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by Miriam Althammer

Dance House Organisms: Reflections on Institutional Ecologies (for a Future Dance House in Europe)

What institutions are needed in dance—specifically contemporary dance taking place far away from city theaters and ballet stages—is a question that increasingly arose from the 1980s on. Initially, contemporary dance operated more in smaller structures such as festivals, workshops, and off-spaces, and with little municipal or state funding. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the 21st century, as the international center of contemporary dance shifted to Europe and its vibrant dance and performance scenes, and New York lamented having lost its decades-long status as the capital of contemporary dance,[1] more and more dance houses formed as larger structures with their own budgets, means of production, resident artists, and management with a permanent team.[2] Contemporary dance became institutionalized, and European networks such as IDEE (and later EDN)[3] joined forces to offer a platform, to formulate cultural-political concerns, and to bring dance out of its niche as an art form that was often marginalized alongside the other arts.

The European dance houses are considered multi-houses that operate without a fixed company, but link different areas in dance: training, theory/further education, production, and presentation. The aim of their structures is to bring together different ways of working, to explore body and movement concepts, and to work in an interdisciplinary and often research-oriented way.[4] The concepts behind these houses are therefore diverse—and are constantly being (self-)critically reexamined in terms of their conditions. In this state of change, what these dance houses possibly have in common is that they shape their own instability, which is how it was summarized after a network meeting, and “can probably only be captured, and defined through the dance that takes place in it or that is made possible there."[5]

This text seeks to re-perspectivize the paradigm of the European dance house and to challenge it against the background of current discourses around posthumanism, ecology, and coexistence. What organizational forms can a dance house take in the future? What social responsibility can the art form of dance assume in view of its specifics around movement knowledge, using the physical intelligence of the body for negotiating different practices and concerns? What role can be assigned to the human body at all in a time when humans are declared to be a danger to the Earth? How can new forms of interrelationships—that is, ecologies—be produced through the dancing body, which has always understood itself as relational?

Thinking about the instability of a dance house as a potential for a future art institution that creates its own institutional ecologies is thus the starting point for my investigation of Dance House Organisms. Accordingly, Dance House Organisms is to be thought of as a speculative draft at a moment of crossroads in a global climate and biodiversity crisis, and at the end of the anthropocentric age that reflects artistic and institutional practices; as a modularly structured work and presentation house for dance, movement, and bodies; and branching out in its individual elements and being variable like an organism—with the aim of thinking about the human body together with bodies of nature and the Earth.[6]

Moved by Bodies—Captured Through Bodies
In a dance house, bodies are omnipresent; a dance house is moved by bodies. And movement always goes hand in hand with change—precisely, with the instability of the object of dance in the sense of its processuality, as well as the constant questioning of its institutional structures and forms of work. Thus, Nicole Haitzinger describes institutionalization in dance as a “future question”:

Spaces produced by gestures and movements are potential spaces, spaces in the making that produce difference instead of leveling it. In this sense, dance—as a perspective, as an event—can also be understood as a critique of (its) institutionalization and develop its subversive potential in the in-between.[7]

To capture a dance house through dance, to admit its potential in the in-between, and to connect it to the current discourses around posthumanism, ecology, and coexistence means not only thinking about it choreographically and in motion. To capture a dance house through dance means using the transformative potential of moving bodies and their gestures to imagine an institution for the future: to decentralize and to pluralize the institution itself and to create transfers of experience. Through these experiences the mechanisms of institutional ecologies (in the sense of interrelationships of the organism with its environment[8] as well as in its etymological origin—oikos—as studies of our house/home and therefore the Earth) can be applied to performative practices. A dance house is thus rather captured through bodies—the essential material and medium of dance. Not only do human bodies move in this imagined dance house, but so do those of non-human actors: objects, animals, plants, unknown beings, organisms, materialities, ideas, and all the bodies that make the human body a part of the Earth and question its assumed singular knowledge position.

