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Rainer Hofmann (SPRING): 'After the populist attack from the right, the performing arts now face an attack from the left.'

Thursday 17 May opens SPRING Performing Arts Festival in Utrecht, including. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi of Dries Verhoeven and to come (extended) by Mette Ingvartsen. Over ten days, over twenty-five international dance and theatre productions, installations and performance works will be on show in public spaces and urban environments. A week earlier, festival director Rainer Hofmann looks relaxed. 'No calamities so far, everything is going according to plan.' For six years Hofmann has been director of the amalgamation of Festival aan de Werf and Springdance.

Rainer Hofmann - SPRING 2014 1 (c) Anna van Kooij

This year's festival features a lot of Dutch-affiliated productions, such as Anouk van Dijk coming over from Australia with Chunky Move and new productions by Wunderbaum, Dries Verhoeven, Genevieve Murphy at NBprojects and a Theatre Utrecht co-production with Naomi Velissariou, Permanent Destruction, based on the life and work of Sarah Kane. And then there are the VR performance Anyways of PIPS:lab with a screenplay by Willem van Weelden and the remake of Wiek by Boukje Schweigman. Also notable is the work of renowned Austrian Willi Dorner and a number of performances from Asia. 'I don't want to pretend that our selection is representative of what's going on in Asia.'

Asian trend

Is my impression correct that there is more 'Dutch' work in the festival?

'No. We always have some Dutch performances or work by makers who have worked in the Netherlands for a while. ANTI-GRAVITY from Anouk van Dijk might as well be categorised with the Asian trend, because of her collaboration with Singaporean visual artist Ho Tzu Nyen.'

With your extensive experience as a festival director in Germany and the Netherlands, how do you see the current situation for experimental or contemporary theatre and dance in the Netherlands?

'For young creators, it is increasingly difficult to raise money and trust. SPRING itself has become super good at fundraising. So far, with many requests, we manage to get the budget together to bring internationally relevant work to the Netherlands. But then again, we suffer from all the expectations and demands beyond showing relevant art. I would venture to say that after the populist attack from the right, we now have to endure an attack from the left.'

Stacked agendas?

'People in the Netherlands are talking more and more about impact, audience mix, and what social problems you think you will solve with your festival. The latter is literally in fund evaluation forms. There is clearly a shift from focusing on the stage to focusing on the auditorium. What you do matters less, more important is who you reach with it. The balance seems to have tipped. First there was the accusation that art was a leftist hobby, now we are confronted with extremely naive ideas about the social effect of art, and then also linked to ideas about its measurability.'

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. Studio Dries Verhoeven Panorama

'People say to us: your audience mix is not good, or: your audience is not big enough. I completely agree that art should be there for everyone. But that doesn't mean that every art is for everyone. We don't do that in science either, make such an audience requirement, do we? Several major funds are moving in that direction. Some claim to be private, but I think they should continue to realise their role in the public system.'

Where does this shift from art for art's sake to impact come from?

'It has to do with populism: how do we solve refugee problems, or problems in the neighbourhood, in education or care. It seems to be a left-wing reaction to right-wing populism.'


Is this kind of policy a whim that lasts a few years or is it an international trend?

The history of my stiffness - Wunderbaum Photo Sofie Knijff

'It's a broad trend, we really won't get rid of it overnight. But the art world also has itself to blame. Back in 2013, I didn't really understand why the art world itself agreed that they had forgotten the public. The Dutch really do make very audience-conscious work. It also depends on how you define elite. Nowadays, it is no longer about a bourgeois elite relating to the avant-garde. There is an economic-political elite that opposes culture. As if that first elite is necessary, but the cultural elite is not. Very miraculous.'

What can be done about this trend?

