Too soon, too late in contemporary dance. And on the National Centre for Dance as an institution

13 years after the founding of the National Centre for Dance in Bucharest (CNDB), in the year of the Centenary – a centenary of the entire Central and Eastern Europe, of the continent in itself (considering the trauma of the First World War and the major impact of its consequences on a continental level) -, Romanian contemporary dance was presented in Brussels, as part of a collective multinational project meant to move, in a big way, the needle from political-identitary (the formation of the new nation-states) towards a reflection on the avantgarde’s heritage and the social-integrative vocation of the 1918 event. A reflection on the avantgarde’s subsequent declensions, as well as on the contemporaneity of some of the ideals spawned by the end of the war (women’s and minorities’ rights, for example – Romania is far from the only new state to have sought, at that point, to protect ethno-linguistic minorities, in spite of the impression that nowhere has that particular project led to anything of substance). Inevitably (and not because it’s an official celebratory moment), 1918’s remembrance, even as a pretext, can easily convey the image of an idealisation of the past as a repository of nostalgic (and questionable) visions of unions, independent countries and social peace. There is a fine line between triumphalism and revisiting the hopes (proven not long after to be in vain) of a unique historical moment.
At BOZAR (one of the most reputable gallery and performance spaces in Belgium), Too Soon, Too Late (with the subtitle
“Performative dialogue between artists from eight European countries), hosted in Brussels at the end of May, was presented in the guise of a 90 minute (in loop) site-specific peformative exhibition, occupying and exploiting a series of halls with different formats (passage areas, staircases, the former archive...).
The participating artists and productions came from the Czech Republic (Miřenka Čechová and Markéta Vacovská), Poland (Monika Drożyńska and the Dada von Bzdülöw company), Hungary (Zsolt Sőrés), Romania (Florin Flueraș and Brynjar Åbel Bandlien), Lithuania (Agnija Šeiko, Gintarė Marija Ščavinskaitė), Austria (Aldina Michelle Topcagic), Slovakia (Stanislav Dobák and the Belgian-Australian Jamie Lee ), Belgium (Ballets Confidentiels: Johanne Saunier and Ine Claes). In spite of the diversity of formulas, aesthetic languages and themes (from the Hungarian video-installation to Monika Drożyńska’s participative performance, based on the relationship between emigration and food – and resonating with Eurolines Catering or Homesick Cuisine by Pavel Brăila – and the fake reenactment in The Hammer Without a Master by Flueraș and Bandlien), Too Soon, Too Late demonstrated a surprising fluidity and, just as an unexpectedly, a curatorial-ideational coherence: all the interventions were in their own unique way charged with irony and a sense of urgency, complementing each other: the collective performative documenting of the Czech women’s experience in Shift and the reflection on 1918’s hopes of women’s emancipation from A Woman in Any Century by the Austrian Aldina Michelle Topcagic, from the search for individual and collective solutions in Today, Everything by the artists in the Dada von Bzdülöw company to the search for the lost language of Stere Popescu’s mythical show The Hammer Without a Master in Fluera
ș and Bandlien’s performance.
The Hammer Without a Master is a performative project with a history of its own – it’s the result of CNDB’s participation in an international projectWhat to affirm? What to perform?“ (2009), initiated by Tanz Quartier Vienna, whose aim was the investigation of the history of contemporary dance in Eastern Europe, in its distinct shapes, through which it could then contribute to a general European history different from its current meaning, as an extension of Western history on the whole continent.