While discourses around the global climate and biodiversity crisis are radically changing our perspective of the Earth, the idea of the history of the Earth and our role as humans as causes of this crisis are now shifting towards the perspective of being part of a complex mesh of ecologies. Isabelle Stengers’ notion of an “ecology of practice” as “a tool for thinking through what is happening”[9] can be used to question and reinvent institutional ecologies of a dance house, through aiming “at the construction of new ‘practical identities’ for practices, that is, new possibilities for them to be present, or in other words to connect. It thus does not approach practices as they are […] but as they may become.”[10] The concern of this future dance house is thus to link, unlearn, diverge, imagine, and transform (human) action in artistic as well as social contexts with the practices of other existing living beings, in order to make clear how important a preoccupation with our relationship to the Earth is on a structural, aesthetic, and discursive level and how for too long it has not been considered in the social sciences and humanities[11] (as well as in the practice or theory of the arts).

Dance House—A Living Entity?
Bodies do not exist for themselves alone. They relate to each other, live with and from each other, are dependent. To transfer this understanding to a dance house, I suggest understanding it as an organism—as a living entity.[12] An organism reflects a form of life that, like an organized body or system, is composed of mutually interdependent parts and maintain various vital processes. This understanding leads to a shift of perspective on the structure and positioning of a dance house. By underlining that a dance house is not stable, but also that it is constituted in the moment of being, I argue that it is working and moving (together) in relationship to a surrounding environment and its living beings and lifeless components. As Isabelle Stengers puts it, we can understand this practice as involvement both “through the middle” and “with the surroundings” because “there is no identity of a practice independent of its environment.”[13]

In the idea of translating an organism into curatorial action, discourse becomes the supporting element: discourse is conceived from its literal sense—as a running to and from, as running in different ways. Using the body, its knowledge and practices as a constituting element, the individual areas—the organs—of a dance house first develop out of the discourse. The parts of an organism are constantly changing; in other words, they are in motion. As a result, the idea that a dance house and its discursive approaches are formed along the lines of choreographic thinking and acting becomes central: on the one hand, as a constellation "in terms of composing space, objects, and bodies, in opening paths and structures of participation and placement through movement,"[14] on the other hand via the modes of perception of a body as "regimes of senses, artistic languages, forms of expression."[15]

Dance House Organisms is considered an ever-changing structure, which is flexible enough to adapt to constant transformation, but specific enough to develop as a conception for the fusion and conglomeration of diverse thematic fields in dance. These mobile and moving components result in a structure that creates possibilities for arranging bodies, their concepts and discourses in the time and space—with the goal of capturing and conceptualizing a dance house through bodies: to foster new sensibilities and connectivities as well as to produce encounters, resonances, immersive practices, and bodily manifestations. To create this conception in this way as "solidarity of presence in the other"[16] different temporalities and rhythms are required, as well as possible collectivities that change their form and focus depending on time and place.

Therefore Dance House Organisms is not only about artistically researching environmental phenomena or translating scientific findings for an audience and making them sensually tangible, as eco artists and the developments around environmental art have been doing since the 1960s.[17] It also involves bringing together individual artistic and institutional practices with ecological practices and determining how to interconnect these genealogies in a future vision of a dance house that dedicates its form, structure, and content to the discourses around the global climate and biodiversity crisis and in negotiating its planetary limits—in the sense that it belongs to these discourses because “just the experience nourish[es] your imagination”[18] and not a general idea. Discourse thereby becomes a tool in which the thematic fields interact as organs just as much as the modes in which these thematic fields emerging in the Dance House Organisms always link, embody, regulate, and complement each other in a particular way. Resulting transitions follow the desire for multidimensionality and multiple (and at the same time partial) access to the environments of the dance house. The intention is to create a possible physical location for a society of humans and non-humans, which can forge global alliances and assume responsibility as an institution located in Europe.[19] Connecting and constellating the different organs and modes in this nomadic way also points to the fact that humanism as an Eurocentric concept and “the restricted notion of what counts as a human is one of the keys to understand[ing] how we got to a post-human turn at all,”[20] as Rosi Braidotti formulates in her vision of a life beyond the self.

