Studies show that people who swear more, stay up late, and have messy desks are more likely to be highly intelligent. This is good news for Virve Sutinen. The Tanz im August festival curator is so down to earth that within a few minutes of chatting, we are both cursing like sailors. It’s easy to forget that Virve Sutinen is not your old friend but, as curator of Tanz im August, one of the most influential curators of contemporary dance and performance in Europe.
The 12-odd hours I spent following Virve begins before her Meet the Curator talk. She is sitting in the back of the library, reading a tome about Hieronymous Bosch that weighs about 10 pounds. The Bibliothek im August is Virve’s brainchild – it looks like a few sparsely-shelved unstained pine bookcases, but represents a heterotopic order, an attempt to “find another order than the hierarchy of order we are used to.” The collection ranges from Bosch to Ta-Nehisi Coates to string theory. The collection will grow with the suggestions of the invited artists over the coming years – Sutinen’s curatorship has been extended for another three years. Decentering authority by assembling a mixed-up library feels like a radical, promissory act; the space, cozy with terrariums and beanbags, like the kind of “temporary autonomous zone of hope” that Sutinen described at the opening performance. This kind of gentle, Finnish utopianism is contagious, and Berlin needs it badly.
It’s 4:02 and there are about three people in the audience. Tanz im August is trying out a new audience format – and maybe this “On the Sofa” chat is just a bust. But lo and behold – people trickle in. Virve seems just as excited to see a group of young choreographers here as part of a fellowship program as she is to see Dublin-based choreographer John Scott. Down to earth, like I said. On the sofa, Virve sparkles. Certain questions are pretty standard fare – how do you know when you watch something that you are interested in? Intuition and experience. Sorry, young artists looking for a peek into the mind of a curator, hoping to get discovered. “I would like to have a T-Shirt that says, CALL ME WHEN YOU’VE EMERGED” jokes Sutinen with refreshing candor.
Certain responses, you could guess from the program – there’s no theme because she has an “absolute fear of totalizing gestures.” That the interest in inclusive and diverse audience formats comes from an interest in expanding dance audiences beyond the (white and older) five percent of Berliners who currently come to see free scene dance. “How can we help the audience trust their own responses?” feels like standard rhetoric, but as I shadow Sutinen, I watch her and the team Tetris her schedule so that she can attend every last talk-back or artist talk of the weekend.
On other points, Virve is surprisingly open and strong-minded: that the lack of Asian and African artists was a mid-year switch-up based on current political turmoil: “I got frustrated with importing Asian artists so we can look at Others. Yes, we are very aware viewers here in Berlin but at the moment, I can’t do it. I don’t want to say that we are inclusive or that inviting non-Western artists means that we really value diversity. We are so full of shit in the West. We mean well but then we fuck up everything.”
The impetus behind the Meet the Curator event was to level the playing field – since there were Meet the Artists events, Virve thought it would be only fair to hold her own office hours, where audience members could ask her questions directly. The Saturday midday mistiming aside, it works. Pieces which had left me jarred came into focus. The eclecticism of the festival began to seem like more and more of a carefully controlled, polyphonic score. “I hope people understand that I am not programming my taste,” Sutinen explains. “My taste is really weird. If I programmed my taste we would have like six people.”
Virve splits her time between Berlin and Helskini. After three years, Berlin is starting to feel like home. Her husband is here from Helsinki this weekend, and I ask her about how she manages her travel and international life with having a personal or family life. She’s hinted at these kind of basic, feminist issues throughout the day. “I don’t think this would be possible with kids,” she says. She sounds very tired when she explains how difficult it is to balance working at this level with her own personal life. It feels appropriate to talk about self-care over an early supper of fish and risotto. In a cultural sector where overwork and self-sacrifice remain uncriticized, that the Tanz im August team eats regular meals becomes a powerful act.
Because Sutinen’s managerial style is so open and giving (I feel empowered, even vicariously), when Virve slips into curator-mode, it’s a bit of a shift. Sadler’s Wells is here, she notes with an arched eyebrow. And Theatre de la Ville. “So that’s Paris, London, Brussels…” she starts counting the dance capitals which have sent representatives to check out her work in Berlin. Tanz im August is growing fast. It hits me: Virve is playing in the big leagues. I hope I haven’t said anything embarrassing.
Virve wants to be the kind of curator who puts the artists front and center, so you can tell that spending a month in the limelight is taking a toll. From WAU, she heads across town to introduce the Meeting of the Minds at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, then takes off back to WAU – tonight, she’ll DJ. Her allergy to homogeneity and the passionate weirdness of her own taste is on full display. “The best work of the Clash is when Joe Strummer lost his teeth and was singing like” – here you will simply have to imagine Virve doing an accurate 2 AM impression of Joe Strummer with no teeth singing Police and Thieves. “Stop me, by the way, if I go on playing Manchester punk for too long,” she asks a production assistant. The way she asks favors of assistants feels easy and generous. But the PAs don’t turn off the Manchester punk, and the dance floor stays full all night.