Presented in a world premiere that would become its only performance, in 1965, within the Paris International Dance Festival, The Hammer Without a Master, an Opéra national de Paris production choreographed by Stere Popescu and with Pierre Boulez’s (dodecaphonic) score, caused a huge scandal. Plagued in Romania by accusations of decadence and other artistic faults and vulnerable because of his sexual orientation, Stere Popescu requested political asylum in France and killed himself in London three years later. In the wake of the scandalous show all that is left is a fragment from an interview and a short recording (a grand total of less than two minutes of video) in the archive of the National audiovisual institute in Paris, some photographs, Adina Cezar and Ioan Tugearu’s memories (two of the seven performers and, subsequently, important choreographers) and an extended collective mythology that spread through word of mouth. Regarded, within this production of mythology, as the artistic founding act of contemporary (actually modern) dance in postwar Romania, The Hammer Without a Master is, after all, a performative object at once absent and yet so very present as a fictionalized repository of the aspiration towards a recognizable artistic heritage, internationally relevant, formally-aesthetically brave and original, even politically provocative. Infamous in its day (and, who knows, maybe aesthetically questionable), Stere Popescu’s show has become, through the lens of time and mythological projections, a perfectly accepted classic, an ideal of (contemporary or modern) dance’s capacity to challenge one’s imagination and preconceived notions. Exactly the kind of breathless acceptance and glorification of the provocative gesture that present day Romanian contemporary dance, in its most politically offensive and formally original version (i.e., in a way, its most “Sterian”), does not find within the artistic community. This is what, in fact, Florin Flueraș and Brynjar Bandlien’s Hammer Without a Master questions, defying the apologetic rapport with Stere Popescu’s show, a show for which – in the absence of other consistent sources except mythologizing orality – a proper reenactment/reconstruction was and is impossible. In its performance-commentary version, created in 2009 (and presented probably for the last time at BOZAR), The Hammer… goes on to test, in/with the contemporary dancing body, the researchable elements of the “original”, while at the same time integrating this investigation of the past’s possibilities in a choreographic and verbal commentary on the history of Romanian (contemporary) dance and its canon. Whose sine qua non condition is that it is open only to the past, and not the present.
The title of the project hosted by BOZAR (initiated by the Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague), Too Soon, Too Late, references the essence of Central and Eastern Europeanness’ paradox: a syndrome of historical inadequacy, of being always in a historical contretemps, of generating ideas and movements incompatible with the social structure of the moment or receiving and integrating them long after the historical context has rendered their development impossible (if I were to give some local examples, they would range from the enormous mistrust and accusations of immorality that Dadaism and the avantgarde movement were plagued by before 1948, after which they were accused of decadence, straight to human rights: one of the pioneers of the international movement for human rights was a Romanian lawyer, attacked by right wing extremists and harassed by the local intelligence service for nonexistent links to communists; as these rights were enshrined in law throughout the world, they were less and less applicable in Romania). A perfect paradox that also suits Stere Popescu’s Hammer Without a Master: created too soon, recovered too late.

