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by Sigrid Gareis

What Is a Curator in the Performing Arts?


In Europe, the explicit discussion about the curator in the field of the performing arts began around the year 2000. But even before the job description could establish itself in this field, its reputation was already tarnished or even ruined. On the one hand, the hype surrounding the curator in the visual arts generally tended to be suspicious in view of the much more communally structured processes in the sphere of performing; on the other hand, the increased use of the term “curating” in the most diverse lifestyle areas was repellent. The appointment of Chris Dercon as artistic director of the Berlin Volksbühne in 2015 had a particular implication, leading to extremely defensive reactions from the traditional ensemble and repertory theater in the German-speaking world: there were fears that the Volksbühne would be converted into an "event booth”[1] (Claus Peymann) or into a permanent festival operation—in particular, there were warnings of a "globally widespread consensus culture with uniform presentation and sales patterns."[2] Pejoratively, it was made clear that "Chris Dercon is not an artistic director [‘Intendant’], but a curator."[3] Because of him, Christian Baron exaggerated in the newspaper Neues Deutschland that "the concerned theater citizen places the prestige of the curator's job between mafia boss, animal food tester, and fortune cookie author."[4]

In the performing field—and in this context especially for dance—it is therefore still necessary to clearly define the curator's profession and to show its importance for the field.

The Rise of Curation in the Performing Arts
Job titles for content-related, conceptual tasks and responsibilities in the performing arts are very diverse and by no means clearly formulated. In organizational charts or on business cards, in addition to curator, one finds a wide variety of designations, such as intendant, artistic director, festival or theater director, programmer, dramaturge, presenter, creative producer, or program director, which are often very difficult to distinguish from one another. Intendant, for example, signals an overall responsibility for a dance or theater institution (also a radio or television station), but the shared responsibility of the artistic director and the managing director may nevertheless be fixed at the contractual level. The profession of dramaturge, on the other hand, is historically limited to the German-speaking world and the so-called municipal theater with Schlegel and Lessing, and has only been able to gain a foothold in the independent dance and theater sector since the 1980s with protagonists such as Marianne van Kerkhoven or Tom Stromberg. However, it has not yet established itself on a global level—in dance even less than in theatre.

The adoption of the concept of curator from the visual arts was viewed rather skeptically by an older generation of organizers in the independent dance and theater scene, because at the beginning of the internationalization of the European theatre landscape in the 1980s, the central emphasis—strongly proclaimed by the international magazine Theaterschrift—was on the artist’s personality and her or his autonomous work.[5] When thematically oriented programs became more common in the 1990s, artists such as Jérôme Bel—comparable to the visual arts decades earlier—refused to be integrated into them.

It was the younger colleagues in the field, now trained in dance and theatre studies, who began to question working methods and the prevailing "hands-on mentality" of the founding generation of independent dance and theater in Europe. These younger colleagues were the first to claim the concept of curator for themselves.[6] At about the same time, projects such as Hortensia Völkers' stage parcours Wahlverwandtschaft (1999), Hannah Hurtzig's Mobile Academy (1999), or Deufert & Plischke's B-Visible (2002) began to establish a focus on the “format” of curatorial processes in dance and performance. The first university curation courses in the field of the live arts were launched in 2011 at Wesleyan University and in 2017 at the University of Salzburg. Other university departments such as DAS theater at the Amsterdam University of the Arts established a special focus on curation in their curriculum.

Curator Versus Presenter/Programmer Versus Dramaturge
In the literature on curating in the performing arts, which is still quite limited,[7] the distinction between the methods of the curator and the presenter/programmer have been analyzed in an insightful way[8]: the presenter/programmer is defined as the type of organizer who, on the basis of personally accumulated knowledge and experience as well as her or his own taste, puts together artistic programs as a compilation of autonomous forms of artistic expression in festivals or houses and conveys these to an audience under the best possible organizational, PR-related, and technical conditions. S/he is mainly found in the older generation, at so called audience-oriented or bigger festivals in the theater, dance, and music theater sector, such as in Avignon, Edinburgh, or Montpellier. The curator, on the other hand, actively and creatively shapes the framing of the presentation and production of artistic works or discourses by creating thematic links, focuses, and condensations, developing independent presentation formats or deliberately initiating a community experience that goes beyond the individual performance. Especially in dance, curating is often brought into an analogy with choreographing and as a constellation/composition of space, objects, and bodies.[9] As a type, s/he can be found especially in the experimental field as well as in discourse- and genre-oriented festivals that were especially founded during the festival boom from the end of the 1980s in Europe—triggered by the fall of the Iron Curtain. The term is also frequently used for freelance program-makers in the field of dance and performance. The transitions between the two types are fluid.

The curator in the performing arts is particularly difficult to distinguish from the dramaturge, who in traditional ensemble and repertoire theater has the primary task of accompanying individual productions in terms of content, helping to design a seasonal program, writing program texts, and shortening dramas or libretti. However, since the traditional theater system—here, in particular, the so-called municipal theaters in the German-speaking region—is increasingly integrating festivals and discussion events into their schedules, the dramaturge is more and more involved in conceptual design there as well. Jörn Etzold is especially focusing on the dramaturge in German-speaking theater in this publication.

