An American in Düsseldorf: Shifts in Perspective: Experience at a European Dance Festival

By Benjamin Levy

November 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

This summer I was invited to join Dance/USA as part of the American delegation at the Internationale Tanzmesse NRW, a biennial international dance festival and conference in Düsseldorf, Germany. I was honored by the invitation, but quickly found myself apprehensive about going. I was full of concerns: leaving my company a few months before our home season; reconciling the cost of the trip; ensuring I was prepared to fully take advantage of the opportunity. Perhaps most unnerving was reflecting on my experience at American booking conferences and realizing an important difference: I would be alone trying to “sell” my work in an unknown context, culture, and setting. Thankfully, I decided to take the risk. What followed was one of the most influential experiences of my professional career, one that repeatedly presented me with invaluable opportunities to shift my perspective—personally, creatively, and professionally. This article offers a personal take on my time at the festival.

Business context: What I Learned
The first thing I became aware of at Tanzmesse was how the international dance community does business. The opening speeches at the festival emphasized friendship, exchange, and investigation rather than the standard commercial aims I’m accustomed to. These values were confirmed the next day during my visit to the Marketplace—where dance companies and organizations from around the world showcased their wares. Booths were decorated in innovative ways aimed at enticing people in: some featured wine bars, others big cushy sofas, life-size human cut-outs, or impressive audio-visual displays. A dance theater company had a corner booth filled entirely with lime green objects—rug, table, lights, notepads—all of which were for sale. It was like entering a Martian IKEA.

Entering the booths was like stepping into someone’s living room. Conversations were sparked by a sincere desire to get to know one another. It did not matter if you were a presenter, fellow artist, manager, or dance aficionado—people were genuinely interested to know you, hear about your life, your work, and your passions. If throughout the conversation shared mutual interests emerged, and the chemistry was ripe for a future collaboration, booking, tour, or residency, you exchanged business cards. Details would come later, at the appropriate time, if it was meant to be—quite different from my experience at American conferences. Although I understand and value the environment of efficiency American conferences foster, Tanzmesse’s was a context in which I thrived. Since the focus was on meeting new people and exchanging ideas rather than securing engagements, I was able to have a number of fascinating conversations with presenters about their perceptions of American dance, and with European artists about our creative processes. This shift in focus also freed me up to have social interactions at cafés, bars, and restaurants about the many performances we saw over the week.

A conversation that still stands out in my mind took place with a British colleague about how we run our companies. She is the artistic director of a renowned repertory company well funded by the UK and supported by a full administrative staff. Offering contracts to dancers year-round, this company has its own state-of-the-art rehearsal studio and is in permanent residence at a theater. After hearing how LEVYdance is financially supported and the different ways it balances its programming activities with its fundraising efforts, she paused and said, “It is so amazing that your work is funded by the communities it serves, that its very existence is dependent upon the people who are moved by it.” She continued to admit that she felt one could get complacent or uninspired as a European artist who is fully funded by the state. Although the struggles of functioning as a non-profit in the U.S. are very real, her comments offered a wonderful shift in perspective for me. I found it a very empowering place to stand: My company’s existence relies on how effective it is in generating and sharing work that makes its value clear.

I also had a fascinating conversation with a presenter from the U.K. about his perceptions of American dance. He told me that he felt the art was stuck in a pattern and was not progressing. When I asked him what he meant by that, he explained that, in his opinion, work from the States often explores outdated themes. When I asked him to elaborate, he specified race as an example. He said that in his experience race was an issue that American art makers are still grappling with, and that Europeans have moved on to class issues, which was of more interest to him. He was curious to know why more contemporary American art didn’t investigate class, or react to the current political climate. We later went on to discuss differences in American and European aesthetics, approach, and movement invention. This conversation raised several interesting questions for me about my colleague’s views: Was he not being exposed to, or exposing himself to a more representative cross section of American dance? Is his viewpoint a result of larger, more established American companies receiving most of the funding and invitations to tour internationally, leaving out “emerging” voices? If an “American aesthetic” is a reality, could it be shaped by our funding structure and more limited resources, or is it a result of the culture, politics, and environment in which we create art?

At the end of our conversation, it was even clearer that international platforms such as Tanzmesse are vital to keeping a dialogue open with our international colleagues. I found our exchange to be not only professionally significant but also a gesture of cultural diplomacy.

Although these conversations were not focused on doing business, they proved incredibly fruitful. During the course of the week, LEVYdance was invited to be in residence at a theater in Germany, perform at a festival, collaborate with a French artist at a choreography center, as well as several other exciting prospects that need further development. These invitations arose organically, and when they move forward, will become important milestones in LEVYdance’s growth. Yet, the real value of the conversations was the opportunity to connect with individuals, share ideas, and broaden views.

Performances: What I Saw
In the five days I was at Tanzmesse, I saw seventeen dance companies in performance. There were moments of beautiful lighting design, a few engaging sets, thrilling movement invention, and a substantial amount of nudity. There were also instances that made retreat into my head for distraction, or think about why I was so repelled by what I was seeing. In much of the work I noticed a depth of exploration that I found refreshing. Even if I wasn’t interested in where the investigation was going, I enjoyed the clear focus and extent of inquiry. I generally found the work unconcerned with packaging itself nor helping me draw any conclusions. The artists seemed focused more on the work than on my perception of the work. I was inspired by what I perceived as the artists’ sense of play and keen curiosity.

Tanzmesse was a wonderful opportunity to connect with international colleagues, shift my personal, artistic, and professional perspectives, and interact with the other members of the American delegation. This was my first experience in which presenters, artists, administrators, and agents all came together to discuss a shared experience that was not focused on the art marketplace. Now having had the experience, here are a few things I would have told myself before I left:

•Pack 10-15 press kits, DVDs, one-sheets about your company with your current rep and upcoming works, and a notebook for jotting down who you met, what you learned, what you need to follow up on, and an envelop or small case for saving any business cards you might get.

•Update your website to include your current activity and some video clips of your work. Festival participants follow up after meeting you by going to your site to get more information.

•Do some preliminary work before you get to the festival to set up meetings if you can. Contact any international connections you already have to ask if they will be at the festival. If you don’t have any international connections, use the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation International Festival Database to search festivals you are interested in participating in and contact them to see if they will be at the conference:

•Don’t have any expectations. Be open to meeting people, making new connections, and listening for what is possible.

•See as much dance as you can and engage in conversations about the works you saw with people you don’t know.

•Keep an open mind and be receptive.

After the experience, I returned home refreshed, proud to be a part of our national dance community, and excited to jump into my creative process.

This article appeared in the November 2008 issue of In Dance.

Benjamin Levy, Artistic Director of LEVYdance and its home Studio Gracia, has been awarded the honors of "Top 25 Choreographers to Watch" by Dance Magazine, and a Goldie Award by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He has had the pleasure of collaborating with renowned artists including the Kronos Quartet, composer Keeril Makan, French couture designer Colleen Quen, and industrial designer Rick Lee. LEVYdance has a San Francisco home season performance on November 12-15, 2008, and an East Coast tour in January 2009.