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by Kirsten Maar

How to Do Things with Care: Feminist Curating in Dance

Queer feminist curating is about thinking about politics through and with the body.”[1]

How far does a feminist perspective transform the ways of curating in dance? What has changed in comparison to the 1960s and 1970s and the several waves of feminism that have emerged since then? And what can still be linked to those approaches? Does the term feminist need the addition of “queer,” or is feminism itself already thought in an empowering, emancipatory, and intersectional way? How do body politics have to be reframed in order to go beyond the representational and ensure emancipatory and empowering forms of agency?

From the Margins and Out of the Crisis
Based on its ephemeral character, dance was for a long time marginalized within the canon of the art disciplines. The same applied for feminist positions in the arts—which have only slowly changed since the 1960s—and the emergence of performance, which was at least partly infiltrated by feminist thought and protagonists. The arguments fold into each other: both performance as an ephemeral, process-based art form without a circulating object and the vulnerability of the body in performance were supposed to counter its commodification.[2] But beyond few exceptions the canon of choreographic work was long designated to men. Dance performance with a decidedly gendered focus concentrated on issues of re-presentation, the staging of bodies, their images, the “bodies that mattered,” and only later on the institutional complex and the conditions of artistic production.

Already for quite some time, it has been common in the curatorial field to address its etymological roots in the Latin curare—as taking care of the collection, but also of the artists, their work, and working conditions. The latest turn in discussing the curatorial as care work has gone hand in hand with a decidedly feminist agenda. Even if these thoughts might at first sight apply to a traditional image of women, the focus on intersectional solidarity, again taking inspiration from BIPoC writers of the 1970s and ‘80s, when “the personal was political” and women in art fought for acknowledgment of their (until then) invisible work, or more precisely, not only for their invisible artistic work but for the acknowledgement of their daily unpaid work. Looking back to those kind of intervening, artivist formats, such as, for instance, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Maintenance Art, Suzanne Lacy’s International Dinner Party or Judy Chicago’s Womanhouse, as well as to the writings of Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, or Audre Lorde, it was their specific way of addressing and including the audience and their vulnerability that prepared the field for the differentiation of feminisms today.

But these issues were not solved—this became obvious during the COVID crisis, which made us aware that the pandemic did not make us equal, as many hoped in its beginnings, but rather reinforced already existing inequalities in the health care sector, as well as in work-life and families. Under these circumstances and the neoliberalist requirements of a competitive and contested curatorial field, care issues attracted new attention, and went hand in hand with entangled debates, which had been discussed already in the 1970s and 1980s, but which now found new synergetic momentum through moments of solidarity and activist interventions, such as #MeToo or Black Lives Matter; discussing motherhood, reproduction, and aging in dance; advocating for accessibility, inclusion, diversity, and visibility of BIPoC and LGBTQI+ people; fighting for safe spaces; and finally demanding an intersectional perspective.

The Site-Specificities of Berlin
This article looks at the Berlin dance scene, particularly at small initiatives or new collectives; however, the brevity of this essay doesn’t allow for a broader and more detailed description of additional and differently shaped feminist curating, which should have otherwise included established festival formats such as The Future is F*E*M*A*L*E*  or Queer Darlings, initiated by Franziska Werner and Anna Mülter; (queer-)feminist perspectives within curated programs like Tanztage, Tanznacht, ada-studios, Montagsmodus/MMpraxis, Flutgraben e.V., Lake Studios, Fortuna Wetten, neue Häute, PSR Performance Situation Room, or Gallery Wedding; initiatives like coven, lecken, the Iconic House of Saint Laurent; or the program feminist futures, aligned with Tanzfabrik Berlin and its European residency program apap (advancing performing arts project) and many more… All these curated sites or programs are a part of processes that have evolved over the last thirty years after the fall of the Wall, and have contributed to making Berlin a place for new dance developments in the 1990s and 2000s up to now, with different dance scenes emancipating and claiming their place within the dance field, and new publics emerging, from contact communities to conceptual dance, from BMC to voguing and urban dance, which helped to establish a larger understanding of feminist practice in an extended, empowering sense.

From the Round Table for Dance in 2018, initiated in order to develop a concept for the future of dance in Berlin, several working groups emerged, from which I focus on three in particular which engaged in practices of archiving, mediation, and working conditions, and are implicitly concerned with questions of a larger curatorial context. These include the question of archiving and, through this, questioning the canon; taking into account oral herstories and different modes of scholarly and artistic methodologies like autoethnographic studies; the field of mediation and education, which promotes the participation of different social fields (like pedagogy, therapy, urban planning) and tries to address diverse audiences; and finally, supporting, promoting, and normalizing good practices within the working environments—addressing problems of violence, (self-)exploitation, exhaustion, and inequality within the scene. They have all brought a kind of feminist ethics into the debate on this culture-political initiative, and they take part in building a sustaining infrastructure—a framework for curatorial decisions—which is contested and negotiated again and again.

