How to Work Abroad: Demystifying the Tanzmesse

By Elizabeth Zimmer


The Internationale Tanzmesse NRW, a biennial festival in Düsseldorf, Germany, is either a bonanza of work opportunities or an exercise in “body fascism,” depending on whom you talk to. Listen to Benjamin Levy, an American choreographer who’s been there, and he’ll tell you it’s a fantastic chance to learn how the European dance community does business, “emphasiz[ing] friendship, exchange, and investigation rather than the standard commercial aims I’m accustomed to.”

But the managers who represent companies sing a slightly different tune. Laura Colby, who runs Elsie Management in Brooklyn, told me, “The Europeans have a certain level of physique expectation that we got over 20 years ago. We embrace all bodies here; we’ve been doing it for decades. Our dancers are often discounted [abroad] because they don’t look a certain way or possess a certain technique. And, the Americans have an additional challenge because of the huge aesthetic gap.”

In an effort to expand the information available in Europe about American dance, a joint effort will bring a diverse roster to this season’s festival. From August 25 to 28, 2010, four American troupes, two from the Bay Area, will display their artistry at Tanzmesse, among more than 50 groups appearing in eight different venues. Chosen from a large field by Director Kajo Nelles and Co-Director Carolelinda Dickey, and supported in part by Dance/USA and Dancers’ Group, these ensembles—California’s LEVYdance and Liss Fain Dance, Pennsylvania’s Philadanco and New York’s Brian Brooks Moving Company (represented by Colby)—will perform works from their repertory or, in the case of Brooks, a new piece currently under construction.

Levy, invited to be part of the American delegation at the 2008 Tanzmesse, discussed his experience in a piece for In Dance late that year. He’d worried that “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.”

He shared with me ways in which his participation in the 2008 festival has affected his company’s prospects. “I’ve been invited by the artistic director of the Scottish Dance Theater. Tchekpo Agbetou from Dansart in Bielefeld, Germany, who I’d previously met in Lithuania—we met again [in Düsseldorf] and discussed further collaborations; he invited my company to perform at his theater. I made contact with an administrator at one of the French centers for choreography; we’re going to have a residency there.”

Levy’s also entertaining the possibility of international exchange, bringing the French company to the U.S. “A work matures and deepens as different audiences are exposed to it; it shifts as the alchemy with the audience happens again and again. For sheer marketing purposes, it’s attractive to say LEVYdance is just home from an international tour.”

In August his recent work Physics will share a program with troupes from Ireland and Taiwan. His enthusiasm for his initial visit to Tanzmesse rose as he spoke:

“It was brilliant to be able to sit and watch performance after performance, and see things that fit my notion of what European dance was like, and also things that broke the mold and that I was absolutely thrilled by—and to be able to interact with these colleagues on the floor of the marketplace, or at dinner. Charlotte Vincent of the U.K. did a brilliant performance piece; it was great to be able to have a conversation with her. I was thrilled to be exposed to stuff I didn’t like, to ask myself why—what alienated me and what may have alienated other people. There was a sense of steadfast commitment to what they were doing, with little to no concern for what the audience was experiencing at that moment. I had a deep appreciation of that.”

Brian Brooks, making his European debut, has been invited to present new work at the 2010 Tanzmesse. A native of Hingham, Massachusetts, he’s had his own troupe in New York since 1998, but danced for other choreographers, notably Elizabeth Streb, so he could stop waiting tables. His Retrospective was a big hit of New York’s 2008 season, and his new piece, Motor, will resemble it structurally.

“They both have large-scale installations,” he told me, “and both consider the audience’s viewpoint. The audience is placed in front, in back, inside, and around the piece. In Retrospective you’re actually seeing 2002, 2004, and 2008 all in the same area; in Motor the content of the work is coming out of that idea of perception and integration in the space between performer and viewer: shared time and shared space.”

Dickey, an arts manager and consultant based in Pittsburgh when she’s not in her little apartment in Düsseldorf, said she wears two hats: “as co-director of Tanzmesse, and as coordinator of the American delegation along with Andrea Snyder of Dance/USA and Wayne Hazzard of Dancers’ Group.” She was instrumental in re-engineering the event, which began in 1993 as a showcase for companies in Germany’s Rhineland and has become a marketplace and festival attracting troupes from across the globe. Dickey and Nelles choose the participants, after traveling widely and viewing hundreds of recordings; they’re now prospecting for the 2012 edition. “We put out a call for proposals, which includes receiving the work on DVDs; we prefer to see the work live. [For this edition] we looked at about 350 works and invited about 50 to perform this summer.” American invitees get a stipend plus expenses, which, Dickey said, “comes through Dance/USA, funded by the Tanzmesse, the NEA, and private foundations.

