From a dynamic arts centre into a museum?

Door Esther Severi, op Tue May 28 2019 22:00:00 GMT+0000

This weekend, choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker wrote in De Standaard ongoing discussions are taking place between Rosas and Kaaitheater concerning a future cooperation. Not long ago, the staff of Kaaitheater were informed about the shared ambition of Rosas and the board of Kaaitheater to merge into one large art institution, with the support of certain political factions. Such a plan defies all logic, Kaaitheater dramaturge Esther Severi argues in an open letter to Marianne Van Kerkhoven, her predecessor. ‘Will this not transform Kaaitheater from a dynamic arts centre into a museum?’

Lees hier de Nederlandse versie

Dear Marianne,

Over the past few years, I have often heard people say how much they miss you, since your sudden and unexpected passing in 2013. Not only as the (Kaaitheater) dramaturge, but also as a fixture in the performing arts scene, with your many years of experience, your incisive analyses, your expertise, your patience to listen and then to articulate razor-sharp responses. We at Kaaitheater also miss you deeply. Especially now, when our institution is being shaken to its core. We miss you and we often wonder: what would Marianne say, what would she do?

Over the past several months, ongoing discussions have taken place about establishing a structural cooperation between Kaaitheater and the Rosas dance company, in order through this cooperation or through a form of merger to be recognized by the Flemish Community as a Arts Institution (in addition to deSingel, AB, Vooruit, Concertgebouw Brugge, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra…). Rosas took the initiative for this cooperation. The Kaaitheater Executive Board responded positively and a number of meetings have already taken place. Several politicians have also been contacted and they support the plan. Initially, only a small number of Kaaitheater staff members were informed, but everyone who works at the theatre is now aware of these developments.

Why would we, as an arts centre, align ourselves with one artist in this way? Would that not fundamentally change the DNA of our theatre?

This unexpected change came as a terrible blow. Until today, the staff are greatly dismayed. Especially because after the announcement of the departure of managing director Guy Gypens, some of the staff had initiated a series of discussions with the theatre’s managers to conduct an analysis of the current organization. They had explicitly articulated a desire for a transition to a more ‘natural’ organizational structure based on decentralization and inclusion – a desire which has become increasingly prevalent across the arts sector, but about which staff and management bodies often disagree (see Besturen met een blinde vlek by Delphine Hesters). Irrespective of what such a desired structural change might look like at Kaaitheater, it appears that the possible merger between Kaaitheater and Rosas has unilaterally blocked very other avenue.

Is a cooperation with Rosas the direction that the management still seeks to pursue as a future scenario for Kaaitheater? What would this imply for the artistic identity of the centre? Answers to these questions from the management remain vague, and the different parties circulate contradictory messages.

For the Kaaitheater team, the central question continues to be why we, as an arts centre, would align ourselves with one artist in this way? Would that not fundamentally change the DNA of our theatre? The Kaai has always been a place where identity is constantly shaped and reshaped by a range of artists who inhabit the house (temporarily). The idea that one artist would occupy a house or assume the most prominent role, both spatially and on paper, can perhaps be justified in structures like municipal theatres, but within an arts centre like ours it defies all logic.

We already have insufficient capacity to meet the great demand from artists to perform at Kaaitheater.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is concerned about her legacy and wants to be more firmly anchored in Brussels, as she said in the interview in De Standaard this weekend. The (inter)national prestige that Rosas enjoys is perceived by managers and politicians as an ideal opening definitively to promote Kaaitheater as a Flemish arts institution. How this cooperation would be implemented concretely remains vague, however. One possible scenario is that the production of new work and repertoire would remain under Rosas’ control, while its presentation would become the sole responsibility of Kaaitheater.

Obviously, nobody disputes the exceptional artistic quality of the work that Rosas creates, or the value of the legacy of an artistic career like that of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Rosas and PARTS were recently allocated several million euro by the government to expand their structure with additional storage space, among other things. According to the company, in the future this should include one permanent performance space in Brussels. But is it the task of a centre like Kaaitheater to provide an answer to questions around artistic consolidation and the preservation of one oeuvre? Will this not transform Kaaitheater from a dynamic arts centre into a museum?

Dear Marianne, if this were to become the new reality, what about the dozens of other choreographers, theatremakers, performance artists and visual artists whose work Kaaitheater presents to our audiences every season? What about the many creators who receive coproduction support as regular partners? How does one create a diverse and contemporary programme if a considerable portion of your presentation role is predetermined by one company? We already have insufficient capacity to meet the great demand from artists to perform at Kaaitheater. What will happen to the little space we still retain on our main stage as a platform for young work in various disciplines?

The big players are getting bigger and solidarity with smaller organizations is becoming ever rarer.

The predominant concern in this process – and it is one that you hear from many voices in the field at the moment – is acquiring the status of a Flemish arts institution. Due to the growing fear of recent political developments and increasingly neoliberal tendencies in public policy putting cultural budgets under pressure, major arts centres want as quickly as possible to become big, bigger, biggest; to be essentially untouchable. Indeed, acquiring the arts institution label leads to higher and more secure budgets and a status that exempts these arts centres from the five-yearly evaluation on which all other arts organizations depend for their continued existence.

