As the Artistic Director of Workshops and Research ImPulsTanz, for the past 25 years, Rio Rutzinger has been involved with Vienna’s annual international dance festival, the largest of its kind in Europe, through all its ups and downs. In addition to his main duties of researching potential themes for the programs and organizing the wide variety of workshops that the festival has on offer, he has also performed tasks such as eavesdropping on audience members commenting on performances at the event’s various parties, cooling down heated political conflicts that emerge between the diverse participants of the workshops, and, well, sitting through countless contemporary dance performances in order to distinguish the lyrical ones from the mystifying ones. In the meantime, he has developed a keen sense for the state of the contemporary dance scene today, while also cultivating the family-like spirit that has persisted among the ImPulsTanz team and devotees over the many years of its existence.
Ewa Stern: You are neither a dancer nor choreographer yourself. How did you get to be the Director of Workshops and Research at ImPulsTanz?
Rio Rutzinger: I first met Karl Regensburger, the director of ImPulsTanz, through a friend, and started out doing mailings for them. Then Karl asked me if I would like to stay and sell workshops. I had no idea about dance, but in the end I got hooked because of the people I met. I found these people in the contemporary dance scene really inspiring. I’ve been doing this job for 25 years, and sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated when you’re not the person in charge, but for me, what keeps it interesting is that every year is different. Karl is the kind of director who still doesn't use a computer, so we have to write a lot of his emails for him and we get a sense of what’s going on that way. Even though there’s no real delegation capacity, you end up getting involved in many different areas of the operations and you are always learning a lot.
Frey Faust (US) The Axis Syllabus - Empowerment, Respect, Freedom of Expression © Karolina Miernik
ES: ImPulsTanz is the biggest dance workshop festival in the world. How did it start and evolve? Now the workshops are open to pros and amateurs alike. How do you mix these two groups?
RR: Impulstanz started as only workshops 34 years ago, three weeks of 15 workshops taught by five teachers. It has now grown to 250 workshops taught by 150 teachers. In the beginning, the workshops were mainly jazz, modern, African—all the classic dance studio workshops. When I joined the company eight years after it was founded, it was already on the verge of contemporary. But we still keep offering all the workshops because, in order to create enthusiasm in the end, the most accessible way is to go to a jazz or modern or hiphop class which is not as intimidating as contemporary dance class. If one of these classes is your entry into dance, then fair enough.
Inge Kaindlstorfer (AT) Ceative Children Dance Workshop (SHAKE THE BREAK) © Elisabeth Stöckl
I also never wanted to abandon the beginner’s sector, which is also something that grew. In the beginning, it was awkward to ask professionals to teach beginners, one has to learn how to explain everything very simply. You have to think back to the time when you couldn’t do what is totally normal for you now.
Alito Alessi (US) DanceAbility © Karolina Miernik
We now have classes that are only for children or for older students, but that is only because they were requested by some of the participants in those groups. Otherwise, I don’t really like that kind of exclusion myself. All ages can take part in all classes if they like. In a vogueing class last year, we had one 77-year-old man, a wheelchair-bound man, and a 7-year-old child. That’s what’s great about the workshop program, we have the potential to establish a little society where 3000 people are willing to overcome their political, religious, and cultural backgrounds, it’s like a small utopia.
expressions'14 Ziya Azazi (AT/TR) © Karolina Miernik
ES: There aren’t any big stars, nor the usual suspects in this year’s programme. What are the reasons for this change?
RR: After the Burgtheater scandal [ Editor’s note: The director of the Burgtheater was fired last year over a financial scandal involving the theater’s funds.], the authorities have become a lot more rigid when it comes to nonprofit organizations like ours, so they want us to be a lot more cautious with the funds we get from the city. It was a hard step for us to stop our negotiations with some of the bigger dance companies, but it was clear that we had to be more careful not to accumulate any more debt.
During the year, there are something like 30- to 70,000 seats on sale in Vienna for seeing something at the theater or cinema. But in summer we hardly have any competition, so the people who happen to be here and are into the arts will eventually come. Because there is so much on offer here culturally in Vienna, this festival, which takes place in the summer, offers the opportunity to challenge borders of the dance scene, which hardly happens during the rest of the year. So I think it’s important to have a mix of both small, experimental shows as well as larger, more accessible ones.