Workshop session at group show co-curated by the students of the Curating in the Performing Arts university course, 2017, SZENE Salzburg.

Body-Based Practices as Modes of Creativity
The common basis for the development of these discourse structures are body-based practices, which have meanwhile become an essential part of contemporary dance training and are fed more by somatics and alternative body and movement concepts than by traditional dance techniques. (Self-)care, diversity-sensible aspects, and the topos of the healing and awareness of states and functions of the body—such as breathing, sensing, listening, noticing, and settling into one's environments—are central to body-based practices. Only through this transfer of artistic practice into social experience can an intersubjective and inclusive exchange be initiated, one that permeates the dance house as a cultural site and at the same time the forms of life existing around it.

Transferred to the question how a dance house can participate in ecologizing a society, body-based practices can explore the role of (human) bodies in society and on the Earth. Because this is not about a farewell to the human body (as some posthuman utopias signal), but a search for possibilities of re-connection—through the dancing, moving body—to rehabilitate and reinvent it with the help of its physical intelligence. Less an instrument of expression or a medium of representation, the body can then be understood in its fluidity as a non-unitary subject immersed in the ecologies of the Earth, as it is implied in posthuman theories.[21] Which gestures and movements can be found to enter into these new relationships? How can dance as a reception- as well as production-activated aesthetic knowledge practice convey other forms of knowledge or expand knowledge about bodies of and through physical activities to create ecologies of dance? How can movement knowledge and contextualized corporeality as reflected in contemporary dance become part of practices that engage in post-anthropocentric modes of creativity?[22]

The curatorial aspect of the discourse in Dance House Organisms is not to be thought of in terms of productions, but rather in terms of practices. Dance is thus to be understood not least in its social function, and accordingly as a performative force with which temporary assembly spaces and multi-layered contexts of work and exchange are formed around the questions: How do we gather and learn from one another, and live with something that is not going to disappear again? To whom can agency be attributed through movement, and can it be transferred from body to body at all? What practices can we invent to find a better relationship living with the Earth and its rhythms? Can we invent practices that are no longer focused on artists’ productivity but on rethinking the modes of production and reception of art? And how can we create a milieu for “an experimental togetherness among practices, a dynamics of pragmatic learning of what works and how”[23] in order to “foster its own force, make present what causes practitioners to think and feel and act”[24]?

Curatorial Fluidities
Taking up transformative potentials of the Earth and connect it with the fluidity of moving bodies into an institution like a dance house is meant to continuously work on these questions (and not only represent them) as well as to take up different perspectives and ways of perception as a participatory mode of the curatorial. Caring, regenerating, participating (instead of controlling, exploiting, utilizing)[25] are the modes for rethinking the economies of production and collaboration as institutional ecologies. This critical examination is also associated with the notion of “performing the process of institutionalization,” [26] seen in the following way:

[A] radical shift in a temporal dimension of production, fighting the project logic, however at the same time allowing a multiplicity of proposals and imagination, through which modes of work and thinking are enabled, supported and also sustained. This can be only possible if this process is understood as […] a dedication to movement in the present time […] a difficult process of giving change to the present—visible between the repetition of the past and imagination of the future.[27]

Based on the assumption, as pointed out in the quote above, that formats such as performances are re-evaluated in their modes of (re)presentation and temporal dimension instead of as production-oriented work, body-based practices and performance as a socially engaged practice become the focus, and with that the role of the curatorial is also changing—it will be more about stimulating cyclical processes as well as establishing networks of knowledge that are based on practices of sharing, sustainability, and resilience and question hitherto traditional forms of knowledge production and transmission.

Capturing a house with bodies indicates setting social structures in motion, not only including the non-human actors of the Earth in these concepts and creating new entanglements between them to reflect on fair living conditions for all bodies, but also thinking about these structures transgenerationally, transhistorically, and transculturally as “naturecultures.”[28] This means creating multilayered and fluid constellations, networking with a worldwide society of humans and non-humans, and at the same time giving space to different publics, thus creating possible forms of interaction permeated by movements of (body) knowledge as well as a meandering discourse. Possibly, the curatorial itself instead becomes an organism, a system that in its intra-, inter-, and transdisciplinary complexity creates spaces and moments for all bodies alike and transforms the instability of a dance house into a mode of constant transformation.