It is no coincidence that the three Flemish municipal theatres claimed recognition as arts institutions. Opinion on these developments is deeply divided, and competition is becoming increasingly prevalent (see De stadstheaters willen erkend worden als Vlaamse kunstinstelling, and Tom Bonte, Stadstheaters kiezen voor afzondering). The fear that politics will restrict our field over the coming years, as happened in the Netherlands in 2011, is leading us to create our own ‘Dutch’ scenario: the big players are getting bigger and solidarity with smaller organizations is becoming ever rarer.

The same is true at Kaaitheater: Instead of a conducting an urgently needed debate about transition so that from our position of power and know-how we can use our infrastructure to offer a forum to other voices and indispensable smaller partners, we are now prioritizing the idea of cooperating with an (all-)powerful player in the field. A match made in heaven, conceived for the sake of consolidation and territorial expansion: two established, white structures will together form a mega institution – a structure that may also integrate PARTS and workspacebrussels, we’re told.

This imminent development will not only affect Kaaitheater.

Instead of collaborating more intensively with younger organizations from which we can learn, which have expertise that can make us as a theatre ethically and socially closer to the social reality of a city like Brussels, an alliance is being forged that will only lead us further away from that reality. What is the added value of such a cooperation? And how on earth can it be justified to the wider field? Indeed, this imminent development will not only affect Kaaitheater. If the Flemish performing arts have anything to thank for their considerable international renown, then it is the flexible exchange between many small and medium-sized players, and the lack of a central superstructure.

The work of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is an integral part of the genesis of Kaaitheater, it is argued. That is of course true, but to use that genesis to legitimize a cooperation goes against what this house, in its various forms, has always attempted to be. Indeed, Kaaitheater has undergone significant change over the years. Starting as a festival, it became a permanent structure, we moved from the Kaaistudios to the main stage, the emphasis shifted from being a production structure to presentation. Nevertheless, despite its ups and downs, the Kaai endeavoured to remain faithful to its core business, to the balance between theatre, dance and performance that constitutes its DNA, to its interesting middle position in the field, and to the many artists whose diversity contributes to defining the core of the organization.

You raised pertinent questions about many of these changes, Marianne. You constantly questioned how a theatre like ours could continuously move with the times, reflect, experiment. How to build a bridge between discourse and practice. How to be a relevant interlocutor in a dynamic field, constantly in flux, constantly searching. A fundamental change of direction has now been announced. How would you react, Marianne? What would you say, what would you do?

The Kaaitheater recently commissioned me to conduct research into your life and work. In these bewildering days, I often think about you and about moments in your career that people tell me about or about which I read. In the early 1970s, you inveighed against the socio-political abuses in Belgium, and against the political elite, you chose the side of the labourers. You resigned from the KNS and founded a political theatre group. You dedicated approximately ten years of your life to the ‘red struggle’, embedded in the Marxist combat culture in Antwerp and Brussels. In the early 1980s, you sided with young artists who were paving the way for a radical transformation of the artistic language of dance and theatre and organizing themselves against a patriarchal and hierarchically structured field. You were an important part of Kaaitheater early on and you helped many artists – who are now big names – to develop their work, often in precarious circumstances.

How can we respond to the pertinent questions of our present moment while respecting our history?

Over the years, you constantly sought connections between the artistic field and broader society. You meticulously analysed and described the ways in which art and society are inextricably linked. Your wise words about the performing arts contributed to shaping that field in fundamental ways. And your words continue to resonate today. Besides the importance that you invested in developing a sustainable artistic oeuvre, you took young artists seriously and you gave them a place and a voice in the discourse. Your militancy, your curiosity and your ethical convictions were the driving forces of your life.

This and so many other moments in your career inspire us to learn very different lessons from history and to shape the future based on those insights. How can we respond to the pertinent questions of our present moment while respecting our history? How can we seek to establish an interaction between different generations of artists and diverse disciplines? How do we engage the artists’ community to integrate artistic practices more fully into the organization of our theatre? Do we dare to identify frictions where they occur, and to focus more on inclusion, participation, and a more realistic representation of the city and the world in which we live and work?

In 1994 you wrote: ‘… a production lives by its interaction, by its audience, by what happens outside its own frameworks. And the production is encompassed by the theatre, and the theatre is encompassed by the city, and beyond the city, as far as the eye can see is encompassed by the whole outside world and even the sky and its stars. The walls that connect these spheres are made of skin, they have pores, they breathe. That is sometimes forgotten.’ Can we continue to quote and to read and reread these well-known lines of yours, Marianne, until their content moves us and impels us to action?

There is a great desire for an alternative.

This letter is addressed to you, Marianne, but also to anybody who is involved in these developments. I write in my own name, but the letter conveys the concerns of many different people in and around Kaaitheater. There is a great desire for an alternative. That is why I hope our search may be inspired by your incisive perspective and your critical reflections that went against the grain, to take brave decisions and to fight for a different future for Kaaitheater.

With great affection,


Read the reaction of the board of Kaaitheater here

Read the reaction of Rosas and P.A.R.T.S here

Read the call of 275 artists and cultural workers here