Elisabeth B. Tambwe Symposium [8:tension] © stoffelix
This year, 8:Tension—the Young Choreographers’ Series—and the workshop program will remain the same, but we will have more of a focus on Austrian choreography and collaborations with museums, specifically, Weltmuseum, mumok, and 21er Haus, which will be about creating an exchange between the visual and performative arts.
Magdalena Chowaniec & Mani Obeya Songs of the Water / Tales of the Sea © Max Biskup
ES: How did these collaborations with the museums come about? What would you like to procure through these co-operations?
RR: In the summer, there are a lot of tourists in Vienna, but apparently a lot of them don’t necessarily want to visit the museums. So the museums have asked us many times to do these collaborations in the summer because we are basically the only large-scale cultural event that takes place at this time of year. It took us a few years to negotiate with them in terms of being equal partners, but this year, we have finally worked it all out.
Antony Rizzi The Artist Is Here [Redefining Action(ism)] © Antony Rizzi
Because it’s both financially and logistically such a challenge to stage a dance performance in a museum as opposed to a theater. It only makes sense to do this kind of collaboration if a certain kind of content is being reflected as a result or if the institution specifically wants to show this art form in their venue. In the case of the Weltmuseum, there was this unusual situation that they had started renovating and then had to suddenly put that on hold for financial reasons. As a result, this incredibly magnificent old building has already been completely cleared out, so we have this totally empty museum to work in, which is super exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The performers have already gone into the museum’s collection and looked at the objects there, and will be basing their performances on them, commenting on them in either a intellectual or physical way.
In the case of the MUMOK, they are currently hosting an exhibition called “Vienna Actionism and International Performance: My Body Is the Event”, so it seemed natural that we would take part in that. We will have 15 acts there that will be complementing the exhibition. I’m very curious how what these international performers will interpret one of the only worldwide famous arts movements to come out of Austria in the last century.
Christine Gaigg / 2nd nature Maybe the way you made love twenty years ago is the answer? © Raphael Brand
Philipp Gehmacher and Christine Gaigg both wanted to work in new venues other than traditional theaters or concert halls, but staging something in a place like the 21er Haus presented quite a compromise in terms of a set, as you cannot use the same old tricks you would use in a normal theater. They chose to go there because they can create a totally different atmosphere there. In the end, a museum is not a theater and when you want to play in a museum then you have to accept that it’s a white cube and therefore has different laws and dynamics.
ES: How does the selection process for the artists and performances actually work?
RR: Karl is very eclectic, he’s not someone who says, this year, I want to focus on this country or theme. Dance is not meant to be limited in this way, we don’t want to exclude a work that’s really strong just because it doesn’t fit into a certain theme. When we see 50 works that we are interested in and we try to narrow it down to 10 to 12, we try to mix it up a bit. Say one work deals with something like diaspora and another deals with it a totally different way that we find interesting, we would recommend that people watch both and discover how two positions from two continents can deal with the same subject in a completely different way.
Alix Eynaudi & Mark Lorimer Monique [Redefining Action(ism)] © Alexander Meeus
Although there are always the acts from the bigger companies in Berlin and Brussels, we also really try to avoid the redundancy that results from works that were developed within this environment, which use a common choreographic language in a way. A lot of these residencies, such as Belfort in France or P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, are usually located in the countryside, where it all sort of becomes the same as you’re not reacting to an urban environment anymore. In contrast, companies like Liquid Loft work in their own space, located in the city where they actually live. Certain issues are just confronted much more in cities, the discourse is on a more intense level, and that’s why I’m happy that we’re inviting people from different regions where they can really create their art and actually deal with it.
Máté Mészaros Hinoki [8:tension] © Dániel Dömölky
Another example is Máté Mészáros, a Hungarian dancer who is working together with six other dancers from Hungary. They have all worked internationally but they all decided to move back to their native country and set up a studio there that is supported by EU funding. Their style is very athletic and virtuosic, and it’s really pure dance: they are doing “dance” dance even though everyone is doing performance. They are part of the 8:tension program, which was originally mainly the hub for very conceptual performance. All the youngsters who were defying technique went to schools in order to refine their philosophic knowledge, to discuss much more than to train actually, then they discovered choreography as an organization of steps again. Máté Mészáros’s group really get into dance again, they make dance pieces. They’re all very well-trained dynamic dancers, but now they do their own choreography so they have their own voice. It’s quite interesting what comes out of that, it never feels like a copy.
