Where All Have Access to Performances
“Everyone’s a dancer!” It’s a pretty overused statement, I know. I’ll admit, I’ve told people that when they confess they love to move but are too self conscious to go to a dance class or – bust a move at a bar. But the statement, overused or not, thankfully goes deeper than that. The ability for everyone to be a dancer was an underlying theme in the work of Anna Halprin, one of the founders of postmodern dance in post-WWII America. This movement radically changed American/Eurocentric modern dance and continues to have a great impact on the contemporary dance scene today. To Anna Harplin, it doesn’t matter if people who join her classes or performances are trained as dancers or not. To her, dance is simply the breath made visible.
However, if everyone is a dancer then surely everyone should be able to access dance. As a dancer or as a spectator. This is the philosophy of the Dansens Hus in Stockholm, the primary presenter of contemporary dance in Sweden’s capital city. It not only plays a critical role as a connector for both national and international dance, Dansens Hus is also a leader in the field for making performances accessible to all.
I was lucky to speak with Ida Burén, then Head of Programming at Dansens Hus, to discuss both of these topics. After she gave me a tour of the building we had our talk in the canteen, while the rest of the organisation was enjoying their Fika. Fika – a wonderful Swedish concept, used as both a verb and noun, which roughly translates to mean a coffee break often involving sweets.
CG: Can you give me a little background information on the Dansens Hus?
IB: Dansens Hus has a very strong position in the field, which also comes with a lot of responsibility. Dansens Hus is the largest venue for presenting and supporting contemporary dance in Stockholm and in Sweden. Dansens Hus produces a little, but presenting is the core mission. It is unique because it’s in the organisational mission to present international work, whereas very few Swedish cultural houses have the budget to do that.
Typically, large European cities have international festivals but Stockholm doesn’t, so Dansens Hus fills this gap. It is also a member of a national touring network Dancenet Sweden, which supports the touring of national and international dance throughout the country.
Historically speaking, Dansens Hus was founded by six of the largest Swedish dance companies, including Göteborgs Opera and the Royal Swedish Opera.
CG: In February 2017, together with the DOCH School of Dance/Stockholm University of the Arts and the European Dancehouse Network, Dansens Hus hosted exChange Perspectives. It was a conference highlighting the diversity (or lack thereof) of bodies and physical abilities in the dance field, both on stage and in the audience. Besides this conference, can you tell me more about the commitment to accessibility at Dansens Hus throughout the season?
IB: I was involved with the development of the accessibilities services we offer, which have grown in the last two years. It is part of the organisational strategy to improve accessibility. Dansens Hus is a publicly funded institution, meaning it should be accessible to all kinds of audience members. All people should be able to have access to the repertoire.
CG: Dansens Hus presents performances that are accessible to visually and hearing impaired visitors, I am curious to know more about this.
IB: There are performances with sign language interpreters for hearing impaired visitors.
Dansens Hus also has a collaboration with an association for blind people who are interested in cultural activities and events. For a few of the performances in the season there is an interpreter who does a live, spoken interpretation of what is happening on stage. The interpreter sits next to the technicians in the sound booth to watch the performance and verbally describes the performance into an audio system. The audience gets headsets to listen to the interpretation. It is not dramatic at all, but rather it is a very neutral description of what is happening on stage. It’s like “A man enters. He bends down. He stretches his right hand. A woman grabs him by his shoulder”.
CG: How has the visual interpretation been received?
IB: There is a group of between 15-20 people who have come to the performances where visual interpretation is provided and they enjoyed it tremendously. They sit in the first row, are able to hear the music and the interpretation. Because they sit close to the stage, they are also able to feel the rhythm and hear the movements of the performers. They have the theatre experience and instead of looking they are listening.
CG: After having visited many theatres in Europe, unfortunately this is the first time I have seen something like this. I say unfortunately because the dance world is primarily occupied with the body, so you would think that it would be in tune with needs and requirements for all body types. But it’s not.
IB: You’ve never heard about this before!? Well it’s happening here, but I know this is not the only place in Sweden. As public institutions, we aim to be a meeting place for everyone.
Since coming back to Canada, I have been impressed by the accessibility services and programs at festivals such as Luminato and SummerWorks. Again, I say impressed because for far too long these programs have not been available in the many different theatres and festivals I visited predominantly, but not exclusively, in Europe.
Both Luminato and SummerWorks festivals hosted relaxed performances for visitors with an Autism Spectrum Condition, a sensory or communication disorder, a learning disability or for those who prefer a more relaxed environment. SummerWorks is a festival spread across the city and proudly offers wheelchair access to all of its locations. At Luminato, an audio described service for the performance of En Avant March!, by Ballet C de la B was available this year. American Sign Language interpretations were available at SummerWorks events including debates, workshops and awards ceremonies. According to Luminato, these services “are provided in a manner that respects the dignity and independence of people with disabilities” as well as being integrated, “allowing all an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from the festival”. As an institution providing a service to the public, all members of the public need to be able to have access to it. Simple, right? Then why is it taking so long for so many organisations to step up to the plate?
CG: While Dansens Hus may be a leader in the field now, compared with other dance organisations it is quite young – opening in 1991. What was the contemporary dance scene in Stockholm like before it opened?
IB: Dance is a very young art form in Sweden, compared to theatre. Years ago there were just a few local companies and the national touring company. Since then the dance scene has developed tremendously.
CG: What do you think contributed to the development of contemporary dance?
IB: There have been a couple of important advocates for contemporary dance. The driving force came from the politically visionary artists. Sweden has very good policies and developed support structure for publicly supported arts, which was set by culturally minded politicians. We should be proud and not take it for granted, that we have a really good publicly funded cultural field. This is thanks to both politicians and artists understanding that art and performing arts needs to be subsidized by public means. We need to continue to raise awareness about the importance of dance as an art form, but I think things are changing. There is also a large audience for dance here. I think the theatres are becoming more and more open to embrace and present dance in their programming.
CG: You said that Dansens Hus prides itself on international programming. What is the ratio of Swedish to international performances?
IB: For our small stage (140 seats), around 90% of performances are Swedish and 10% international. For the large stage (766 seats), 50% are international and 50% Swedish. That is the number of companies, not performances. Swedish performances will play for longer runs than international ones.
CG: Are there benefits to being connected to the international scene?
IB: I think the benefits are tremendous! To have the responsibility of running a house like this, you need to be a part of the development of the field. How you develop an arts scene and how you develop an audience goes together. You can develop a scene and the audience by bringing in other kinds of perspective, stories, ideas and artistic tendencies. Of course, to open up to let in those international influences is a part of that exchange and influx that I think is extremely important for the arts scene. I think that it would be problematic if you only develop a local scene without bringing in international and outside perspectives. I think the international arts scene can be that influx that can develop the local arts scene.
Ida Burén now works as the Head of Culture for the Municipality of Botkyrka, south west of Stockholm.