In principle—so the thesis goes—one could replace the term curator in the performing arts with that of event dramaturge, but the restricted regional spread of this profession (and partly also the curricula of the corresponding training courses) stands in the way. Therefore, it is no wonder that the term curator is more common especially in the United States and Canada than in German-speaking and other European countries.[10]

Basic Conditions of Curating Dance and Performance
More recently, museums are increasingly programming dance and performance, and individual publications in the live art field are already beginning to blur divisional distinctions in curatorial research.[11] Nevertheless, even today, different basic requirements must be observed in the individual art disciplines, which have a lasting influence on curatorial action—especially in comparison to the visual arts. At this point, this can only be outlined schematically[12]: dance and theatre are art forms that are usually produced and performed collectively, creating greater obligations and dependencies amongst each other. The technical requirements are many a time enormous and often of very substantial importance for artistic creation. Also, the means of production, at least as far as Europe is concerned, are in the majority in public hands, since dance and theatre are for the most part produced in co-production with publicly funded venue structures. On the one hand, this already structurally curbs the hype surrounding the curator, but on the other hand, criticism of the institution is also undermined. In very few cases can the artist live from her or his ephemeral "works" alone, which are often only shown for a few years (or even just once). On an international level, non-European artists are often existentially dependent on institutions of their former colonial masters. There are no collectors, auctions, or fairs, and there is no market for documentation of performances, as there is in the visual arts context. The “time factor” plays a much more decisive role for curating dance, theatre, and performance, since, for example, in festivals lasting several weeks, it can hardly be assumed that everything in an overall program will be received by everyone. In-depth documentation and reflection on the curatorial process, the related knowledge production in catalogues or accompanying books is not (yet) a tradition in this field—a fact that massively restricts discourse and criticality in curatorial action in the performing arts. In a fundamental way, as could be seen in my own curatorial work in the museum,[13] the institutions of dance and theater are centered on people in their structure and organization, whereas the museum focuses on the object.

Lecture of Nikita Dhawan, group curation of Curating in the Performing Arts university course, 2017 at SZENE Salzburg. Photograph by Hubert Auer.

Why Shift the Focus to the Curator?
But why is it sensible to shift the focus in the performing arts from the presenter/programmer to the curator in the future? The question of power arises here. Designing programs always means making a selection, i.e., making inclusions and exclusions. If this is primarily based on the experience and taste of a single person, not only is transparency eliminated, but the corresponding decisions can only be made discursive and critical to a limited extent. And besides the consequences for the affected artists' lives, especially in the young field of dance, this can lead to individual taste determining and shaping the development of dance in an entire region. Collective curatorial decisions—with a clear and transparent structure of responsibility—would remedy this and at the same time promote diversity and democratization in the decision-making processes. With the establishment of management teams, a certain rethinking can already be noticed at present, for example, in Zurich (Schauspielhaus Zürich, Theater Neumarkt, Gessnerallee) or Brussels (Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Kaaitheater). “Programmers” often argue with their wish or approach of wanting to be a “facilitator,” which can imply rather a lot of “paternalism” or “maternalism” if there is no transparency, (self-)reflection and explicit—open and public—discourse on methods and backgrounds. A conceptual-curatorial approach to programming creates the starting point for the well-founded and critical discussion that is so often lacking in the field of dance and theatre.

Times have also changed massively. A mere aestheticism, which is all too often attributed to ballet and dance, but also the self-referentiality of so-called concept dance, which was important at the time, can only be justified in programming to a limited extent in our times of war and crisis. In addition, general requests on organizers have become much more demanding due to the successive and necessary internationalization of the field beyond the European area, as shown in the part Decolonizing Dance of this publication for which Jay Pather is responsible. If the frequently and justifiably invoked role of art and culture for a more socially just development of society is to be taken seriously, this also means the dance sector has to relate itself to social processes much more than before.[14] This requires a determined stance and a clear articulation which not only the artist but also the organizer should adopt. The "hiding" of the presenter/programmer behind her or his personally made selection not only seems out of date but, in view of the crisis situation, also "cowardly" to a certain extent—stabilizing existing crises rather than counteracting them. Decolonial theory also shows us here the importance and necessity of positioning humans and knowledge[15]: Who is speaking and from what perspective and with what background? Only by making positionality transparent is it possible to assess and evaluate (and more easily change) the representational aspect that is always inherent in programming.

However, making the curatorial act visible is in no way intended to pave the way for the curator as a “hyped super-figure” in the performing arts. Rather, the social engagement and competence of all live arts should be used to develop specific (and new) forms of curatorship, in direct dialogue with the artists and the audience, that makes a responsible, socially more just as well as ecologically more sustainable future possible. In the best case, this may even be feasible.

