The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Myriam De Clopper
Myriam De Clopper

Presenter Interview
Jul. 31, 2014
deSingel and its achievements as an international center for the arts in Antwerp 
deSingel and its achievements as an international center for the arts in Antwerp 
deSingel opened in Antwerp in 1980 as a comprehensive facility for the arts centering on an existing arts school (conservatoire). Under the direction of Frie Leysen, known as the founder of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, deSingel became an international arts center that would not only support the “Flemish Wave” of artists but also develop into an international arts base that actively undertook joint collaborative projects with Belgian and foreign artists. In this interview we learn about the history of achievements and present activities of deSingel by speaking with Myriam De Clopper, who currently serves as director of the performing arts department following Frie Leysen’s retirement as director.
Interviewer: Shintaro Fujii [Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University]

I would like to begin by asking you to give us a summary of the history and an outline of deSingel. It opened officially as deSingel in 1980, but I am told that its original structure as an institution actually predated that.
Yes. A Royal Conservatoire was founded in Antwerp in 1898 as an institute for the training of musicians and actors, and at that time it already was intended to have its own affiliated theater. However, it took some time before that scheme would be realized. Originally, the theater was not conceived to be solely an educational facility of the conservatoire but, rather, a place where performances from outside the institution could be held freely. Lately, deSingel has acquired the designation of “International Arts Campus” which further strengthens it identity as an arts and culture facility formed around the conservatoire.
In a recent reorganization, the conservatoire has merged with the Antwerp Royal Academy, which is known as the academy that has produced the six designers called the “Antwerp Six,” and the two institutions now form a university named Artemis. In addition to the specialized education provided at the university, we also provide lifetime education courses as another main element of our programs.
Regarding the architecture of our physical plant, to the original architecture by Léon Stynen (built in 1968, 1980), a number of additions have been made to the facilities by the architect Stephane Beel, while respecting the designs of the original Stynen architecture. Currently, the total floor space of our facilities is 46000 square meters. Our theater facilities include our concert hall called the Blue Hall (966 seats), our theater and dance theater called the Red Hall (803 seats) and we also have two smaller performance spaces in our Red Studio (270 seats) and Blue Studio. We also have in our facilities the Grand Café, which operates from 9:00 am to midnight and serves meals as well.
As institutions that function as separate organizations from deSingel, like the conservatoire, there is the Flemish Architectural Institute, and the offices of the Eastman company founded by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui are also located in our facilities. We also have quite a large library, as well as a radio station. And, there is also an organization here called Sabbatinni Employment Initiative that provides occupational training in theater technical and production jobs for young people who are unemployed, and our theater staff participates cooperate in this program.

deSingel is now known as one of the main theaters not only in Flanders but in all of Europe. What was the size of its budget when it started out? We hear that it was barely sufficient to operate.
As a theater, deSingel opened in 1980, but at that time it operated was strictly an empty stage facility fit only as a rental facility. It had no program or budget to speak of, and now story of how Frie Leysen was hired to manage it and help develop it is legendary. Since the conservatoire itself was not very large in scale, the facilities were too big for it and a lot of space wasn’t being used, so Frie rented out the theater facilities for performances and used that income to begin deSingel’s own programs starting from 1983. That was just around the time that a new group of artists later called the Flemish Wave were appearing on the scene. I started working at deSingel from around 1986, and when Frie moved on in 1992, I took over the post of head of the performing arts department.
About the year 1990, the Flanders government began to recognize our achievements, and after Antwerp was selected as a Culture Capital of Europe in 1993, we began to get stronger and more solid support from the government. Today deSingel is designated as one of the seven “Important Cultural Institutions” in the Flanders region along with the Flanders Opera, the Flanders Ballet and the Flanders Symphony Orchestra, etc. Flanders government funding for the main theaters and performance companies is decided on the basis of reviews and assessments conducted by advisory committees once every four years (biennially or yearly for smaller organizations). But deSingel is in a special category that is reviewed and budgeted one every five years, and we will be entering our negotiations with the Flanders government for our next 5-year budgeting review in 2016.
Regarding our budget, we receive roughly 6 million euro in funding. Of this, 1.5 million has to go for maintaining our physical plant, etc., but we are able to raise about the same amount through our ticket sales, funding from the Antwerp State and the City of Antwerp and from corporate philanthropy. Our budget breakdown is about 3 million euro for arts programs, 2 million for personnel costs, and another 1 million for the other sundry costs, publicity, travel expenses and operating expenses. The budget that I am responsible for is about 1.2 million from the arts program budget, and with it we put on about 120 performances of 30 or so works a year.
Antwerp (population: approx. 500,000; greater metropolitan area population: 1.2 million) is a central city of the Flanders region, but it is by no means a large city. All of the works that we put on at deSingel will have at least two performances and as many as six at most, and almost all of the productions we do are in collaboration with other theaters, so they will always involve a performance tour. Some of the works are created here in our own rehearsal studios at deSingel. By the way, the partners we often work with on collaborative productions are the Kunstenfeastivaldesarts, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Het Toneelhuis, the Holland Festival, Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, the national Théâtre de l’Odéon, Montpellier Danse, the Ruhr Triennale and others.

