Interview with Improdancefest

Improdancefest, which held its first festival online in 2021, a year in which we distanced ourselves from each other and all the spaces where we could exist together, spread all over Istanbul in its second year with the explosion of the accumulated longing for togetherness and energy. In 2022, the festival was organized in person for the first time and took place in various art venues, galleries, museums and public spaces. In addition to the diversity of venues, Improdancefest continued its events and festivals in the company of artists, students, enthusiasts, communities and participants from Turkey and around the world. We talked to festival director Damla Durman and project coordinator Esma Akın to learn about the previous years of Improdancefest, Turkey's first and only improvisational dance festival, to get to know its inner workings, and to find out what awaits us in 2023.

Maya: To start our conversation from the very foundation of the festival, could you tell us a little bit about the concept of improvisation?

Esma: I would like to answer this question with a quote from Pina Bausch. Improvisation is related to the psychological and emotional tensions, instincts and passions experienced within the individual, the representation and symbolization of real objects, movements and events through the body. In this context, improvisation is also perceived as working on a form without any preliminary preparation and creating artistic expression based on it. Where the eye is tired, the ability to perceive has also begun to falter. The re-presentation of the modern conception of the subject through dance and improvisation is also a kind of "action". Looking at a phenomenon, object and situation out of the ordinary brings with it a new interpretation and critical perspective. In this respect, improvisational dance can also criticize a social situation; it can also emerge as an act of concretizing an abstract situation that can hardly be expressed in words through body language and dance.

Damla: Improvisational surprise is a playground that includes being present in the moment, the encounter of conscious or unconscious states, a playground that reveals a great creativity from a state of being in control of your body, your instrument and open to discovering every tone, note and dynamic. The dialog of improvisation with different disciplines means that this field is always open to exploration. When I talked to artists practicing improvisational dance, they shared that they felt extremely connected to their bodies, the world, present, aware, powerful, full and free. The dialog of improvisation with different disciplines means that this field is always open to exploration.

Maya: So, if we proceed in the context of this definition, why the "Improvisational Dance" festival? What is the importance of improvisation for this festival?

Esma Akın, Photo: Ömer Yüksekeker

 Esma: Improvisation is a technique that has been used internationally since the 1970s and has a wide spectrum from conservatories to therapists and physiotherapists. The importance of improvisation within the scope of the festival is that it breaks free from all prejudices and rules and opens up a space for us to meet and create. As long as we are on the road with the motto of dance everywhere and movement everywhere, it allows us to offer a festival structure that we can create in public spaces as well as classical stage rules.

Damla Durman, Photo: Alahattin Kanlıoğlu

Damla: The starting point of the festival is for everyone to move in a level field with an unprejudiced approach to dance and to open improvisation to research in the field of dance. Improvisational dance brings us together in a more liberating space, allowing us to explore space, time and different dynamics with our body and our existence. Improvisational dance, which liberates the mind and body and keeps them in the moment, creates space for people from different backgrounds to move together. Through performances where dancers and musicians improvise together, site-specific research, compositions created in the moment, and open dance circles, we expand the exploration of improvisational practice and introduce it to people. In addition to improvisational dance, our program includes performances and workshops from contemporary and other dance genres. As we become more aware of the needs of the dance field in Turkey over time, we need to disseminate structured, choreographic works as well as spontaneously explored forms.

Photo: Ömer Yüksekeker

Maya: This festival, which is organized in a field such as dance, which is very much based on the body, movement and togetherness, emerged online in 2021, during the pandemic. Can you tell us about how the festival emerged in this process?

Esma: As the founding team of the festival, we studied performing arts together during our university years. We went from stumbling to walking together. As a team accustomed to touching, hugging and creating each other every day, the pandemic affected our colleagues and students from our sector the most. While the restriction of our movement and meeting spaces was dragging us all towards an inner depression, we decided to return to the dance field with an online festival just in time. It felt good for all of us to meet even through screens, to touch even from afar and to dance together. We realized again that the healing and transformative power of dance is a good thing!

