guided by five of our most experienced Aerowaves
Partners, meeting daily to discuss the work they are seeing and its potential. Afterwards, they will bid for three awards of €10k each to present some of the works on their return home and join us at our meeting in October. They are the next Aerowaves generation. Startup Forum will be repeated with new presenters over the next couple of years, and I’m happy to leave that as a legacy.
This is your last festival, as director of Aerowaves. How do you feel about that? You will keep contact with the network? With dance?
I’m glad to say I really don’t know! It’s a step in the dark. What will it be like when I no longer enjoy the stimulus of responsibility? When I have another idea and I will lack the means to be able to do anything about it? I deeply resent losing my European citizenship and find little of interest in the UK these days. Maybe I have more to offer Aerowaves’ Springback initiatives, but equally I feel at home in Japan and will certainly spend more time there. Perhaps I will return to writing, the best way of finding out what you think; although film speaks most immediately to me now. What I won’t do is lose contact with my closest friends made through dance over nearly 40 years. Their art form can speak only truth and their honesty and commitment to it are strengths I will always treasure. They are family.