A community project’s past

But where does Romanian contemporary dance stand in this moment, the centenary of modern Romanian society – mainly on an institutional level, but also creatively? More than at any other time since its founding, CNDB is living a structural paradox: while being a national institution, it remains so atypical among other national theatre institutions that it cannot fulfill its institutional vocation unless it ceases to be held to the specific standards of, say, a national theatre. Without a permanent ensemble, without a repertoire (these aren’t adequate production modes for contemporary dance even in the case of famous companies), without a public organisational tradition before 2005, with an audience whose fidelity and development have been massively affected by sudden changes like losing the spaces in the Bucharest National Theatre building, in 2011, and with the pressure of developing a trust and collaboration with a small yet artistically diverse professional community (and needing a reinvention of its own priorities and strategies, after the shock of 2011), CNDB has always been a weird animal in the zoo of national institutions.
The relationship between the National Centre for Dance and the field it represents has always been an umbilical one, radically different from what any concert institution represents for the field of classical music or any theatre institution for its respective domain. The Hammer Without a Master (2009 version) is a profoundly typical project for the current moment in Romanian contemporary dance, not only for the reflection on its validating and legitimising mechanisms it proposes, but also because its performative structure is a part of the most interesting, fertile and critical artistic direction activated by this artistic community since at least the 2000’s, playing an important role even in the success of the campaign for CNDB’s founding: the choreographic performance. The founding of a public (institutional) structure dedicated to contemporary dance has never been a cultural policy project of the Romanian state, but a community project belonging to dance artists, which involved an entire generation of choreographers and dancers and which went, in its nucleation process, through the tentative phase of private institutions (MAD – the Multi Art Dance Centre -, founded by the current CNDB manager, Vava
Ștefănescu, and active between 1999 and 2003, has been one of these institutional prototypes), inevitably (in the Romanian context) afflicted by instability and precarity. The context of CNDB’s founding was one of constant pressure, brought upon by the artists and the international choreographic community (including prestigious institutions), and of the diversification of the local range of cultural policies (2005 is also the year when the Administration of the National Cultural Fund was founded and when the current legislation for cinematography was passed), on the background of an economic growth that obscured the shadow of the subsequent financial crisis. Yet in the absence of a tradition, seeing as Romania never had public institutions dedicated to modern or contemporary dance (in fact, not even ballet had its own institutions), and CNDB did not have any pre-existing policies to apply, the centre of gravity in this new institutional construction was, again, represented by the artists: at least in the 2005-2011 interval, CNDB was basically an artist-run institution (this might be contradictory, since spaces/platforms/projects made/run by artists seldom aspire to become institutions). To put it differently, an institution focused on strengthening the professional community and its connections with other artistic mediums, on building powerful mechanisms for supporting creativity and the artistic production capacity, on internally established coordinates, in accordance with the urgent needs of the artists and involving them directly in the decision process (a small example: inviting an iconic show by Jerome Bel, containing nudity and other biological acts, a show more typical for the creative influences of Romanian contemporary dance in that moment and the artists’ interests than for a hypothetical beneficiary audience).
In the end, this kind of modus operandi brought against the Centre (and its first director, Mihai Mihalcea) the accusation, made by representatives of the financing State, that it works more like an “NGO” than a public institution. To put it another way, that it doesn’t prioritise the public policy objectives (meaning external priorities, as defined by the public financer, which in this case was the Ministry of Culture, seen as the only or the main source of legitimate policy for the modes of providing the public service known as “culture”) thought to be centred around… the public, the beneficiary-spectator, and that it instead focuses on the artist (meaning the service provider; generally speaking, in Romania the artists or the culture professionals are not regarded as beneficiaries of cultural policy, which is why, for example, continuous education and professional development, organisational development or research are almost universally unfinanceable).
Not because (no two ways about it) CNDB had ignored or hadn’t been interested in an audience (this mirage invoked, more often than not, in big figures, when it comes to justifying culture’s status as a public service). However, the fact that this emerging institution was aware of was that the public, especially in the case of a niche art (such as contemporary dance), is itself developed organically, in the guise of a community of knowledge and affinities. If you were not among those that think that man comes out of his mother’s womb with a vital need to watch contemporary dance and this is what the first noise he makes in this world is about, it was pretty clear in 2005, just as in 2007 or 2009, that the existing dance audience is limited and extremely fragmented in its expectations (again, we are talking about a European capital where there were and are one choreography high school, the occasional productions presented in drama institutions and, maybe once a year, international shows now supplemented by movie screenings), while at the same time lacking an equivalent choreographic diversity, at least because, on a day to day basis, there was a lack of sufficiently developed community of dancers and choreographers. To build an artistic “market” from scratch, with all its actors, from the Brownian stage of projects that contemporary dance was in at that moment required time. And time is something of which public institutions are in especially short supply.
From a performing arts perspective, post-1990 Romania inherited the institutions created and developed by the communists and strived, for the most part, to preserve them. Not only existentially, but, for the most part, from a modus operandi standpoint (I refer you to the relatively minor impact, when it comes to ethos, shall we say, of the introduction of cultural management) – and this is not a criticism. Our performing arts institutions inherit their spectators intergenerationally (theatre or concert going is a reproductive consumer practice), are often engaged in complex processes of preserving their own mode of production and are insidiously put under the systemic pressure of productivity (institutional success is exclusively or at least mainly a question of ever increasing numbers: revenue, number of spectators, number of performances). Compared to CNDB, and in the capitalist-economic logic that they are often required to exist in, Romanian theatres, philharmonics and operas are factories and plants with a full staff, producing traditional goods and services, while the Centre is an experimental startup. It couldn’t adhere to the current institutional model and adopt the functional shape of already existing institutions even if it wanted to: it was about 50 years too young.