Damla: As a team accustomed to reading, exploring and producing together, we had to do something during the pandemic. There were dancers and projects we followed, but we could not travel or attend other festivals due to economic and other reasons. Since we could not go to the festivals and trainings we wanted, we took action with the idea that we could create our own network here and establish a platform where we could meet the artists we need and want to work with without being subject to any limits. We started to shape our platform design around the difficulties faced by dance art and artists in our country, the lack of continuity of a space to be represented and the awareness of similar needs.

Maya: After running online for the first year, in 2022 you moved the festival to a face-to-face format in many different venues. How did you observe changes in your outputs when you switched to a face-to-face format?

Esma: Being face-to-face with online is of course very different. We brought our participants, whom we met face to face for the first time after the pandemic, together with a full 10-day festival program that they could not breathe! There was an energy and longing accumulated in all of us. We were both excited and emotional to meet again in the studios and on the stage. We missed being together! Not without the dust of the stage...

Damla: Meeting and dancing together in the studios a year later with the dance artists we met on the screens in the first year of the festival had a very positive effect on our motivation. During the 10 days of events that took place in different cultural and artistic institutions and studios, organizations and audiences who are currently producing and ready to watch and meet these productions The formation of the platform and the progress of our collaborations are related to the concrete realization of the festival. Here, too, there is the magic of dancing in the same environment, face to face, in contact, feeling each other. Young talented dancers continuing their education in our program, academics and artists who have produced work together years ago meeting in the festival environment has enabled the sharing of different knowledge and artistic practices between generations.

Photo: Ömer Yüksekeker

Maya: When designing the festival, what kind of contribution did you envision to the dance culture in Turkey, specifically in Istanbul? What kind of outputs did you want to see?

Esma: Since the age of 4, I have been dancing. I had the chance to participate in various competitions and programs. I grew up hearing that dancers in Turkey were technically behind. This did not change much during my university years.One of my biggest dreams was to see dancers from our country competing on international platforms, and for foreign trainers to come to our country and have the opportunity to work with local dancers. Unfortunately, due to certain attitudes in Turkey, dance hardly finds the value and audience it deserves. It is in motion within a certain circle. For this reason, we want to be able to create an audience not only in Istanbul but also in Turkey, and to bring new theoretical and technical developments to professionals and amateurs in our country. We want to preserve and expand the legacy of our colleagues who have made significant efforts for dance in our country. The importance of dance, which has been recognized as a sport with the Tokyo Olympics, has gained a different momentum in recent years. We have dancers from our National Team athletes returning with very important achievements. This makes us very excited and happy.

Damla: We started this journey by dreaming of representing dancers from Turkey in dance schools and different art networks around the world. We aim to create an environment where dance scholarships, international co-creations and academic and critical thinking in the field of dance can flourish.Our festival received a label from the European Festivals Association. We are taking meetings with different dance networks to improve our organization and development for possible collaborations. I was selected for this year's "Global Connectors 2023" program of the IETM network. We aim to continue the visibility of our platform step by step by establishing new collaborations with the networks we are involved in.

Maya: What kind of a structure does the festival team have? How do you manage the festival process within the team?

Esma: We are a young, dynamic and vibrant team! We are opening a collective space where we let everyone create, free from all our prejudices and egos. This network is getting bigger and bigger, now with our international network, we continue to produce together with many dancers, academics and artists in the team.

Damla: The festival team consists of young teammates who have produced different projects with each other or who have studied together, and who show very valuable work in their own fields. The festival includes collaborations with associations, foundations, universities and art institutions. If we think of this structure as a dough, it has a growing and cooking structure in which everyone can freely contribute to the salt and yeast.

Maya: Being an international festival, Improdancefest has a very wide audience. Who are the current participants of the festival? Which bands and who would you like to see added to this audience in the future?

Esma: Students studying at conservatories in Istanbul and Ankara, academics, dancers studying at different dance schools, internationally recognized researchers working on improvisation are among our audience who are also locally interested in dance. When we expand to the public sphere, we have a very wide spectrum of audiences, including our aunts who watch with curiosity and excitement. In the near future, we would like to host well-known dance teams, more researchers, academicians and professors working on dance and improvisation in our country and bring them together with our students and dancers.