In the sense of "a return to Earth"[29] as Bruno Latour describes it, the point is to deal with "a profound mutation in our relation to the world"[30] and to develop visions for new ways of working and living, but also to carry the awareness of the danger that life on the planet is threatened into the arts and to find productive ways of coping with it. Especially as a European institution, such a dance house would exist with the historical obligation to contribute to global sustainability and to find a way of dealing with Europe's heritage as a hitherto large consumer of resources. Thus, out of this gesture, a dance house should convey the complex mechanisms of the Earth and its organisms, as a future laboratory and with the help of the ecologies of dance—of moving bodies, through and in which one recognizes and seeks to understand oneself as part of nature and the Earth.

Miriam Althammer is a dance and theatre scholar, author, and curator. She studied theatre studies, art history, modern German literature (LMU Munich), and dance studies (University of Bern) and completed the course Curating in the Performing Arts (University of Salzburg/FU Berlin). She is currently a research associate focusing on "Archive, Media, Arts" at the Center for Contemporary Dance at the University for Music and Dance Cologne, where she received her PhD with a thesis on contemporary dance in Southeastern Europe. Further academic work include teaching and researching at the Dance Theatre Institute/Theatre Academy Krakow, at the Chair of Theatre Studies/University of Bayreuth, and at the Academy of Dance and Performance/National Center for Dance in Bucharest. Her research interests lie in practice-based dance and movement research. Her areas of focus are European dance histories, memory cultures, archive as practice, pre/re/enactment, notations/scores, oral history, artistic research, ecologies of dance and performances of plants, animals, and the non-human, strategies of the curatorial, and dissolutions of the arts. In addition to her academic work, she accompanies various projects, mostly located at the intersection of performative and visual arts, with curatorial and artistic research. She serves as a jury member at the Cultural Department/City of Munich and the Bavarian State Association for Contemporary Dance.


[1] See Michael Seaver, “Continental Shift,” Dance Theatre Journal 1 (2006): 1–4.

[2] Exceptions are The Place in London (est. 1966 as Contemporary Dance Trust) and the Centres Choréographiques in France, which emerged decentrally in the 1970s. See Sigrid Gareis, “Welche Institutionen braucht der Tanz?,” Website of RESO Tanznetzwerk Schweiz, accessed November 11, 2022, http://reso.ch/de/uid-42e969f0/uid-83c9b55a.

[3] IDEE-Initiatives through European Exchange was founded in 2005 as the forerunner of EDN (European Dancehouse Network) with the aim of strengthening the importance of dance houses in the field of European cultural policy. See Andrea Amort, “Echt EU: Tanzhäuser-Liaison. Tanzquartier Wien verbindet sich u.a. mit Paris, London, Düsseldorf, Cork,” Observer Wien (27.2. 2006): 30; https://www.ednetwork.eu/activities/idee.

[4] The Tanzquartier Wien (est. 2001) can serve as a model here as one of the first European dance houses. Other examples of structures that do not operate under the concept of a dance house but take up this model and apply principles of co-existence and dialogue to it are, for example, the Berlin Uferstudios (est. 2010), and the Balkan network Nomad Dance Academy (est. 2005), which focuses on “contemporary choreography as an artistic and social function” and an “eco-responsible way to provide good working conditions for artists and to connect them to other socially relevant contexts.” See Dejan Srhoj, “Dance house as the art of (co)existence: Interview with Gisela Müller and Barbara Friedrich,” Maska 29, No. 165-168 (2014): 140-149, https://nomaddanceacademy.org.

[5] See Franz Anton Cramer, “Bewegungspläne. Instabilität gestalten: Europäisches Symposium über Tanzpolitik,” Frankfurter Rundschau, February 2, 2006, 11.