Sigrid Gareis is a curator and, since 2017, co-director of the university course Curating in the Performing Arts at the Paris Lodron University in Salzburg in cooperation with Freie Universität Berlin and Ruhr-University Bochum. After studying anthropology, classical archaeology and ancient history, she built up the departments of performing arts and international cultural work at the Siemens Arts Program in Munich. She was co-founder of dance and theater festivals in Moscow, Munich, Nuremberg, and Greifswald. From 2000 to 2009 she was founding director of Tanzquartier Wien and from 2005 to 2007 founding president of the European Dance House Network (EDN). As secretary general, she established the Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne in 2012. As a curator and dramaturge for dance and theatre, she works for, among others, Wiener Festwochen, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, ZKM, and the Kölner Philharmonie. She is member of numerous juries (e.g., the Culture – Creative Europe Programme, Hauptstadtkulturfond, and Allianz Kulturstiftung) and initiated two symposia for curation in the performing arts (2011 Beyond Curating in Essen, 2015 Show me the world in Munich). She is featured in various book publications.


[1] Original term in German: Eventbude. See the open letter to the Mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, June 21, 2016, published in Nachtkritik, accessed November 11, 2022, https://nachtkritik.de/images/stories/pdf/OffenerBriefPeymann210616.pdf.

[2] Open letter from the employees of the Volksbühne, June 20, 2016, on the website of Volksbühne, accessed November 11, 2022, https://volksbuehne.adk.de/deutsch/offener_brief/index.html.

[3] Rüdiger Schaper, “Zukunft der Berliner Volksbühne: Wenn der Kurator kommt,” Tagesspiegel, March 26, 2015, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/wenn-der-kurator-kommt-8148370.html.

[4] Christian Baron, “Verdrängt vom Platz zwischen allen Stühlen,” Neues Deutschland, July 5, 2016, https://www.nd-aktuell.de/artikel/1017593.verdraengt-vom-platz-zwischen-allen-stuehlen.html.

[5] See the journal Theaterschrift (international editions from 1992 on) or Frie Leysen, “Searching for the Next Generation: Frie Leysen & the KunstenFESTIVAL,” interview by Daniel Mufson, 2002, published on his blog, accessed November 11, 2022, https://danielmufson.com/interviews/searching-for-the-next-generation-frie-leysen-the-kunstenfestival/.

[6] See Florian Malzacher, "Empty Stages, Crowded Flats: Performative Curation in the Performing Arts,” in Scenekunsten og de unge, eds. Sidsel Graffer, Adne Sekkelsten (Oslo: Vidarfolaget AS, 2014), 116–127, https://www.academia.edu/10462640/Empty_Stages_Crowded_Flats._Performative_Curating_Performing_Arts as well as own experiences with the team of Tanzquartier Wien.

[7] More comprehensive compendia include the following: Florian Malzacher, Tea Tupavic, and Petra Zanki, eds., Frakcija 55 (2010): Curating Performing Arts; Dena Davida, Jane Gabriels, Marc Pronovost, and Véronique Hudon, eds., Curating Live Art: Critical Perspectives, Essays and Conversations in Theory and Practice (NYC and London: Berghahn Books, 2018); Bertie Ferdman and Tom Sellar, eds., Theatre 42, no. 4 (2014): Performance Curation; Tom Sellar, ed., Sigrid Gareis, guest-ed., Theatre 47, no. 1 (2017): Curating Crisis.

[8] See, for example, Chris Dupuis, "Dance Curation As Chorographic Practice," Dance Articulated 6, no. 1 (2020): CHOREOGRAPHY NOW: 89–110, https://www.ntnu.no/ojs/index.php/ps/issue/view/338 or Malzacher, “Empty Stages, Crowded Flats,” 116–127.

[9] Gabriele Brandstetter, "Written on Water: Choreographies of the Curatorial," in Cultures of the Curatorial, eds., Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Schafaff, and Thomas Weski (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 119–132.

[10] See Dupuis, "Dance Curation As Chorographic Practice", 95.

[11] See, for example, Brandon Farnsworth, Curating Contemporary Music Festivals: A New Perspective on Music's Mediation (Bielefeld: transcript, 2020).

[12] The contribution by Gwendolin Lehnerer in this publication explicitly addresses this aspect.

[13] Here, personal experiences during the co-curation of Moments at the ZKM/Karlsruhe were particularly impressive. Catalogue: Sigrid Gareis, Georg Schöllhammer, and Peter Weibel, eds., Moments: A History of Performance in 10 Acts (Cologne: Walther König, 2013).

[14] Here, for example, a well-founded discussion of Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics in the discussion on curating dance is still pending.

[15] See, for example, Rolando Vázquez Melken’s reflections on positionality: Rolando Vázquez, Vistas of Modernity: Decolonial Aesthesis and the End of the Contemporary (Amsterdam: Mondriaan Fund, 2020).

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Issue 55

Curating Dance : Decolonizing Dance