“Care Space” at group show co-curated by the students of the Curating in the Performing Arts university course, 2017, SZENE Salzburg. Photograph

Situated Herstories Beyond Overarching Assemblies
It is not surprising that care practices continue to be written about within feminist discourses, because they do not focus on large events, but rather on the small, unspectacular stories, as Ursula K. Le Guin points out in The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,[3] which is driven by a feminist expansion of the science fiction genre and a reinterpretation of traditionally female activities: seeding, breeding, and collecting are not subjects of a hero’ s tale, but they also assemble their communities around related practices which are closely interwoven with their respective (embodied) narratives. Furthermore, as a practice, storytelling is performed in front of a listening audience; it is a speculative and subversive approach, operative in the foundations of alternative cartographies and geopolitics, or of experimental laboratories. With Donna Haraway, one could add that they demand a partial perspective and the situatedness of knowledge,[4] questioning a white, male claim for universal and “objective” knowledge which separates the world into us and them, into nature-culture, body-mind, etc.

From this rather “weak” position, it seems quite logical that the practices of curating as curare come quite close to the issues of hospitality, which have emerged against the background of the current socio-political situation.[5] “Its [hospitality`s] inherent aporia between the unconditional openness towards welcoming everyone and everything that is on the way and interested in hospitable reception and the exclusions that are legitimized by rules set in the field”[6] can be taken as a conditional paradox of curatorial care.

Feminist theorists like Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Sarah Ahmed, and others have set the conditions for practices of welcoming, generosity, receptivity, and listening and their sociopolitical relevance.

With a slight shift in direction, the philosopher Eva von Redecker calls into question the status of assembly, as it was discussed in philosophy after 1989 and the loss of a socialist utopia. Since an assembly cannot rely on its good intentions and the gathering itself, in her eyes, the idea of assembly and thus also of participatory art work has to be re-framed beyond mere representation and an “ableist appeal to mobilization”; it needs a more precise focus as well as a strict slowdown.[7] Taking time and giving time seem to be the most urgent task. Thus, care work does not function as a singular event either; it demands routines, repetition, and a continuous practice, de-centering forces, strategies, and embodied routines. As a result, it implies not only thinking about a curatorial program but also about sustainable institutional infrastructures and micropolitics, which are not so much based on networking as on collective trust.

Ecologies of Practices
Inasmuch as they acknowledge the shifts that have taken place, new formats, which undermine the former separation between production and presentation and which take into account the importance of practices and giving time, can be considered an example. Practices are not exercised in a solipsistic retreat in the studio, but rather understood as something which is to be shared within the community and open to the public.[8] Strategies of selecting, combining, arranging, presenting, and communicating one’s own body, as introduced to the visual arts by minimal and conceptual artists in the 1960s and 1970s, and also adapted in dance, led to so-called immaterial or affective labor[9] and (self-)exhaustion entangled with neoliberalist strategies. These conceptual, immaterial practices run across and permeate disciplines and professions between research and the arts. Given this development, the focus has shifted to an understanding of an ecology of practices, as Silke Bake, Alice Chauchat, Bettina Knaup, and Siegmar Zacharias proposed with a curated program, initiated in 2016/17:

The permanent state of crisis, which we witness today, can't be restored to a previous sense of order, neither through disciplinary / disciplining thought nor through acts of distancing and exclusion. It requires global agency and imagination, which bears with the un-known and takes into account our relational interdependency. It requires radical openness, a speculative attitude, pleasure in engaging with the un-known and un-certain and a willingness to think beyond human-centred categories and temporal and spatial dimensions. Classical ecology is the theory of environmental relations, of distribution and movement of energy and matter in a house(hold). Meanwhile the term is used in a broader sense – including the social, the environmental, the intellectual realms.[10]

This “ecological” and transformative approach takes into account the relationship between us and our environments, and it is attentive to how the social world may be engaged in processes of de- and recontextualizing the world around us, not believing and remaining in already existing essentialisms.

“Handle with Care”—Beyond the Dis-Illusions of the Curatorial
It is not astonishing that a rather large part of those issues discussed within the ethics of curating and curating care were already present for a long time within the field of dance: you never dance alone—as a relational practice, dance gives us mindful techniques like body-mind centering, release, or contact improvisation, in which breathing, taking time, and a different kind of awareness of our environments are at stake, and which can be used in an empowering way and as a social tool. Moreover, they can help to reconstruct forgotten herstories and genealogies—against ideas of failure, anxieties, exhaustion, (self-)exploitation, precarization, and vulnerability.