[6] Approaches to these forms of kinship (as Donna Haraway defines as cross-species interrelationships) can increasingly be found in current art projects, such as Plant Fever: Design from the Plant Perspective (Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, 2021) or Vástádus eana: The answer is land (2021), by choreographer Elle Sofe Sara, which explores the ambivalent connection of the human to the ecosystem and our desire for kinship and belonging, using spiritual practices of the Sami.

[7] Nicole Haitzinger, “Die Kunst ist dazwischen: Konzepte, Programme und Manifeste zur kulturellen Institutionalisierung von Tanz,” in Choreographie und Institution, eds. Yvonne Hardt and Martin Stern (Bielefeld: transcript, 2014), 119–136; 135.

[8] Ludwig Trepl, Geschichte der Ökologie. Vom 17. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart. Zehn Vorlesungen (Frankfurt/Main: Athenäum,1987), 11.

[9] Isabelle Stengers, “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” Cultural Studies Review 11, No. 1 (March 2005): 183–196; 185.

[10] Ibid., 186.

[11] See Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2021).

[12] In the 1970s, the microbiologist Lynn Margulis and chemist, biophysicist, and physician James Lovelock had established the notion of the Earth as a living being and its personification as Gaia; See James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, “Atmospheric Homeostasis by and for the Biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis,” Tellus (Series A) 26, Nos. 1-2 (1974): 2–10.

[13] Stengers, “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” 187.

[14] Gabriele Brandstetter, “Written on Water: Choreographies of the Curatorial,” in Cultures of the Curatorial, eds. Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Schafaff, and Thomas Weski (London: Sternberg Press, 2012), 120–131; 120.

[15] Dorothea von Hantelmann, „Wie versammelt sich die globalisierte Welt des 21. Jahrhunderts?,” Course Curating in the Performing Arts, University of Salzburg, Webinar (April 24, 2021).

[16] Manuel Borja-Villel taken from Bojana Piškur, “Trees, More-Than-Human Collectives,” e-flux journal 119 (June 2021), accessed November 11, 2022, : https://www.e-flux.com/journal/119/402976/trees-more-than-human-collectives/, 1–8; 3.

[17] See Katja Schneider, “’We have a problem’: Manifest, Ökonomie und Ökologie im 21. Jahrhundert,” in Clear the Air: Künstler-Manifeste seit den 1960er Jahren, eds. Burcu Dogramaci and Katja Schneider (Bielefeld: transcript, 2017), 271–286; 272f.

[18] Stengers, “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” 192.

[19] An example of this vision is the project Environmental Dances by choreographer Christoph Winkler. It combines climate data with dance practice and explores local and global contexts in relation to the dancer’s relationship with landscapes.

[20] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 16.

[21] Ibid., 44 et seq.

[22] An example of a performative, body-based practice that combines with ecological principles is Body Weather (BW), which developed from the 1960s on, emerging from the Japanese Butoh tradition. It uses the practices of “slow movement and stillness” through “sensing” and “undoing” rather than “controlling the body” and seeks to connect the moving body to its environment and to cultivate a bodily attention. Pini points out that BW “shifts the focus from an egocentric perspective towards an ecological attunement.” See Sarah Pini, “On the Edge of Undoing: Ecologies of Agency in Body Weather,” in Collaborative Embodied Performance Ecologies of Skill, eds. Kate Bicknell and John Sutton (Bloomsbury: Methuen Drama, 2022), 35–52.

[23] Stengers, “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” 195.

[24] Ibid., 195.

[25] See Eva von Redecker, Revolution für das Leben. Philosophie der neuen Protestformen (Frankfurt/Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 2020).

[26] Bojana Kunst, “The Institutionalisation, Precarity and the Rhythm of Work”, Kunstenpunt, 2017, https://www.kunsten.be/dossiers/perspectief-kunstenaar/perspective-institution/4450-the-institutionalisation-precarity-and-the-rhythm-of-work.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Rosi Braidotti, Posthuman Knowledge (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019), 102.

[29] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017), 3.

[30] Ibid., 8.

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Issue 55

Curating Dance : Decolonizing Dance