Diary of a Festival Exchange – The Holland Festival & JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience 2023 by Thobile Maphanga

After attending the Atelier Montréal in 2022 and becoming part of the Festival Academy Alumni working group, I was invited to attend the European’s Festival Association (EFA) Arts Festival Summit 2022 taking place in Yerevan, Armenia.  I had never been to Armenia, nor that part of the world that lies between Europe, Asia, and Africa.  I had reservations about attending when this was first suggested to me in one of my first alumni online meetings.  My reservations were not in exploring a new part of the world, but rather what it might feel like to be an African (from the most southern country) amongst a summit that was specifically focused on and dealing within the European festival context.  I remember being told (in not so many/so little words) that part of bringing a diverse Festival Academy alumni group in was to interrupt/disrupt the white Eurocentric-ness of the summit as The Festival Academy, born of the EFA, was expanding across the world and the ‘parent’ organisation should understand the impact of this.

I arrived in Armenia after a 14-and-a-half-hour-long journey from Durban via Dubai. I was exhausted and a bit stinky but was welcomed warmly by the friendly EFA team made up of mostly ladies who would ensure that my stay was comfortable and pleasant.  Our main role was to represent The Festival Academy alumni and how the EFA team had ensured this would happen was by ascribing the roles of scribes and witnesses to some of the breakout sessions of the summit as well as host The Festival Academy alumni meeting.  The entire summit was eye opening and insightful.  I learnt a lot about the region I was in, and its proximity to the current Russian war against Ukraine, even witnessing fighter jets flying overhead and being asked to leave the restaurant early on closing night as another attack seemed imminent and strike action was brewing in the city.

The session that the Festival Academy led on the 14th September 2022 with the EFA members’ aim was to provide the EFA members with a tangible idea of what the ateliers were like, the type of people it was inviting and reaching, discussions raised and had, and what future alignments we could make between the two organisations that could benefit all parties. Essentially finding ways to develop and grow the networks together.  One of the more popular ideas was to create placement opportunities for the alumni within the EFA member festivals, this meant EFA festivals gained skilled festival managers to assist in their Festivals which would be more valuable than unexperienced interns or volunteers for instance.  This would also bolster the networks of both festivals and promote diversity and new ideas from ‘fresh blood’ to flow through the two associations.  Although a fabulous idea, I countered this with a plea to consider making these two-way exchanges rather than one-way placements.  As has been the trend in such circumstances, those in a position of power or wealth are always inviting those on the opposite side of the spectrum to their countries to show how things are done, and for me who comes from the Global South, this seemed lopsided and a missed opportunity for more equal sharing of knowledge and understanding of different contexts.  This was seen as a good idea, but I wasn’t so sure how it would be implemented until Emily Ansenk, director of the Holland Festival and a member of EFA, immediately after the meeting approached me and invited me to the Holland Festival intimating that she could then come through to the JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience in 2023.  I immediately agreed and as soon as I was back home, which took a few weeks, I emailed Emily to follow up.  There was a long wait before I had a response, but when it came it was positive and clear that this was the thing we were going to do together. 

Emily quickly introduced me to Katinka Enkhuizen who was one of the new curators of the Holland Festival, we got on immediately and all had a wonderful zoom chat where they proposed perhaps having another festival maker join us.  I sent through three names of alumni from my year that also resided in the global South.  Time passed and soon Horacio Perez (Atelier Montreal alumni from Chile) and I were excitedly looking forward to being reunited at the Holland Festival in June 2023.  I arrived on the morning of the 15th June, slap bang in the middle of the Holland Festival.  The whole of Amsterdam was bright with festival flags and signage.  It was hot, and coming from a somewhat colder South Africa I was pleased to be able to don my sunnies (sunglasses) and be in summer gear.  I met Katinka, Emily and Horacio for lunch at Morgan and Mees, a cute cafe with a lovely terrace.  We were all so excited to be together! I had seen Horacio most recently as we had been to the EFA Arts Festival Summit 2023 together in Girona, Spain 2 months earlier.  I was meeting Katinka for the first time in person, and Emily for the first time in 9 months but somehow it felt like we were all old friends meeting for a reunion.  Both Emily and Katinka looked super fresh for people who had spent close to a year planning a month-long festival and now were literally 15 days in.  I was gob smacked when I saw that the whole team was looking as good and fresh as they were.  Katinka shared the secret Emily had suggested to her and the team - no alcohol, eat healthily and rest when you can for the duration of the festival.  It was working.