These are all certainly among Europe’s most respected theaters and festivals. What are the policies you apply when putting together deSingel’s performing arts program?
The deSingel program consists of four main areas, including architecture, theater, dance and music. Of these, I am responsible for the theater and dance programs. If we look at this season’s (2013-14) program as an example, in theater we had works by Britain’s Katie Michell, Spain’s Rodrigo García, Ivo van Hove, Zachary Oberzan, the internationally famous American director Robert Wilson, Spain’s Angélica Liddell, German’s Nicolas Stemann, De Warme Winkel, Rene Pollesch, Josse De Pauw, Italy’s Romeo Castellucci and Fance’s Patrice Chéreau. Of these, Ivo van Hove, De Warme Winkel and Josse De Pauw are Flemish directors, and Ivo is based in Amsterdam. As you surely know, Chéreau sadly passed away suddenly in the autumn of last year before the completion of the work, and rather than finding another work to replace it on the program we decided to simply cancel performances in that place of the program.
On our dance program we had pieces by Pina Bausch, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Emanuel Gat, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Boris Charmatz, Laurent Chétouane, Vincent Dupont, William Forsythe, Jan Fabre, Wim Vandekeybus, Alain Platel and Daniel Linehan. Sidi Larbi, Anne Teresa and Wim are Flemish choreographers and we had performances of two works of each of them. Emanuel Gat is an Israeli-born choreographer based now in France and he has been on the program at our theater about three times now. Charmatz, Chétouane and Dupont are French choreographers who create conceptual works. William Forsythe is an artist whom I greatly respect, so it is sad to hear that his company will be disbanded in the summer of 2015. American Daniel Linehan is a young choreographer studied at the PARTS dance school in Brussels and is now an associate artist at our theater. We plan to have him conducting workshops and creating new works for performance here at deSingel throughout the year.

This is also a very impressive list of top-class artists. A good number of them are artists that have been invited to Festival/Tokyo, SPAC and Dance Triennale so the Japanese audiences have been able to see performances of their works. I have also had the opportunity to invite Castellucci, Platel and Chétouane to my university to give lectures.
In addition to these performances, we also program short festivals during our season. Our theater and performance festival “Act” is held for two weeks in November. Our dance and performance festival “Bouche B” is held for a week in late April. The name is a play on the French expression bouche bée (the mouth hanging open in surprise or when dumbfounded) and using the B of B-class. We began these festivals last year, but they were so well received that we plan to continue them.
Another original deSingel program is our Salon de la Pensée (Salon of Thought). Each time we choose a different social issue as our subject for discussion and invite guest speakers to participate in philosophical and artistic discussions. In our last one we had discussion on the question of whether pornography can attain to art. For the next one our subject of discussion will be “Is Free Will No More Than an Illusion?” In this way, we hold these discussions twice a year on a Sunday from 11:00 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon in a relaxed atmosphere with a light lunch in the middle. We place great importance on platforms like this that stimulate critical thought and debate.

In Antwerp, besides deSingel there is Het Toneelhuis (Bourla Theatre) under the leadership of artistic director Guy Cassiers, the unique small theater Monty, the Laboratorium where Jan Farbre’s company Troubleyn is based, and there are also the theaters of the Royal Ballet Flanders and Flanders Opera among others. This makes for a very theater-intense environment. What is the position, or orientation of deSingel in relation to these other institutions, and do you cooperate with each other?
In general terms, deSingel is strongly oriented toward international programs and we don’t have a very large ratio of Flemish artists represented in our programs. In contrast, the municipal theaters of Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels have a strong orientation toward Flemish theater in their programs and they devote considerable efforts to maintaining that repertory. In the field of dance, I feel that ballet is an established art and one supported by the Flanders Ballet, so we at deSingel concentrate our programming on contemporary ballet like that of Forsythe and contemporary dance. As for cooperation between the theaters of Antwerp, we have a communal system “Abonnement” in which we use advance-reservation discounting that allows audience to choose between performances going on at the various theaters and get a discount. And under this system, cases of people from the deSingel audience making a reservation to see a performance at Het Toneelhuis may occur more frequently than the reverse case.