The present and future of an institution

These days (meaning in the last few years), CNDB has still struggled to meet the required standards: it formalised its relationship with the artists and the once again emerging independent community, it established protocols for coproducing and collaborating and long term institutional relationships on a national and international level, it created procedures for itself and it standardised/streamlined its day to day mode of operation, as well as its type of representation (a sort of repertoire on a project basis: a collection of works are presented throughout a number of seasons, in series of shows often organised in the guise of festivals).
But, 13 years since its founding and half a decade after its change of space and direction, the National Centre for Dance is, in many ways, between the same rock and the same hard place as in the beginning: on one hand, the expectations of the artists, who want to be represented and supported and upon whom CNDB “relies” in a more profound way than any theatre (it is a show-producing institution with no full-time artists), on the other hand, the pressure to “deliver” institutional objectives relating to a cultural policy (otherwise concretely inexistent in its substance: Romania has no national strategies, policies or priorities regarding dance, be it modern or contemporary) that has recently come to be exclusively mistaken for “self-sustainability”. Because it is a national institution, no?, artistic solidarity isn’t unconditional (anymore), nor does it take the preexisting shape of community affinities (the institution – independent artist/scene antagonism is a Romanian classic), relationships have already had time to become asymmetrical (how could CNDB behave, institutionally, without generating asymmetries? That is for it to discover, if it wants to). Because public authorities (or institutional partners) don’t often have, systemically, the will or the capacity to distinguish between types of institutions, the resources CNDB is granted are incompatible with what it is required to deliver (for example: the budget model for performing arts institutions is based on the dominance of wage expenses, because they have a full-time staff of artists and technicians, while production expenses are complementary; the National Centre for Dance, however, doesn’t have full-time artistic or technical employees, nor can it, and since its structure is not based on repertoire, it is stringently dependent on the shows it invites, therefore, logically and naturally, its production expenses – for projects and shows – should take precedence, only that doesn’t happen). This dilemma is hard to crack. The fact that next year CNDB will have a new hall (the old Omnia Hall), with much more ample performance spaces, where it will it have to “move” its public and develop a new one, only increases the pressure.
CNDB can become an institution (an organisational model based on a “collection” of stable and predictable mechanisms, capable of generating good practice examples and functioning as a reference point in a field that is, organisationally and creatively, undergoing continuous growth and organic transformation, therefore fulfilling some needs and an internal dynamic) inasmuch as the administrative expectations of its public financer will allow it to do so, taking into account the simultaneous efforts to develop an audience and a present day artistic tradition (or a canon, let’s say). Inasmuch as it is supported (or at least allowed) to test other possible institutional models.
It is a unique institution – this is not a metaphor; CNDB is, it bears repeating, the only public institution dedicated to contemporary dance in the whole of Romania -, so in order to fulfill its mission, it must act in a delocalised manner, on a national level, which is something that no other performing arts institution has to do, while at the same time being the main interface for international cooperation in the field of dance. It functions on a level in which the dancers’ technical education and continuous professional development are dramatically found wanting (in the absence of dedicated institutions or financial support), which is why it also must become a school in a wider sense. At the same time it assumes this educational mission (because this is how one develops an audience for unclassicised artistic forms), it must also research and preserve the memory of its choreographic past. It is a producer that is also a (co)financer, that is also a school, that is also a training centre, that is also an archive.
Which out of all these priorities should it start with, while remaining coherent? Can it decide to prioritise, when it is expected to perform in accordance with all these “objectives”? How can CNDB navigate, in an adequate institutional framework, its missions and vocations, while maintaining a proper relationship with both its own artistic community and, especially, the financing authority so eager for immediate results and apparently still adhering to the dictum “Those who have (i.e. the big institutions) shall get some more, those who have not (i.e. CNDB) shall have even less”, formulated by the then culture minister Daniel Barbu in a meeting with the dancers and choreographers, when Mr. Barbu dreamt of a fusion between the National Centre for Dance and the National Opera? Here is a discussion that can begin when the first two conditions, which are the main resources that CNDB needs, will have been satisfied: time and money.
In reality, the National Centre for Dance in Bucharest is a unique institution not only for Romania, but also on a Central and Eastern European level: out of all the Too Soon, Too Late co-producers and partners (the Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague, the “Zbigniew Raszewski” Theatre Institute in Warsaw, the Slovakian Theatre Institute, the Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute in Budapest etc.), it is the only one dedicated not only to promoting dance, but to producing it as well. CNDB’s presence in the BOZAR project in itself – one of the most ambitious, in the field of dance, in our region – is proof not only of CNDB’s international vocation, but also its major potential to become a regional leader, precisely because of its atypical institutional profile. But that requires, among other things, that rarest of resources when it comes to Romanian institutions: time.

*The Romanian participation in the Too Soon, Too Late project was supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute in Brussels and its excellent team.

This article was published in Observator Cultural. Author: Iulia Popovici