Máté Mészáros Hinoki [8:tension] © Dániel Dömölky
ES: Where does “dance” end and “performance” start?
RR: When I entered this field in the early ‘90s, the discussion over identity was already there—am I a dancer or a performer? It’s settled now on “performer”, even for those who are traditionally educated dancers, they introduce themselves as performers, or they leave the stage and become choreographers. The dance profession outside of ballet has sort of been dissolved under the term “performance”. It’s true that in Asia or Russia, the goal is still to churn out educated “dancers”, but I find it a pity that there’s not so much possibility as there is craft there, craft is produced only to serve a master, and that’s just not how contemporary dance works anymore.
Choy Ka Fai SoftMachine: Yuya Tsukahara (Japan) © Choy Ka Fai
ES: How accessible is contemporary dance in general? How do you deal with the fact that many people are quite intimidated by this art form?
RR: Personally, it took me a long time to grow into this art and to actually understand the performers’ choreographic language. Learning how this language works was one of the most difficult challenges for me in this job. One of the main problems we have in contemporary dance in is that the audience feels like they don’t understand what’s going on and therefore feel like they’re missing something, that they’re ignorant. But actually, no one is ignorant or stupid when it comes to watching contemporary dance. You go to a performance, you feel a sensation, and that’s the correct sensation because it’s your reaction to a piece of art. I totally understand anyone who feels uncomfortable about what they don’t understand and I always tell them, it’s not about understanding, contemporary dance is not about traditional narrative, so it’s not unusual if you find it boring at first. But “boring” can become something in the end, it’s not like a book that will be boring for three weeks, it’s boring for an hour, but maybe in the last 15 minutes, you suddenly understand why it had to be boring all that time, because otherwise you wouldn’t have become so impatient about wanting something to happen, and then suddenly something unexpected occurs and you say, whoa, ok, I had to be slowed down for this moment.
Tanz Company Gervasi the white horn © Michel Nahabedian
I like the sense of urgency of a performance for which you might not know the artist or what the new work is going to be like and if you don’t catch it in the two days that it’s playing, you might never get another chance. There’s a certain excitement to this ephemeral nature of contemporary dance because there are so few shows usually. In contemporary dance, the performances are different every time, and in that way, they are not reproducible. You can’t hang a piece of dance in your house, it will never be an asset or a product. It’s a very fragile medium in the end.
Doris Uhlich Universal Dancer © Wolfgang Silveri
ES: The Vienna Biennale is looking at Ideas for Change, Kunsthalle Wien has an exhibition coming up called “Political Populism”. It seems that contemporary art is taking up a space of social and political criticism. In your Young Choreographers’ Series, 8:tension, you are looking for “emergency plans, transformations, new voices of disobedience and refusal”. Do you think one can change the world through art, dance, performance?
RR: It would actually be great if that could happen, but I’m still seeing this done the strongest in film, that potential of creating awareness, whether it’s documentary or feature films. When it’s a theme in the arts, it’s also very much in danger of being pathetic, because when you make a claim of being political, it just seems so forced. Dance can be incredibly apolitical. I totally understand that it’s much easier for a great writer to write something political than for a performer to try to depict something political on a theater stage and have it translated into a performance where language is not the means but rather the body. But on the other hand, the body can be a much stronger instrument for expressing something political that is not at first sight anti- or pro- some issue. There’s a reason why demonstrations are done with bodies, for instance, it’s an action you support with your presence. One of the workshops we had last year dealt with the Gaza conflict in July and brought up some complaints, but my response was that this should be a place where we can talk in an environment where there is mutual respect and where we are all equal.
Studio E / Arsenal Jonathan Burrows (UK) – Writing Dance © Karolina Miernik
I’m happy to support anything that leads to a discussion however heated it may be when I’m in this incredibly luxurious position of being in Vienna, one of the safest places in the world, at a dance festival, which seems like a somewhat high-culture event, but it also involves people who are actually in a pretty precarious state normally back home. We have so many people from so many nations and races and cultural backgrounds who actually believe in and share a passion for the same thing and forget that they have other worries in doing so. But that’s actually what makes the contemporary dance scene so special: its fragile nature and the fact that it will never make anyone rich. This is something that is very precious in the end.