It seems paradoxical that although Antwerp is enjoying the greatest economic prosperity of any place in the Flanders region, it is also known to have a tradition of strong rightist politics. The conservative New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) that supports the secession of Flanders from Belgium has become the largest party in the federal parliament and the party leader, Bar de Wever, became the mayor of Antwerp from January 1st 2013. Have there been any effects for you from these political developments?
I myself am a native of Antwerp, and I feel that indeed it is a city full of such paradox. Fortunately, we receive very little support from the municipal government of Antwerp to begin with, so we at deSingel are not affected by the municipal politics very much. On the other hand, Het Toneelhuis receives funding from the Flanders government but because of its stronger orientation as a municipal theater of Antwerp, there have been big cuts in its funding, and we hear that it is negatively affecting their programs.
On May 25th, the 2014 elections for Belgium’s federal parliament, the three regional governments (Flanders, Wallonie, Brussels-Capital Region) and the European parliament will all be held at the same time, and the predictions are that N-VA will score a victory with move than 30% of the vote. The N-VA policy concerning funding for the arts and culture is very poor, but there will also be effects of the policies of the other parties in its coalition, and since our theater’s management and budget are currently in good shape, I believe we will be able to get by without much negative effect.
The population of Belgium and Flanders are not large, but the amount of artistic creativity you will find here is truly amazing, I believe. In terms of the visual arts, I feel that the creative activity and quality is in no way inferior to Holland, despite our having only half the population. Although Brussels is a small city, I think you can say that in terms of contemporary dance it stands on par with Paris. Thanks to the dance school PARTS created by Keersmaeker, we have young talent coming from all over the world to study, and many of them stay and continue to be active in Brussels after they graduate. These are facts that all politicians surely must recognize, and I believe that it stands as proof that arts and culture funding is being used more effectively than in other countries.
On the other hand, in these elections we have had, the arts and culture do not become a topic of political focus at all. From now on, we have to ask how we can make the arts an issue with a proper position in the political debate, we have to ask the political parties and the politicians to consider this issue seriously, and we are now involved in a campaign to bring attention to this issue.

Although this isn’t something that applies to Flanders alone, I get the impression that from the 1980 to the present, the creative leaders active on the front line continue to be artists from the generation born in the late 1950s, including Keersmaeker, Farbre and Platel. Is the next generation of creators moving up to eventually take their place.
On the surface that may be the impression many people get, but we have all been working seriously to deal with this issue. Of course, at the Conservatoire that coexists with deSingel there is new talent being born constantly, and Keersmaeker’s school PARTS has already produced many fine artists. The “Antwerp Six” are designers from the Royal Arts Academy. Many choreographers besides Alain Platel himself are affiliated with his Les Ballets C de la B and presenting their works there, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui was also from this company originally. In the same way, Jan Fabre’s Laboratorium has taken in and nurtured many young talents. And these young artists are not limited to natives of Flanders. In the generation before them, Gerard Mortier, who formerly served as manager of the La Monnaie and the Paris Opera, had a very strong awareness of the need to nurture young talent and actively employed them. Unfortunately, Mortier also passed away recently. How to carry on his spirit and achievements in the next generation is a very important issue that must be dealt with.
Whether it is in theater, dance, the visual arts or fashion design, the artists of Flanders each have their own methodologies and aesthetic orientations; they do not constitute one school of artistic values. Nonetheless, people with high qualifications come from around the world to study here at these educational institutions with their very demanding standards and they work hard to meet those high standards. The important thing, I believe, is to prepare an environment with an atmosphere of freedom where they can stimulate each other.

I hear that you are preparing to introduce Japanese traditional performing arts.
Basically I focus my programming almost exclusively on contemporary European performing arts, but for about the last ten years I have wanted to bring Japanese traditional arts like Noh and Bunraku here to deSingel somehow. Earlier I mentioned that I think ballet is too fixed as an art. Japanese traditional arts also have this aspect of fixed codes of performance, but the difference with ballet is their highly abstract aesthetics. Since inviting them to perform here requires an understandably large budget, I want to take several years to work on educating our audience about these arts and gathering enough theaters and festivals so that we can organize a tour that will provide the proper conditions for introducing Japanese traditional arts here.

This gives us a lot to look forward to. I would like to thank you for joining us for this wonderful interview.