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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Ah! Europa
Animated, Winter 2001. By John Ashford. Ah! Europa. It is a good title, simultaneously invoking awe and resignation, respect and irritation, hope and despair. It belongs to a stream of work at the Polverigi Festival in Italy near Ancona that has recently come of age in its 21st year. I have been present most years at this remarkable survivor of the European avant-garde, but not at the first, because I was living in Tokyo
'May I help you?' My heart sank. I was quietly trying to work out if the characters written on the sign of the railway station corresponded to the ones on my map, indicating Shinbashi. Had I counted the right number of stations from where I had changed from the Chuo line? A couple of decades ago, Tokyo was a lot less user-friendly to foreigners than it is now, and no-one spoke English. But everyone was learning a language called American English, because that was good for business, and they wanted to practice it. 'May I help you?' was the opening gambit, well articulated according to Lesson Four, Tape Two; but experience had told me that comprehension was usually a bit less advanced. My heart sank because the meaning of any reply I made would be submerged beneath insurmountable cultural differences.

I could try out my dreadful Japanese, struggling for recognition after five months in a language school, but that is not what was expected. I could answer in English, but it would not be American, and so whatever I said it would throw up the second disappointed question.

'Are you from Europe?' I had to come to the other side of the world to be asked the most important question. The first time it had come up, I answered resolutely 'No, I'm British'; but now I had learned better and responded with the dutiful 'Yes'. Ah! Europa, from a distance the boundaries of hatred are less vivid, suffused within a land of abundance, ringing with common achievements; and compared to Japanese, the languages are just dialects.

'Where from in Europe?

Great Britain? No, too imperial; UK? Hardly, what with Northern Ireland; the UK? Sounds like the other bit of the US; Britain? But I did not feel remotely Scottish or Welsh; England? But I did not play cricket or know anyone from Newcastle; the British Isles? More a place where seabirds live than people.

'London' (pronounced Ron Don to avoid confusion). So there it was. I made an early discovery of my cultural identity. I was a European Londoner. And yes, it was Shinbashi because suddenly I recognised the old steam railway engine parked in the middle of the road, a rare distinguishing feature in Tokyo's manicured sprawl.

It took a good few years to learn the lesson of that conversation in Japan. The assumption that everyone in Europe spoke English was a bit before its time, but most now recognise the necessity for a common language, and English seems to have just about won out over American. And, of course, over French, German or Italian, because it is French, German and Italian; rich, accurate, comprehensible to many because of its composite nature, and the more beautiful for that. Constant visits to Polverigi persuaded me that the neighbouring cultures of Europe needed to get to know each other better, and particularly that those British islands should be paddled closer from mid-Atlantic. Dance offered the medium of least resistance.

At The Place Theatre we started a season called The Turning World, inviting over 100 companies during a decade, most from other European countries. In exchange, Spring Collection offered a showcase of British work eager for European touring. One of the companies that recently gained a lot of work as a result was Protein, ending up at the Polverigi Festival. Co-founder and London-trained Luca Silvestrini turned out to be a local boy from just up the road in Iesi. Ah! Europa. Cheaper air connections between capitals and easier communications were shrinking the continent.

And everybody wanted to perform in London. Five years ago, experience and research finally threw up Aerowaves, a device which draws upon that vision of Europe's cultures which can only be seen from a distance. I am a European Londoner and Aerowaves has European partners in Prague, Paris, Helsinki, Berlin, Talinn, Budapest ... an A-Z of cities from Athens to Zurich, now representing a total of 28 nations stretching from Galway to the Urals, from Lapland to the Algarve. This veritable dance council of Europe recognises no political boundaries, and now welcomes observers from networks in Asia and Latin America. They are all enthusiastic specialists who, like me, initially entered the arts because that promised an enjoyable alternative to proper work. Amongst this consistent group, the youngest is 24 and the oldest 56. It is the job of Aerowaves partners to broadcast the opportunity amongst all younger dance companies in their regions, and to encourage those to apply who they believe will benefit most from showing a short work in London. A trawl of new dance activity is thus genuinely and uniquely made throughout Europe.

Each application is accompanied by a video of the work to be presented. Around 260 videos arrive from all over the continent each year. I have the rare privilege of being able to watch all of them, a satellite view of what moves people in this corner of the earth. The partners meet together over a weekend (in London, Helsinki, Gent, Luxembourg, Aarhus) to consider these applications following a pre-selection process during which they are closely consulted. The partners are experts in new dance, and have often seen the submitted pieces live in performance. Despite their cultural differences, they come to a common agreement through video example over the companies they recommend for invitation to London. The need for agreement has welded them into a group of new friends, sparking debates that would never arise through the more abstract agenda of a conference.

And in five years, radical dance has spread like wildfire across new European territory. Young companies need no information pack, marketing materials or education programme to persuade Aerowaves partners that they are in the vanguard of dance thinking and moving. Our little island is in danger of drifting out into the Atlantic again.

So this year, nine Aerowaves companies will perform once each over three weekends in January in London alongside British artists in the triple bills of the season Resolution!, many then going home with that useful tool, an English language review. These emerging artists benefit from the experience of performing their work in a new cultural context, usefully clarifying their difference. And in meeting each other and their British counterparts, they are able to exchange common experiences. Audiences respond with growing enthusiasm to these very varied pieces, each of its own high standard, and the weekend series has rapidly gained a following within the season. This year it will be at the BloomsburyTheatre since The Place is closed for building works.

Showing such work in London does help us know our neighbours better. But Aerowaves has brought other unforeseen benefits. Partners have carried news of the companies they enjoyed, and invitations to other countries have followed. Six Aerowaves companies - not necessarily those selected for London - are now regularly presented in Amsterdam by Dans Werkplaats Amsterdam during the festival Julidans, and other companies are invited to perform in Madrid, Gent, Dublin and so on. It is right that different choices are made since Aerowaves seeks to promote cultural distinction rather than some dreary European conformity.

The balance between the formal structure of Aerowaves and its potential for informal adjuncts gives the partners a genuine sense of ownership. At least 70 companies get their work known across Europe. London audiences are offered a lightning sketch of the life of the continent. The Place forms early relationships with companies previously unknown, that might later appear in its international seasons. And the scale of finance is modestly in keeping with the early achievements of the companies presented. Aerowaves is free of any direct funding, and thus is an idea that remains bright, undiminished by the drudgery of consultation, committees and reports. If it ceases to offer the pleasure of discovery, if it ever becomes a task, or if no-one is prepared to take on the responsibility of organising the annual meeting, we will stop it.

Ah! Europa. Last year, a war zone, a resigning European Commission, the threat of the same superstore in every town. Next year, a fighting force, EU enlargement to the east, and Britain poised primly on the edge of a single currency. As usual, at least the arts are ahead of the game.

John Ashford CBE, director of the Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place, London.
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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001