'A lot of challenging work by creators can only be seen in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. The theatres are under financial pressure. They do programme at a high level but safe, not so much experimental or challenging. but perhaps the question in the Netherlands has always been: what are you entertained by, and performing arts are less linked to an idea of expression of civic identity or bildung compared to some other countries.'

every-one - Willi Dorner © Lisa Rastl

'You can also see this in the neglect of art subjects in education or what is going on in a lot of media. Everything has to be low-threshold, accessible, easy, instantly consumable. When the TIN still existed, I was impressed by the blind date-tour, which had new theatre makers touring smaller cities.'

Weird ceilings

'On the other hand, the way the Culture Council has organised its information rounds, I am very impressed with that. The Netherlands is very good at organising the democratic process. The question is, of course, which structures are needed. For example, because we have organised ourselves as festivals, there has been recognition of the role of festivals in the Dutch chain and we have been able to secure money. On the other hand, there are very strange ceilings. You have to have 50% own income if you want to be able to apply for more than €125,000 from the Fund. You only save that by having a huge catering industry at your festival. To me, hospitality and performing arts are really two different enterprises anyway.'

What's special to you about the 2018 edition of SPRING?

'Opening Mette Ingvartsen with her performance to come (extended) is really a statement about art and dance in times of far-reaching commercialisation. Against these dark sides, it sees art as a place of freedom and pleasure, as lacking in porn and other commercialism. It is really a programmatic work, not obscene.'

Public space

'Then there are really some great projects in the public space, with Benjamin Vandewalle, Dries Verhoeven, Willi Dorner, Isaac Chong Wai or Rima Najdi. You will experience Najdi's work with headphones on, while wandering around the Terrain 2e Daalsedijk. Willi Dorner does a walk through Kanaleneiland., really a good place to work with the seriality of social housing construction.'

'In different ways, these people question public space. They make activist art that engages the audience in a different way than from a chair facing a stage. The Netherlands really has a tradition in location theatre. See, for example, the work of Boukje Schweigman that can be seen in Leidsche Rijn.'

Nice decor

'But there is also a danger of reducing it to doing things in a nice setting. There has to be more, the environment has to be really questioned, or a community really addressed. Always it's about making the audience aware, challenging them, what do you see and what don't you see, addressing certain frames of seeing, organising the experience of public space differently.'

More and more work from Asia is coming to Europe. You have this year Isaac Chong Wai from Hong Kong, Tianzhuo Chen from China, Jisun Kim from Korea, Ho Tzu Nyen from Singapore and Sorour Darabi from Iran. What is the significance of showing this work in the Netherlands?

An Atypical Brain Damage - Tianzhuo Chen

'It is very important to show work from outside Europe and realise that Europe is no longer the centre of the world. The bourgeois middle class has hardly played the role in many Asian countries that has been decisive in the development of art and culture in European countries. It is a super interesting fact, that those for us so usual frames fall away. You also saw this with someone like Pichet Klunchun. Who combines traditional or folk culture with avant-garde. Ho Tzu Nyen refers in his video work The Cloud of Unknowing and in his collaboration with Anouk van Dijk / Chunky Move in ANTI-GRAVITY to both European art history and Asian political history.'

You often have that with artists from outside Europe, that they can put on double glasses.

'Well, Tianzhuo Chen is really quite eclectic. He really picks everything together: Buddhism, vogueing and raves. To me, that really represents the current times in a big city like Bejing.'

Ethical questions

'No theatrical dramaturgy, no story building. High tech stands alongside ancient religions. I sometimes experience a very special spiritualism in Asian work. And also the ethical questions raised by the enormous speed at which societies have changed from agrarian and colonial dictatorships superfastly into booming economies. There are all great ethical questions arising, because of the speed of development, commerce and corruption, Western influences and democratisation that is very different.'

'Artists are working on that. Like Jisun Kim. She makes four algorithms perform in Deep Present. Outsourcing moral decisions through big data, that's really a question for the next decade.

Good to know Good to know
SPRING Performing Arts Festival, 17 to 26 May in Utrecht.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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