But there are also the “delusions of care,” as Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung demonstrates,[11] when, for instance, “care” is used to hide dependencies on paternalistic power relations or degenerates into mere good intentions. Another related problem in the field is tokenism: “Using labels like “queer” or “feminist” to receive project funding without reflecting how queer feminist thinking should affect the structures, formats, and methodologies.”[12]

“The master´s tools will never dismantle the master´s house.”[13] This saying by Audre Lorde seems to be valid for most of those attempts. Departing from that and looking for different tools—what could feminist curating in dance look like? Next to a rejection of competition of capitalist, patriarchal, heteronormative stances, the need to collaborate means constant learning from each other, and questioning one´s own perspective, a process connected closely to “not knowing” and trust—nothing is fixed in advance![14] “In the most beautiful moments, artists operate like village healers within communities, emerging around artistic programs.”[15] What remains key in these processes is formulating questions, questioning yourself, accepting being in a weak position, allowing blind alleys, not being afraid of mistakes, provoking discussions, and accepting messiness and complexity—but at the same time making visible where you are coming from, what your starting point or your background is, and not hiding your “agenda.”[16] A sense of reality combined with a sense of potentiality—José Munoz’s concept of queerness could thus be seen as a horizon, but also as a methodology of “queering” given paths of thinking.[17] Furthermore, as Silke Bake points out: “There is always a restriction in any kind of framing or context, and it might be exactly this that informs the specificity of a curatorial project. There is always a context in which we find ourselves and are acting, and this context needs to be analyzed and understood. Finally, there is me, which is already a restriction.”[18]

Kirsten Maar, a dance and theater scholar and dramaturge, currently teaches as an assistant professor at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses on choreographic processes in the 20th century, demarcations between visual art, architecture, and choreography, ethics of curating, social choreographies, and gender, ethnicity, class, and identity discourses in transition. Together with Prof. Dr. Gabriele Brandstetter, she leads the sub-project Choreographies of Intervention: Formats and Practices of Decolonization and Ecology in the DFG Collaborative Research Center Intervening Arts; she is Principle Investigator in the DFG Research Training Group Normativity—Criticism—Change and researches dramaturgies in contemporary dance since 1989 together with Mila Pavicevic within the framework of a project funded by the Thyssen Foundation. Publications include Designs and Structures: William Forsythe's Choreographic Works in Their Architectural Relations (2019), Generic Form: Dynamic Constellations between the Arts (ed. together with F. Ruda and J. Völker, 2017), Assign and Arrange: Methodologies of Presentation in Art and Dance (ed. together with M. Butte, F. McGovern, MF. Rafael, and J. Schafaff, 2014).


[1] Quote by Mateusz Szymanówka. For this contribution, I gave a questionnaire to three protagonists from the Berlin dance scene: Mateusz Szymanówka, artistic director of Tanztage and dance dramaturge at Sophiensaele Berlin, who previously curated at the Nowy Teatr and Teatr Studio in Warsaw and the Arts Station Foundation in Poznan; Léna Szirmay-Kalos, freelance curator, initiator and artistic director of the interdisciplinary series Montag Modus and co-founder of the MMpractice curatorial platform; and Silke Bake, dramaturge, curator, and mentor, who has worked at TAT, HAU, and TQW, and curated several programs as Tanznacht or ecologies of practice. I thank them for their inspiring input, which has substantially contributed to this article.

[2] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993).

[3] Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” (London: Ignota Press 2020).

[4] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988): 575–599.

[5] Beatrice von Bismarck and Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer: Hospitality: Hosting Relations in Exhibitions, Introduction, (Berlin: Sternberg, 2016), 52–59.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Eva von Redecker, “The Assembly is dead,” The Art of Assembly, accessed November 8, 2022, https://art-of-assembly.net/2022/03/23/upcoming-eva-von-redecker-the-assembly-is-dead/.

[8] Kirsten Maar and Anne Schuh, “Perspektiven auf das Verhältnis von Technik und Praxis im zeitgenössischen Tanz,” in Technologien des Performativen: Das Theater und seine Techniken, eds. Kathrin Dreckmann, Maren Butte, and Elfi Vomberg (Bielefeld: transcript, 2020), 273–292.

[9] Beatrice von Bismarck, “Relations in Motion: The curatorial condition in visual art – and its possibilities for the neighbouring disciplines, Frakcija 55: Curating in the Performing Arts (Spring/Summer 2010): 50–57.

[10] https://www.tanzfabrik-berlin.de/en/events/514.

[11] Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, The Delusions of Care (Berlin: Archive Books, 2021).

[12] Interview with Mateusz Szymanówka.

[13] Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (London: Penguin Modern, 2018).

[14] Paraphrased from the interviews with Léna Szirmay-Kalos and Silke Bake.

[15] Interview with Mateusz Szymanówka.

[16] Ibid.

[17] José E. Munoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Introduction (New York: UP, 2009).

[18] Interview with Silke Bake.

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Issue 55

Curating Dance : Decolonizing Dance