206 bones, around 360 joints and 650 muscles. It is each body’s given set, which by peculiar mathematics unfailingly overcomes the statics. b12 contemporary dance and performance festival, which has been taking place in Berlin each mid-summer since 2015, is at the same time a platform and a laboratory. It advances the mathematics of movement and has gained rapid popularity among practitioners. The creators of the festival state: “There is everything to dive into: from film to text to movement to acrobatics to theatrical to experiment to the unexpected to the futuristic.” Along with elongated workshops the dancers are offered the possibility to take part in performance projects guided by various choreographers, the creations of which are premiered to the audience within the festival. Besides, the month-long program also includes informal studio showings of pieces performed by teachers and choreographers of the festival, discussions, dance-on-camera screenings, somatic classes, and daily yoga. The festival’s online platform, called planet b12, provides online events throughout the rest of the year. It seems that b12 is the promoter of all movements. In addition to dancers’ bodies, the festival also takes care of other types of bodies. This year they contributed a donation for planting trees in Brazil, Tanzania, and Madagascar – two trees for each festival participant. My pair will be there, too. I met one of the festival’s co-founders and current curator, choreographer, and dancer Evangelos Poulinas1 on the last day of the festival after having spent a week there. We talked about the festival’s emergence and its manifesto of physicality in dance, anatomy of body predestined to move, and dance practice today.
Sintija Siliņa: Do you remember the moment of defining the festival objectives?
Evangelos Poulinas: At one point together with choreographer Johannes Wieland2 we shared our concern for lack of platforms for dance artists to share their highest virtuosity in art of dance. It seemed to us that the conceptual approach to movement in various formats is sufficiently represented, so we created a festival in which, according to the understanding and interests of both of us, we decided to invite unique and unconventional dance artists who are taking physical and emotional risks on and off stage. We wanted to remind and return the focus to the inseparable link between dance and the physicality of the body and to reflect the ever-changing spectrum of contemporary dance and performance art. The festival immediately found its followers. We started in 2015 with a 12-day long workshop programme, which has now grown to a month-long event series including 70 to 80 different two-to-ten-day long workshop sessions, performance projects, somatic research classes and other activities. Last year the festival was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are therefore especially grateful to be able to host the festival’s programme in person again this year.
I learnt about the b12 festival for the first time in a way which was unusual for myself, but traditional by fact – from a poster on the Berlin metro in the summer of 2018, one of the rare occasions I had gone somewhere without a dance context. Suddenly the tourist in me collapsed confronted by the words of conscience speaking from the poster – “research or die”. This phrase is especially topical in today’s complex information space. Why did you choose these to be the festival’s accompanying words?
“Research or die” reflects our goal to bring together artists and participants, as well as to activate such processes which foster development and immersion. We believe that research is the tool leading to that. As soon as we fall into patterns, stagnation is inevitable. The times are changing rapidly. Being able to reflect means constant redefinition and reconnection with the today.
And what idea lies behind the name of the festival – “b12”?
We agreed that the title should be deliberately abstract so that it could be interpreted individually. It may be Berlin’s “b” or “be” and “being” in the 12 initial days of the festival, which have grown to events through all 12 months of the year. Yes, it is also vitamin b12. Or the name of an unknown planet.
Having spent the last 6 years in the epicentre of one of Europe’s most attractive cities for artists, Berlin, and having created a magnetic dance festival where dancers and choreographers meet from all over the world, how would you describe who and what is today’s dance artist?
The scale is so wide that it is not possible to generalize. However, if I compare now with the time I started my professional career twenty years ago, I notice that the average technical abilities have grown considerably. And not only in dance technique, but also in all other performative possibilities offered by the body – voice, acting, etc. A possible explanation could be that the opportunities for different kinds of practice and knowledge exchange are more accessible; the general comprehension that skills should be constantly developed supports that. No doubt dancers nowadays are better equipped for the stage than before.
What do you mean when you say dance technique?
That is a combination of different skills. The traditional understanding is the control of the body in motion in space, which includes the range of motion, force, flexibility, and coordination of the body. Nevertheless, it is also the ability to decide the temper and quality application of different movements by yourself, thus expressing oneself in the movement authentically regardless of the dance technique. In contemporary dance, creation is an integral part of it, too. To a certain extent the dancers learn grammar, which later is constantly re-created considering that each performance speaks in a new language.
What in your opinion is the biggest challenge for dance practitioners today?
Long professional life. In Germany, as elsewhere, maintaining a career in dance after the age of 30 requires more effort than in any other profession; especially when starting a family. In my opinion, the profession of a dancer is comparable to the profession of an elite athlete, which would require an analogous approach, for example, guaranteed support for rehabilitation during both one’s studies and one’s professional career.
What are your conclusions about the effects that one year’s forced and voluntary isolation due to the Covid-19 disease spread control has had on the body?
The intensive screen communication during the last year has obviously not helped to integrate the body in its already detached status from the mind dominated in the Western world. Consequently, the accompanying levels of communication – body type and shape, pace, posture, gestures, smell, touch, energy, and intuition – have been altered or even excluded from communication. Unpredictably the other person’s body has turned out to be a component of the communication formula that we can no longer take for granted. However, now, returning to relative normality, I have experienced that the physical presence in various contexts is particularly cherished.
At the same time, I asked myself if a person’s bodily life will be reduced to a “talking head on the screen” and will people want to experience movement in themselves and in others at all? Will art of dance be relevant in the future?
The body is universal, as is its language, including dance. I think that the ability of dance to embody ideas and feelings will still be a relevant part of cognitive and artistic processes. Besides, everyone’s health is highly related to the movement factor. The body structure, which is created for movement, will respond to the absence of movements at some point. I also think that solely intellectual communication is not enough for humans and that alternative communication experiences will be reconsidered sooner or later. And dance is one of them.
What in your opinion is the mission of dance?
Like in the other arts, to foster inner transformation towards greater empathy and thus more understanding in this world for both sides: art makers and art followers.
1 Evangelos Poulinas is a dance performer and choreographer originally from Greece. He was educated in dance at Athens State School of Dance and later received a bachelor’s degree from the physical education department at Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. He holds an MFA in dance from the Tisch School of the Arts (New York University, USA). As a dancer he has performed in creations by Johannes Wieland, Maxine Doyle, Katarzyna Gdaniec and Marco Cantalupo, Marcel Leemann, Constanza Macras, Konstandinos Rigos, Nigel Charnock, Jasmin Vardimon and Wim Vandekeybus among others. As a teacher Evangelos has taught contemporary technique, partnering and community dance classes in Germany, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Greece, Austria, USA, and Sweden. Together with Johannes Wieland Evangelos is one of the founders and curators of the annual contemporary dance and performance art festival b12 in Berlin.
2 Johannes Wieland hails from Berlin, has earned his BFA at the Amsterdam University of the Arts and worked in various companies with an extensive array of choreographers before going to perform as a principal at the Béjart Ballet Lausanne (Switzerland). In 2002 he received his MFA in contemporary dance and choreography at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. His company Johannes Wieland, founded in New York that same year, facilitated the foundation for his work, and since 2006 he has been holding a permanent position as the artistic director and choreographer at Staatstheater Kassel (Germany). Aside from choreographing and teaching at companies and universities his critically acclaimed pieces have been invited to tour internationally for festivals and events. Johannes is also co-directing and curating the b12 festival for contemporary dance and performance art, which runs annually in Berlin. He is a first prize winner of the Kurt Jooss prize and a nominee for the German theatre prize Der Faust in 2016 among other recognitions.