Katinka and Emily had arranged an itinerary for us that was happily peppered with activity that would show us a wide array of what the festival offered and how they as a team were bringing it together.  Straight after lunch we headed to the Centrale Markthal with Katinka’s younger sister and Emily’s son to check out the multi-disciplinary installation of Julian Rosefeldt titled Euphoria.  It was a 2-hour loop of videos on multiple screens that created a dome like effect around its audience.  A children’s choir steps forward to encircle you and as you move around the space you can hear all their different voices depending on how close you get to them.  Above them sit 5 drummers on 5 separate screens playing their parts and, on the central big screen is a film that transports you through the deserted streets of New York in a yellow cab all the way to the aisles of a deserted superstore where a lone tiger roams.  Although hot in the warehouse we were glued to the screens, turning as the different drum solos emanated from the various screens, for the full two hours.  It was epic and exquisite, what a way to be immersed in the festival on arrival.

We headed to the Holland Festival offices after, they are housed in the Musiekgebouw – an impressive mostly glass building that is perched on the water and houses one of the country’s most important stages for contemporary music.  Tucked away in the top level we met some of the team who were behind the magic that was being spread all over the city.  All of them looking bright eyed and bushy tailed on the 15th day.  It was an impressive lot of people who ranged from the admin executives to the curators, the producers and the fundraisers who were scaled based on the amount sponsored.  The office was light, interactive and with a snack station to keep the brains and bodies fed and energized.  As we were about to walk out, we were fortunate to bump into and be introduced to ANOHNI the associate artist of the Holland Festival 2023.  I did not know much about ANOHNI at that stage, but Horacio made sure to let me know what a big deal they were and after hearing about the installations and exhibitions they had curated I was looking forward to learning more.  Downstairs we got a sneak peek at the Future Feminism exhibition of the 13 Tenets of Future Feminism – Amsterdam 2023.  13 perfectly rounded massive marble like pink stone discs had travelled across the Atlantic Ocean and were safely and successfully installed in a circular arrangement in one of the foyer areas of the Musiekgebouw.  We were told a session with ANONHI and the artist collective would be held within the circle when the exhibition opened to a limited audience.  This was day one of the exchange, and the adventure would continue with many meetings of wildly important art and festival makers.

The one morning we were invited to a team meeting where the team could check in and exchange updates on the various projects happening across the city.  These meetings were not relegated to the office only, the one we were invited to was at a warehouse venue that was in build-up phase for Respublika, a 6-hour interactive performance that we would miss as it would only show days after we left.  The build-up was a week-long affair with quite a sizeable team – absolutely fascinating to see. 

We saw great theatre and theatre that was not necessarily to all our liking.  We had delicious conversations about what was curated, and the choices made gave great insight to the purpose of the Holland Festival and what it hopes to offer its audiences and its city. 

One of my favourite performances was definitely Prophetique (on est deja né.es) by Nadia Beurge about the transgender community from Abidjan (Ivory Coast).  I also thoroughly enjoyed walking through the She Who Saw Beautiful Things exhibition by ANONHI, Erika Yasuda and Julia Yasuda and was deeply moved by the transcendental ritual experience offered through To Feel a Thing: A Ritual for Emergence by adrienne maree brown and their USA-based choir.  We caught the one night only ritual on our last evening and what a beautifully spiritual way to end a week of exploration, learning and meeting of minds.  If our first lunch together was an indicator of anything, the days that followed and the final evening together made very clear that the four of us would be colleagues and friends for a long time.

Horacio and I travelled to Greece straight after this experience to join the Atelier Elfsina: Mystery_45 for Young Festival Managers and I would meet Katinka and Emily again in Durban in August 2023 for the JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience.  Unfortunately, Horacio was not able to make it to South Africa for this leg of the exchange due to funding reasons and a touring company that he was traveling Europe with during the time. 

