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EUTOPIA - are you ready for it? Josephine Burton launches a new cultural programme

Photo: Josephine Burton leads a Dash Café at Rich Mix.

Josephine Burton co-founded Dash Arts in 2005 with fellow artistic director Tim Supple. Dash Arts is a unique international creative force, producing new theatre, dance, music and art events in collaboration with exceptional artists, challenging the way we see the world. Last year saw the completion of a five-year programme of work focused on the Post-Soviet States, culminating in REVOLUTION17 – a vibrant programme that offered new perspectives and performances around the UK, in the centenary of the Russian Revolution. From sold-out gigs to free monthly Cafés, Dash Arts' intensive research and development lead to original ways to shed light on cultures. This year, Dash Arts is turning its attention to Europe, with a timely new programme – EUTOPIA – exploring what it means to be European.

Nichole Lim: Dash Arts seasons have successfully taken a deep dive into a number of different regions in the world. How do you find your way in to understanding faraway cultures and encouraging artists from diverse backgrounds to engage in Dash Arts’ unique international collaborations?
Josephine Burton:
Well… there’s no set formula for our research. There’s always a door – generally Tim and I find a way for a short initial trip to a region or a country. We then ask as many questions as possible, meet as many artists, see as much work as we can pack in to the visit so that we return with lots of leads of more people to meet, work to watch / hear / read and many, many more doors to open.

I have found that it helps to be endlessly curious and listen hard. Often projects have emerged from someone’s throwaway after-thought at the end of a cup of tea. I spent quite a few years of this decade working on a project in the Post Soviet States with classically trained musicians who’d abandoned their vocation in the fallout of the collapse of the Soviet Union in favour of other musical worlds such as jazz, folk, electronic and contemporary classical. I had been considering an entirely different new music production in another music genre but after a few fascinating and surprising conversations with musicians, academics and journalists across Moscow and St Petersburg, changed track entirely.

We often find a few individuals in a city who can be our local mavens – introducing us to artists, creatives, producers and thinkers in a city. These introductions later lead to workshops, rehearsals, producing and funding partners and eventually new productions. It takes years.

And along the way, we find ways to programme many of the artists and ideas that we encounter into our Dash Cafés, Dash Gigs, our Dash House (an installation which during the previous Season was a Dacha and in EUTOPIA a Euro-Squat) so that we can share our discoveries, research and questions publically with our audiences in London.

Nichole: In the years since founding Dash Arts, what is your impression of how London audiences’ reception of international work has evolved?
There have definitely always been audiences for our work and for international work in London. However, what has changed of course is how even more international London has become over the last 25 years. Our audiences come originally from all corners of the world – and are generally far more knowledgeable than we are about the work or ideas that we present at our Cafés. We actively solicit ideas for our future Dash Cafés from our audiences and learn from them during events and at the bar afterwards. There was one memorable dash café a few years back on the Soviet singer and performer Vladimir Vysotsky. I asked at the event if anyone had seen him perform live and was flooded with stories of seeing him in Moscow, in Belgrade, in Kiev. At another Café, discussing the August Putsch on Gorbachev in 1991, an audience member piped up that he had received the call for the Lithuanian President telling him that Gorbachev was under house arrest and personally had had to pass on the news.

It’s such a privilege to hear and share these stories.

Nichole: Looking back on the Post Soviet Series, which concluded at the end of 2017, can you tell us a bit about projects that might have led to unexpected twists in your previous perception of the Post Soviet States’ culture?
I try not to have too many preconceptions. BUT five years in the post soviet world showed me how little I knew and taught me a great deal.