Andrea Snyder, executive director of Dance/USA, offered her own description of Tanzmesse. “It’s really a global dance community, an ecosystem that allows for interchange and exchange. With the U.S. Consulate in Düsseldorf, we’ve been able to develop symposium content with our counterparts from other countries. We did a day of looking at how the different systems of presenting work, inviting representatives of different countries to attend.”

Snyder went on to say, “The U.S. dance community would like to begin breaking down the mind-set of international presenters, who seem not to be interested in American dance—in part because they don’t see it. There’s more nationalistic interest on the part of international presenters, in part because of the last eight years of our political environment, in part because of the loss of USIA [the United States Information Agency]. Years ago State Department tours sent American companies around the world, with extremely generous financial support. Today they don’t have the resources to do those kinds of tours. We’re hoping that with the current administration there’ll be a renewed interest in the arts as ambassadors, representative of the cultural spirit in the United States.” (In The New York Times of March 21, 2010, dance writer Roslyn Sulcas described a recent State Department-sponsored project, the first initiative of this kind in more than 20 years, which sent Ronald K. Brown’s EVIDENCE to South Africa, Urban Bush Women to Colombia, and ODC/Dance to Indonesia, Myanmar, and Thailand.)

Snyder observed that “Carolelinda and I have been very conscious that there isn’t a strategic plan in the U.S. for how we can be more effective in exporting American dance. Other countries—the French, British, Australians, Dutch—have plans and subsidy. The Tanzmesse is one small opportunity to break down barriers, open eyes, offer networking possibilities and engage in international dialogue.”

“Since we’ve been working with Dance/USA,” said Dickey, “the increased number of proposals from American artists we get is unbelievable; we formally looked at maybe 85 Americans. Over 10 years I’ve gained a sense of what will read well in Europe and what will not. I can’t get anyone there interested in looking at American tap. The French think they own hip-hop, so it’s hard to get them to look at American hip-hop. I also have trouble presenting Afro-centric American work; the Europeans would prefer to go straight to Africa.”

Joan Myers Brown, director of Philadanco, would disagree; her troupe gets plenty of work in Germany and other European countries. It has been offered the opening night, said Dickey. “We’ve never offered it to just one company. They’ll be doing a Christopher Huggins piece and other work; I’ll work with them to choose the rest of the program.”

Brown said Philadanco is well received in Germany, possibly because their agent is housed there. “We get 10, 12 curtain calls. There’s real excitement.” Huggins, a freelance choreographer and teacher whose blockbuster hit Enemy at the Gates will close the Philadanco program, said the piece reflects issues about security that have only grown more timely since he began working on it early in 2001.

“Europeans often love American ballet,” said Dickey. “They don’t differentiate between dance and contemporary ballet the way we do. They just think of it as dance.” This may explain how Liss Fain’s 22-year-old, eight-member troupe made the cut.

“I would love to have European presenters see my work,” said Fain, who was raised in New England and moved to the Bay Area in 1989. “They’ve said they need to see us perform live. We’re hoping this will be an opportunity to make connections with them and get more work in Europe.” She’ll be showing a 16-minute, 2005 work called Unknown Land. “I have no idea why they chose me; there’s a lot of ballet vocabulary in it but it’s definitely not ballet. It’s to Ligeti’s piano concerto—a mixture of a lot of movement, with a real dramatic sense to it, based on a book I was reading at the time, The Known World by Edward Jones, about a county in Virginia where freed black slaves had become slave-owners themselves. The book is about the relationships between the different people in the community, and the capriciousness of your ability to control your environment. I used the image of a Greek chorus, people who could see what was going on, could observe and comment but couldn’t change it.”

According to Dickey, “It’s hard to reconcile the differences between American dance and dance in other parts of the world. Andrea has come to understand that it’s a marketplace issue; Americans have lost their edge abroad, and are not even part of the conversation; it was about re-inserting American dance into the global market.”

The poverty of support for dance in the United States extends to journalism, which creates an additional issue for European presenters, who find it difficult to locate informed opinion, from writers not involved in the marketing transactions, about work they might consider booking.

In Europe, experimental artists are supported and funds are also available to support independent, often bilingual publications, heavily illustrated, that allow choreographers and dramaturges to share their thinking about their work. The groundswell of sophisticated dance writing in newspapers, consumer magazines and professional journals that buoyed the American dance boom from the early 1960s through the late 1980s has all but evaporated, hammered by the downturn in advertising and the shift of criticism to the Web—where it is essentially unedited and rarely very illuminating. The Germans, said Dickey, “ask ‘Where are the magazines?’ and they don’t believe me when I say there aren’t many.”

This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of In Dance.

Elizabeth Zimmer writes about dance for Metro, Ballet Review, and other print and electronic media worldwide.