Listen, Empathize, and Participate

A festival report of explore dance festival #3 at fabrik Potsdam.

By Astrid Priebs-Tröger and an introduction by Oskar Smollny | 27. May 2022

From 20-26.03.2022 the 3rd festival for young audience of explore dance took place in Potsdam. Under the motto “claim your space dancing ” visitors experienced a week full of dance, workshops and performances. Accompanying the stage productions and pop ups of seven explore dance choreographers, the week opened with the symposium Dance for Young Audiences for Everyone and Everywhere.

Dance for young audiences is still far from being fully established in the cultural offerings for children and young people. In some places, especially big cities, a continuous offer is under way, but mostly based on temporary support. The body-focused art form of dance has great potential to take on an important role in cultural reception and participation for children and young people in the long term – provided that it is strengthened structurally and in terms of cultural policy in the coming years.

Accordingly, several panel discussions addressed the question of what conditions are needed to make dance for young audiences accessible to as many children and young people as possible, even beyond the big cities – whether in the countryside or in the metropolis.

Potsdam cultural journalist Astrid Priebs-Tröger took a look at the important place dance occupies in the cultural landscape and the contribution it can make to the (political) development of young people during the festival and summarizes her impressions of the diverse pieces below.

A festival for a young audience

Lentil seeds, earth worms, cardboard boxes, working like Sisyphus, or kissing one other 1000 times – these are just some of the materials and topics that captivated almost 700 children (aged 6 and up) and young people (aged 12 and up) during the six days of the 3rd Explore Dance festival at the fabrik Potsdam.

Talking to kids, and especially primary school children, about the (and their) future isn’t easy – particularly in the face of numerous crises erupting everywhere simultaneously. The Swiss choreographer Lea Moro, who opened the Explore Dance festival on March 20, 2022, gave it a try with Ears to See, and succeeded.

Strengthening kids’ imagination

Moro has found very different ways and means of strengthening kids’ imagination – not only in terms of the future of urban (co)life – without concealing or downplaying the many problems we’re facing today.

Her varied participatory parcours began in the theater room. Here, in the vibrating semi-darkness, the primary school students were introduced to an earthworm crawling out of the giant colossus in the center of the stage, and from there diving into the dusty city life.

Shortly thereafter, all the audience members, divided into three groups and wearing headphones, stepped out into the open and approached the elements of earth, water, plants, animals, and air around fabrik Potsdam, first very tangibly, but then also poetically and dreamily, and finally by dancing.

This trained their own senses and felt mostly good, but also quite funny in the case of the manhole.

Feeling the energies of a supportive community

The next stations, on the other hand, were both fairytale-like and playful. Listening to the story of the well of water and the snake, eyes closed and letting a rope slide through all the hands, set free many associations. Picturing an approaching storm and the energy of a supportive community also strengthened the participants’ own imagination.

Towards the end, the focus once again shifted more concretely to designs to make living together possible in the city of the future, “which will be soft and cuddly and warm because we are not meeting the climate goals.” “Claiming your space dancing,” which was also the festival’s motto, felt good on the fabrik green, and the spoken texts about the lichens also invited associative reflection.

The only pity was that at the end, when everyone was sitting on the fabrik stage again, the kids’ wishes, ideas, and suggestions were only to be whispered onto the shiny metallic surface of the water basin now imagined there. I would have been interested to know what the city dwellers of tomorrow think about their, and our, future.

Reinterpretating classical myths

Two more productions completed the first day of the festival. In the afternoon, one could encounter “Sisyphus” on the rehearsal stage of the T-Werk. A ‘Sisyphean task’ is a phrase still commonly used to describe an unproductive and difficult activity with no foreseeable end.

But as soon as Anne Zacho Sogaard, Hermann Heisig and Thomas Proksch danced through the door with a gymnastic ball, folding ladder, and foam boards, imitating hissing sounds to create a rhythm, it became clear that the classical myth of antiquity would be reinterpreted here.

Section by section, Heisig told the story of the ancient hero who repeatedly tricks the god of death Thanatos and is finally condemned to “eternal life” by means of the task of rolling a stone up a mountain.

It was great to see how the actors, who were physically quite different, managed this challenge in terms of dance, music, and narration. And finally, they found their very own, very contemporary interpretation of Sisyphean work, which, by means of pauses and the ability to playfully enjoy repetition and failure, can ultimately lead to happiness. Here, too, the young audience members were encouraged to discuss what they had seen after the performance. Going forward, the young audience members are going to need the energy and wit of Happy Sisyphus more than ever.

Debating with the young audience members

On day two of the festival, which was aimed primarily at a teenage audience, two productions put walls center stage. In PayPer Play, the wall was made of several hundred cardboard boxes enclosing the stage, and This Wall Has No Title featured urban stone walls located covered in street art.

Presented by established Italian choreographers, the productions differed in their aesthetics, but both showed disturbing images that touched on the dreams (and nightmares) of the Western world, along with the consequences that are just now becoming visible.

Disturbing images of the nightmares of the Western world

The opening sequence of Martina La Ragione and Andrea Rampazzo’s This Wall Has No Title corresponded with René Magritte’s famous surrealist painting “The Lovers” from 1928.

The first moments of This Wall Has No Title showed two people, their heads and torsos covered in white as in the painting, dancing closely together and holding on to each other.

Later, groups of words such as “It’s a free country,” “Welcome to hell,” or “I don’t believe anything” flicker across the wall behind them, and the two people disappear almost completely behind a two-dimensional electronic barcode, which they can only counter or escape by using their own movements.

Andrea Costanzo Martini’s PayPer Play is also about commerce. Pay per play (PPP) is a term from e-commerce and means that advertisers pay for each individual audio ad played. Here, the “play” takes place among cardboard walls that are taller than man, with a boy in pajamas at first dancing as if in a dream, and then gradually consuming more and more.

Loneliness and consumption – the power of things

Nevertheless lonely among the lifeless cardboard objects, the boy uses a screen to order a playmate. Though the playmate quickly learns by mirroring him, the boy cannot build a real relationship with him. This only happens when a female counterpart for the playmate is produced by 1-click ordering and they meet at eye level.

Martini’s production finds original and subtly resonant images for the power of things, which have come to dominate us all; it shows their interaction with the human psyche and ultimately the destruction of everything natural, including human beings. Even though this comes across as emphatically playful and is set in a whimsical dream(dance)world, it is resolutely told to the bitter end.

La Ragione’s This Wall Has No Title also finds a strong image for the mental devastation of modern humans at the end – the projection of an oversized child’s drawing of a person with their mouth wide open, which in turn conjures up Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’.

While these productions refer to significant works of art from the past century, 1000 Kisses by Raymond Liew Jin Pin and Jascha Viehstädt is set in the here and now, examining quite literally whether it is possible to kiss a thousand times without it degenerating into Sisyphean labor once more. In any case, the festival inspired with diversity and lightness, and especially the younger children were happy and willing to join in.