Tanzhaus NRW: a holistic approach to access

In the first of a series of case studies on organisations which demonstrate best practice, journalist Bella Todd investigates the measures Tanzhaus NRW, a performing arts venue in Düsseldorf, Germany, has taken to transform its access offer for both artists and audiences.

Outside of venue
Tanzhaus NRW. Photograph: Katja Illner

In 2014, Tanzhaus NRW undertook a journey that would shape its artistic output, its audience, its governance, its building – and its very conception of dance. This contemporary dance house in Düsseldorf combines cutting-edge performance with a huge community dance programme. Under Artistic Director Bettina Masuch, over the last half decade, it has changed the way it engages with disability, both on stage and off. From the development of, a dance camp for disabled and non-disabled young people to the groundbreaking programme Real Bodies, from the instrumental presence of artist-in-residence Claire Cunninghamto the establishment of an Internal Working Group. Access is approached holistically, and diversity placed at the heart of the organisation.

Tanzhaus NRW is now an internationally acclaimed cultural institution. But this isn’t a story of getting everything right first time. What emerges most powerfully from this venue’s experience is a distinction between meeting every access need off the bat, and being ready to learn.

It all began with a stark realisation. In 2012, Masuch attended the British Dance Edition in London, where she was struck by the diversity of the choreographers and dancers. Travelling on to a platform in Germany, she noticed that, “they were all white, young, fit, able-bodied. I thought: ‘we intend to speak about the world, but do we really represent it on stage?’” When Masuch became Artistic Director of Tanzhaus NRW in 2014, she brought this spark of inquiry with her.

The first step was a simple act of re-labelling. Every year, Tanzhaus NRW holds a dance camp for young people. In 2015, the decision was taken to call it an Inclusive Dance Camp (changed to Mixed-Abled Dance Camp in 2018), with specific invitations extended to schools for disabled children.

“We had no clue what we would do,” recalls Mijke Harmsen, the dramaturg (programmer/curator) responsible for youth work. “We just decided to do it, and to open up this learning process. That first year it was a lot about practical questions: making the groups smaller, mixing up the ages, thinking about transport, longer breaks, accessible toilets… We met intensively, so we could respond to every new challenge as it came up.” What Tanzhaus NRW hadn’t anticipated was an instinctive shift in teaching style. Instead of handing down a choreography for the participants to copy, the teachers now began with improvisation, gauging each young dancer’s individual qualities.

Blindfolded man kneeling on a sports court
Alessandro Sciarroni’s Aurora. Photograph: Alessandro Sciarroni

Having begun with a practical change, in 2016 Tanzhaus NRW got theoretical. Real Bodies was a year-long programme of performances exploring physicality in the 21st century, including Alessandro Sciarroni’s Aurora, based around the Paralympic game of goalball. Real Bodies was contextualised in a 32-page journal, and accompanied by a photo campaign showing dancers of all shapes and sizes.

Masuch recalls how one huge poster, featuring a dancer with a prosthetic leg, was displayed in the foyer. “I overheard one couple say to each other: ‘finally our daughter sees that, yes, she can do this!’” Other responses, in the local community and media, weren’t so positive. “It was a lot about, ‘this is not beautiful, dance must be about beauty, about virtuosity, about synchronicity…’,” recalls Harmsen. “But from there, you can ask, ‘why’? From there, important discussion starts.”

Change wasn’t just taking place in the eyes of the audience. “We ourselves could no longer watch performances with very ‘mono’ bodies on stage,” says Harmsen. “I still remember watching a performance and thinking, ‘one year ago, I would have found this really interesting, but there are only these white, thin, able bodies – it’s not enough. It’s not enough!’” When Real Bodies had run its course, there was no question that disabled dancers should be invited to respond to the following year’s theme, whatever that might be.

Among them was Claire Cunningham, a Scottish performer who uses crutches. In 2017, she became one of three Factory Artists – a spin on the idea of the resident artist – who would use Tanzhaus NRW as a research, production and performance space for the next 2.5 years.

Claire Cunningham on crutches balancing on teacups
Claire Cunningham Guide Gods. Photograph: Brian Hartley

“The invitation of Claire as one of our Factory Artists was the logical consequence of everything,” says Masuch, “besides the fact I think she’s one of the most interesting dancers and choreographers of our time. But we for sure underestimated the complexity of it. We asked Claire to do a tour of our venue and comment on accessibility. It’s very striking, to enter your own building through the eyes of somebody with a different ability.”

“We always thought that we had an accessible house because it’s very broad and the doors are wide and it’s all on the first floor,” explains Harmsen. “But now we realised: not everyone can open heavy fire doors, the information counters are too high, not every visitor has a key for the disabled toilet. Claire once told us: ‘I can’t look into the mirrors’. So we began by tilting just one…”

How did Cunningham experience working with Tanzhaus NRW at this stage in their access journey?  

“I really felt their desire to learn,” she says. “They were very open and keen: ‘tell us what we need to change’. They’ve built a house that is genuinely interested in broadening the aesthetic of dance. Disability is part of the artistic vision rather than a tokenistic, tick-box gesture.”

Working with Cunningham also encouraged Tanzhaus NRW to think about access as a creative opportunity, something they are now taking forward into future projects with regional artists. Cunningham’s show Guide Gods (appearing under 2018’s umbrella theme of ceremony and ritual) embeds sign language and audio description as an artistic tool. For many months, Cunningham and Harmsen also wrestled with adding German-language audio description. When this proved impossible, Tanzhaus NRW learnt another key lesson: you can’t do everything – but if you can’t make something accessible, at least state that in the marketing. Tanzhaus NRW now has a set of accessibility logos, devised by a trainee, to use in its programmes.

“With every step we take we open up 10 new questions,” Harmsen reflects. “Which is of course exciting, but there are moments when it’s frustrating as well. It’s very easy to take that decision: ‘let’s do it!’ To really get this into your system is a longer process.”

Children in a dance class
Children at Tanzhaus NRW’s dance camp. Photograph: Katja Illner

With this in mind, in 2018 Tanzhaus NRW set up an Internal Working Group to focus on access. It includes someone from every department, covering the venue, communication, accessible performances, mixed-ability courses, mixed-ability companies, and the team. The Communication subgroup also considers the language used internally. The Team subgroup, meanwhile, addresses the diversity of the staff; an intern who uses a wheelchair will start this Spring.  

Tanzhaus NRW does not monitor the diversity of its audience: none of this is “numbers-driven”. But change has been palpable. Guide Gods was attended by a number of children who are hard of hearing. Harmsen laughs appreciatively as she recalls how they declined Cunningham’s invitation to vacate their chairs for the adults and sit on the cushions down front (“I thought, ‘yes! This is our new empowered youth!’”) At Every Body Electric, a recent show from Austrian choreographer Doris Uhlich, Masuch noticed many wheelchairs in the audience as well as on stage: “and of course, that has to do with each other”.

As Cunningham concludes, you have to start somewhere. “I guess access is a little bit like when people decide to wait to have children until they’re ready,” she says. “Perhaps it’s impossible to ever be completely ready. Because you can’t define who the person is who’s going to come through your doors.”

Harmsen, who is currently developing an inclusive youth company, concurs: “Always start from individual needs and don’t be afraid of them – see this as a possibility, not a negative challenge. It’s really all about changing the way we meet each other. And then practical questions come after.”

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