Late August 2023 Emily, Kathinka and I spent 6 days together where they saw the opening of the 25th edition of JOMBA! The opening address by the Artistic Director of the festival hopefully gave them an idea of the state of contemporary dance in South Africa which was followed by the performance of Hatched Ensemble by Mamela Nyamza who we had named the Legacy Artist for the 25th anniversary.  As part of their festival visit, they also travelled with me to Mason Lincoln Special School in Umlazi, the largest township in Durban, to watch Game Theory choreographed by Joshua Moten from Switzerland which was curated as part of the For Youth Focus at JOMBA! supported by Assitej.  Emily and Kathinka had their first-time experience of watching Dutch company Introdans perform in the Hub Club Special and we all had to laugh that they had to travel all the way to South Africa to watch a company from the Netherlands.

As JOMBA! is a single-discipline festival focused on showcasing and growing contemporary dance I also arranged a few visits outside the festival that might give Katinka and Emily a small idea of what the city had to offer, including a meeting with a local artists named Lindani Nyandeni, a visit to the Phansi museum which boasts a collection of Zulu cultural objects and history, the Bat Centre which continues to play quite an important role for artists interested in developing their music, poetry and fine arts, and they visited the Music Imbizo one evening which is an annual gathering of the music industry in Durban.  

I was grateful that Katinka and Emily along with Artistic Director, Roel Voorintholt and Choreographer/Artisitc Manager, Adriaan Lutejin from Introdans agreed to sit in a panel with me and the South African Royal Netherlands Embassy Policy officer of Culture & Media, Jessica Glendinning.  The panel titled Forging Futures: Bridging Borders focused on working abroad, specifically the Netherlands.  A very well attended and engaged conversation that raised many questions and brought much clarity for the audience was the last scheduled itinerary item on the 2nd leg of the exchange.  After a delicious lunch at an old Portuguese styled tavern we bid each other farewell and I very much look forward to our next meeting which will hopefully be in Chile in 2024.

So, what might the learnings be from these encounters so far?  It has always been important to me to be able to put things into perspective, therefore being immersed in something always provides better context that can sometimes be missed or misunderstood as an outsider or an outside eye.  I am very grateful to Emily Ansenk, The Festival Academy and the European Festival Association by extension for the opportunity to test this belief out through this exchange.  The context of the Holland Festival is very different to the context of JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience.  But the two festivals are not beyond learning from each other.  Seeing the Holland Festival in action, ideas of budget and resources were affirmed but also highlighted different needs and reasons of being.  What I took from this is a greater understanding of what is required to create a more diverse audience group for JOMBA! and how it can become a larger vehicle for exposure to a wider than the expected audience.  The Holland Festival successfully showcases a variety of known and unexpected artistic experiences, it stretches its regulars/known audience group to think broader and invites first timers to feel at ease by curating a well-balanced mix of traditional, contemporary and alternative work.  Although JOMBA puts a great amount of effort into curating a diverse festival within one discipline it could help to increase its base target audience group by getting to know its local and international communities more.  As the only exclusively Contemporary Dance festival in the country, I feel it could become the smorgasbord for curators both on the continent and beyond.  However due to small budgets, focused marketing and advertising for that is scarce and the small team, although driven cannot be expected to achieve all of this.  We must be realistic about what is sustainable for both the organizing team and the smaller dedicated audience.  Having just done one of the biggest JOMBA!s (with showings in Durban and Johannesburg) what I am aware of is the focus and dedication of our small audience and team.  It was wonderful living in a bubble where almost every evening you were in the presence of mostly the same people, whose minds and hearts were equally as blown by what was on offer.  But we have to question if that is enough?  In the opposite direction I wonder whether it would be better if the festival was massive and you walked into an auditiorium foyer of strangers where no one knew your name nor recognized anyone else?  For financial purposes this definitely does not raise any alarms, rather joyous sounds of profit and growth.  But when your building blocks, like those of JOMBA! are on humanity, awareness and freedom – is an auditorium full of strangers what we really want?  I am still stuck on this question and look forward to getting closer to finding different models and ideas.