Rick Takvorian: “schrit_tmacher is a dance festival that gets people’s hearts pumping”

Of course, in a way, every international festival can be said to be crossing borders. But the schrit_tmacher festival really puts its money where its mouth is. This five week long international dance festival not only includes performances from Israel and Canada to Great Britain and France, but also takes place in four cities in three different countries. schrit_tmacher really goes beyond borders.

The same is true for the festival director and founder, Rick Takvorian. Takvorian was born in the United States and lived in Paris, Cologne, and London – writing and editing for Ballet International – before finally settling in Aachen in 1990.

The reason for settling there, Takvorian explains over the phone, was to help set up the Ludwig Forum for International Art. ‘At the time it was an experimental new arts center where all the different art forms were supposed to come together under one roof. I was the guy responsible for the performing arts, although I do consider myself a “border runner.” I have my specialties – dance being one of them – but I’m interested in many different disciplines.’

Likewise, having lived abroad in different cities and countries, Takvorian can offer a unique insight into the ways culture is thriving – or not. ‘The thing I have noticed in the Netherlands is that, from one election to the next, things can change really quickly. In your country, things have gotten a bit more conservative election wise, which has clear financial consequences for the cultural section. On the other hand, you have various ways of applying for money, within the Fonds Podiumkunsten, within the region, within the municipality. On the German side, funding is less dependent on who is in power. Besides the Ministry there are lots of ways to apply for money. It’s not easy, obviously; there could always be more money for the arts then there is, but a good number of people find ways to get their projects funded.’

Also, it could be worse. ‘In the United States, the country where I was born, there is no such thing as a Ministry of Culture. Everything has to be sponsored and crowdfunded. Working as an artist in the United Kingdom is almost just as difficult. You can’t just be an artist, you have to be a businessman as well.’

Currently Takvorian holds the position of ‘cultural manager’ in Aachen, where he and his team are responsible for much of the cultural programming in and around the city. Aachen has quite a rich performing arts tradition, says Takvorian. ‘Aachen has what many German cities have: there’s a Stadtheater, with its own theatre company. But Aachen also has a very rich “Freie Szene”, an independent scene. There are independent theatre companies and lots of very good clubs, musicians and musical groups.’ One discipline was clearly lacking: dance. ‘There was hardly any dance. For dance, people would go to Dusseldorf or Cologne.’

That is how the idea for the schrit_tmacher Festival initially started. ‘We were already doing some small-scale dance series. Then, in 1993, the idea for a festival came up. We wanted to try something new, try to build an audience for dance.’ Being positioned on the borders with Belgium and the Netherlands made dance an ideal choice. ‘If you want to shoot for three sides of the border, it’s good if your festival doesn’t depend on language.’

The title is a play on words. ‘My wife came up with the name. “Schritte” means “steps”, or “taking steps” in German, which is what dancers do. But “Schrittmacher” is also a German word for “pacemaker”. So schrit_tmacher is a dance festival that gets people’s hearts pumping.’

The first edition was, to put it mildly, not a tremendous success. ‘We started really small. One often heard sentiment was: “This kind of thing belongs in the big cities.” Audiences were small. We were lucky if there were 50 to 60 people attending at a time. But the people who did turn up were very loyal. Most of them came to see every single performance. It was almost like a small family.’ Slowly but surely, the audience started to grow. ‘Now we have about 20,000 visitors each year.’

schrit_tmacher also started expanding across the border. First to Heerlen in 2009. ‘Bas Schoonderwoerd, the director of Parkstad Limburg Theaters, and I have a good and longstanding working relationship. Before this collaboration we had already done one other dance project together, with a dance group from Taiwan. Then, some twelve years ago, when Bas was showing me around their beautiful theatre, I exclaimed: “I wish I had a place like this to showcase my festival!” His immediate response was: “Well then, let’s do it!”

Expanding across the border with schrit_tmacher came with its own set of challenges. ‘There are differences in ticketing systems, differences in budgets.’ Getting audiences to voluntarily move back and forth across the border proved challenging as well. ‘We already had people coming from across the Dutch and Belgian borders to Aachen, but getting the German audience to move over to Heerlen was difficult, even though it is only a fifteen-minute drive away. People tend to stay inside their comfort zones.’ After more than ten years, audiences are moving back and forth with no trouble at all. ‘They’re really enjoying the fact that within one festival they get to visit three to four different cities.’ It was also the best thing that could have happened to the festival. ‘All these different locations are very complimentary to each other.’

For the past three years the has festival also hosted performances in Eupen, just across the Belgian border. ‘They have a smaller stage, so there are only certain things you can show there. But they do have a particular expertise: a great interest in circus and physical theatre.’ Even more recently, the festival added a 600-seat theatre in Kerkrade – part of Parkstad Limburg Theaters – as a venue.

This way the festival touches on one of the greatest things about living near the border, or in ‘Grenseland’, says Takvorian. ‘To have all these different cultures, climates, foods and languages a mere ten minutes away. It’s like having a small sample of Europe at your fingertips.’

This amalgamation of different nationalities is reflected in the audience as well. ‘Maybe forty percent is German, forty percent Dutch and the rest is from Belgium, France and other countries.’ In the beginning there were small differences between nationalities. ‘The Dutch audiences were a bit more reserved, German audiences are really passionate. But now I think we can really call it a schrit_tmacher audience.’

The schrit_tmacher programming team has a few internal guidelines when programming for the festival ‘First of all, we look for high quality international dance. This year we have quite a few interesting works from Israel (festival opener Vertigo Dance Company and Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company) and Canada (Crystal Pite/Kidd Pivot, Compagnie Marie Chouinard). But another thing we look for is connections between dance and other art forms. Dance is one of those art forms that can bring different disciplines together. Which brings me to variety. The festival runs for five weeks, and many people see everything. We want schrit_tmacher to be like a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, offering something different every time. Different styles, different approaches, different vocabulary, and from different countries. Last but not least, I like for the festival to have a personal touch. I think contact is really important; between the artists, audiences, and us. Before every performance I will go onstage to give an introduction. There are plenty of discussions afterwards, and workshops.’

The fact that this year schrit_tmacher commemorates its 25th edition won’t go unnoticed. ‘I thought it would be a fitting idea to invite several companies back that have been real crowd pleasers in previous years. As a gift back to the audience, for their enduring loyalty. We have lots of big productions, so it is really sort of a blockbuster program.’

One of these fan favourites is Company Wayne McGregor, who will be performing two separate shows (FAR and Autobiography). There will also be an interactive installation McGregor made together with rAndom International (Future Self) and a workshop. ‘What I really like about him is that his work embodies a lot of what we ourselves try to do with our festival. He is a super intelligent choreographer, who makes his dancers do things hardly any dancer can do. But he also incorporates his interests in technology and science in his work.’

Other highlights include an extensive program with and for young dancers and dance makers (GENERATION2) and a special co-production with Scapino Ballet. Their premiere of The Square in Aachen will signal the end of the festival. ‘This will be the first time Scapino Ballet has a premiere outside the Netherlands.’

Does Takvorian have any ideas for further expansion of the festival? He laughs. ‘I think we’ve grown as far as we can! We are trying to expand in terms of production; to produce more shows ourselves. And we are also trying to take a step back, to try, along with the main programme, to also show some smaller scale works – solos, duets, experiments. To showcase the sort of things we used to do, back when we first started.’

From 3 March – 5 April in Aachen, Eupen, Heerlen, and Kerkrade. Program: Schrittmacherfestival