Damla: We are in contact with the European Dance Network and other similar networks. We aim to include art writers, choreographers, academics and curators from different countries among the festival followers. Since the past years, we have been addressing a wide audience of participants who work specifically in the field of dance and want to include dance in their lives.

Photo: Ömer Yüksekeker

Maya: In previous years, you have collaborated with artists from abroad and organized various workshops and performances. How does bringing together international and local artists affect the dance scene in Turkey? Is it possible to establish sustainable ties?

Esma: The biggest deficiency we felt during our school years was the limited and single-handed execution of our production areas. In order to fill this gap and to produce international projects, we continue our co-creation workshops, one of the main events of our festival. While building new cultural dialogues, we bring foreign choreographers together with our local performance artists and students and enable them to reproduce. In this way, we support the establishment of more permanent dialogues by disrupting the structure of the festival. We also enable our local dancers to produce work on an international platform.

Damla: Some of the choreographers and local dancers who co-created at last year's festival were teams that had previously participated in the same workshop or wanted to produce projects together. We observe that the festival has had a positive impact on the dance scene in Turkey, with new projects or reinterpretations of previously exhibited projects, the sharing of different artistic practices and the revival of studio rehearsal practice after the pandemic. Sofia Casprini, who participated in our festival last year with her solo performance, included us in a wonderful project this year. Our festival is one of the partners of the Go Towards project from eight different countries. Our goal is to increase the mobility of local dancers between countries and develop new artistic dialogues by developing joint projects.

Maya: How important do you think it is for the performances presented at the festival to be exhibited in public spaces?

Esma: Contemporary dance is a state of being, so it can exist spontaneously in any space and time, without the need for classical stage rules. It can even create a special expression according to space and time. For this reason, its presence in public space is necessary for its unique texture. We continue to produce for dance in museums, historical buildings, streets, bridges and everywhere! 

Damla: By calling it dance in public space, we aim to bring the structure, architecture and texture of the city together with the art of dance and engage in a dialog with the inhabitants of the city. Dancing in public space opens up a space for people from different backgrounds to encounter dance in their daily lives, and thus to be curious about the body and dance, to be encouraged and provoked, and to raise new questions. At the same time, the realization of dance in public spaces creates space for the spread of the understanding that we are here too, we can move freely with our bodies in the existence we want.

Photo: Ömer Yüksekeker

Maya: What kind of changes await the participants at this year's festival, which will take place between September 22 - October 2, 2023? What kind of outputs do you expect to see?

Esma: We have surprise names! We will start announcing them as the time gets closer. This year we have also increased the number of events where foreign choreographers produce with our local dancers under the umbrella of co-creation. We are planning to dance our way out of different places with our structure that we spread to even more public spaces. In addition to this, we will organize a workshop this year. This is of great importance for our sector. Most dancers work away from technical labor standards such as contracts and health insurance. We have rolled up our sleeves to create a sector where we meet international standards!

Damla: This year we are adding different dance genres and content that appeals to different age ranges to the program. In the program, we will make space for Lindy Hop, African dances and somatic work for level dance workshops. We will also have surprises for children. We will emphasize the importance of dancing in a unified space for all ages and backgrounds. While we have chosen a specific open call theme for the planning of the performances, as a team we are also involved in studies on body ecologies and the sustainability of dance art in a changing world. We would like to include projects where dance and ecology practices come together. With Everything Accessible, we are working to build the accessibility infrastructure of our festival. We are taking steps to create a more inclusive and forward-looking new language in our program.

Maya: Thank you very much Damla and Esma. I think it was a very enjoyable and revealing interview for the readers. Improdancefest will be meeting with dance lovers again this year on September 22 - October 2, 2023, spreading all over Istanbul. The open call for local and international artists who want to take part in the festival will be open for applications until May 5, 2023. You can visit to access the application form.

Photo: Ömer Yüksekeker


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