Personal stories of transition from communism, perestroika through to today’s ‘democratic’ landscapes were endlessly fascinating and inspiring. I met the jazz trumpeter Slava Guyvronsky still living and working in Pushkinskaya in St Petersburg, a squat founded in 1989 for independent artists and musicians as the Soviet Union collapsed. Despite today’s thriving music scene, he surprised me by telling me that life had been far more free creatively for him and his artistic colleagues under Soviet Times. I met a young woman in Kyiv who as we crossed the street by the Maidan pointed out where just behind the permanent merry-go-round, only weeks before she had crushed the wires out of the back of old TV sets to make Molotov cocktails. In the conservatoire in Tashkent, I met unbelievably talented musicians actively building and learning how to play the old Uzbekh mugam instruments that had been altered by the Soviets in the early part of the 20th century so that they could conform to western classical scales. Their efforts were continuously impeded by the gradual disappearance of their colleagues to Moscow or even further afield to Europe and the States on music scholarships and better paid orchestra positions. In Azerbaijan, I was interested by how superficially the country seemed to have removed every trace of their seventy-year sojourn in the Soviet Union and how in Kazakhstan, its legacy is still so palpably present in the written language and the culture.
Our Cafés and the Dacha helped us to unpack some of the stereotypes and go deeper publically by giving voice to differing opinions and unexpected artists.

Nichole: How much did the current political climate in the region influence your programming for the Post Soviet Series? Any examples?
Crucially, when we began our last season in 2012 which culminated in REVOLUTION17, none of us remotely imagined that we’d still be in that region in 2017. There was no Five Year Plan. We set out to research, create and produce work with artists from the region that would explore how it was to live under soviet times and today in its shadows. In the first few years, we were often asked why more than twenty years on from the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were interested in looking back. The Soviet Union and its legacy was felt by many to be irrelevant. After Putin was elected for his third term, and significantly Russia annexed Crimea, those questions were no longer asked. The past was so clearly relevant.

The political climate certainly challenged us. Pretty much overnight in 2014, there was less money available in sponsorship and from potential individual supporters, international co-producing partners backed away as the situation became more controversial and tensions between countries in the region had a knock-on effect on our ability to bring together international artists particularly if we wanted to gather in Russia.

That said, the work and the questions around the work became more interesting and important and our audiences increased. I programmed more work from Ukraine over the years as we felt a desire from the progressively more active Ukrainian community in London to see and engage more. In March 2014, I talked WOMAD at the very last minute into programming the excellent Ukrainian folk band Dakhabrakha. We presented the unknown band in London on their way to WOMAD to an enthusiastic audience of 120 at Rich Mix, which we’d worked very hard to muster. When we brought them back in 2016, we sold out the same 500 capacity venue and at the end of last year we packed 1000 people into a sold-out Oval Space. The political situation and increased visibility of Ukraine definitely enhanced our audience’s interest.
Nichole: Dash Arts’ new programme EUTOPIA is meant to explore issues of European identity and how the UK came to the point of leaving. With the UK public still divided over the issue of Brexit, how does Dash Arts aim to use an artistic and cultural programme to bring both sides into dialogue?  
That’s a tremendous and daunting aspiration!

We’re artists and want to make excellent work that we hope will challenge our audiences.

The combination of the UK’s EU Referendum result and our conversations with artists, academics and journalists about potential Russian / Post Soviet influences in Central and Eastern Europe have caused Tim and I to reflect on what it means to be European. We want to ask and with our artistic colleagues try to answer that question widely over the next few years. We hope that by investigating this question through a variety of different means; through our regular monthly conversations at Cafes, through new music and theatre productions, a Euro-Squat, Gigs and Events. I hope that we’ll complicate and obfuscate the subject matter rather than come up with some simple answers. But certainly there’ll be lots of dialogue and I hope that we’ll bring all sides into the conversation.

Nichole: In comparison with Dash Arts’ previous programmes, which have generally focused on regions further from home, London’s relationship with the neighbouring continent is closer. Do you expect this will make it easier to engage audiences for EUTOPIA, or will it be more challenging to address preconceptions?  
We obviously hope that we’ll have large audiences for all of our work in EUTOPIA. Certainly if our first completely packed café on Lviv last month is anything to go by, we seem to be surfing some sort of zeitgeist.

Get involved with EUTOPIA by joining Dash Arts’ upcoming free Dash Cafés. RSVP for the next Café on Warsaw, 28 February at 7.30pm at Rich Mix. Visit the website to join the mailing list to keep updated on future events, and follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This interview was edited by Dash Arts Programme Assistant Nichole Lim.