The year of livestreaming: “Of course you have to pay for it!”

Journalist Ben Van Alboom's takeaways from 'Cultural Revolution with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Ivo van Hove' - 04.02

Saying that 2020 should have been the year of Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker would be overly dramatic – the same goes for every single year for the past decade. But still. At the start of 2020, their hotly debated version of the legendary musical West Side Story premiered on Broadway. And then came along COVID-19.

“Forget everything you know about West Side Story,” wrote De Standaard (a Belgian newspaper) in February. “The new staging by Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is “da real shit”. In their pitch-black exploration of metropolitan violence in the year 2020, there’s no sticky-sweetness to be found. The result is downright stunning.”

As it turned out soon, sticky-sweetness unfortunately was not the only thing that was sorely lacking on Broadway anno 2020. On March 12, all theaters in New York closed and with them the audiences disappeared – indefinitely. “The damage will only become apparent when things start up again,” believes director Ivo van Hove. Of the gigantic crew with whom he made West Side Story, most now moved back in with their parents or outside the city. “After two, three weeks people were already looking for another job.” This is in stark contrast to the team at ITA, formerly Toneelgroep Amsterdam, where van Hove is director. “They are overjoyed to have job security.”

Some might argue it’s a good thing that people in the American cultural sector can be so flexible. But choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker sees it differently: “Anyone who says we should emulate the American model, which is supposedly self-sustaining, should know that thirty percent of American museums won’t survive the pandemic without government support. That’s a clear lesson.” 

However, there are other lessons that both De Keersmaeker and van Hove learned this year. Although sometimes the coronavirus was the accelerator rather than the cause. van Hove says: “At ITA, we had already decided two years ago to focus on livestreams as well. In London I had gotten to know National Theatre Live, and in France you have ARTE and Pathé Live.” Platforms that stream theater, concerts, opera, dance, comedy and even exhibitions. Albeit not always directly into the living room, but into the cinema. 

“That was our intention as well,’ van Hove continues. “In London I noticed how this results in a broadening of the audience. But we simply didn’t get to implementing it at ITA yet. Until a sudden need arose and we finally had the time to think about it. Because this broadening of the audience won’t happen if you deliver something crappy. That’s why we decided, from the start, to involve a tv crew, including a director who is used to capturing rock concerts.”

Just to be clear: these livestreams weren’t for free. Unlike the company’s successful reading sessions (ITA took on the Decamerone and Alice in Wonderland) people actually had to buy a ticket to watch ITA’s performances. “Since the coronavirus popped up, I haven’t gotten a free loaf of bread at the baker’s either,” laughs van Hove. “We get half of our income from ticket sales, so it’s essential to us. Furthermore, we didn’t organise these four livestreams to keep ourselves busy. We want to keep doing them in the future. So the most important motivation was to experiment and find out if they actually work. And as it turns out, we actually were able to break even. We even made a profit with the last one.” 

Anne Teresa De Keersmeaker also experimented with livestreaming in 2020. Even though it was rather frustration that motivated her. “We’d gotten together a troupe of young dancers to perform Drumming again. Even though we knew we’d never be able to perform at Kaaitheater (Brussels) for 800 people, because of the virus. So we made it into a long run in our Rosas Performance Space, for a smaller audience. But due to stricter corona measures we were unable to perform here as well. However, the dancers had worked so hard on it that I decided to livestream the performance. Only in this case, it had to look really good! I didn’t want to just set up a camera there. We completely reimagined the performance.

Van Hove strongly believes in this approach as well: “You should never simply capture a performance. You really have to film it. Although I’m not sure how we’ll do so, when there is an audience in the room again. Now we could place the cameras anywhere we wanted, so the audience got a view of the stage you could never have from the theater itself. That will be a challenge.” Luckily, tackling challenges has become a habit to ITA. “We are now really taking advantage of the moment to experiment with livestreams,” van Hove continues. “We did a monologue – a challenge in itself – and soon we’ll do a rerun of Kings of War. That is a complicated four-hour performance, but it also includes a break, so that people can cook something at home.”

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, on the other hand, has not set up paying livestreams yet. Because, according to her, it wouldn’t make a difference. “Three quarters of our resources come from our own revenue,” De Keersmaeker explains. “This year we had to cancel 180 performances. Our business plan is pretty much screwed.” Which isn’t to say she doesn’t believe in livestreams and video, because she always has anyway. In 1994, she made the sublime dance film Achterland and in 1997 Thierry De Mey filmed Rosas danst Rosas.

“Globally, there are more people that have seen the film than people who’ve watched the performance in a theater,” says De Keersmaeker. “And that show has been performed a lot.” But she doesn’t mind. “It’s a different way of dealing with time and space, and I have always considered those films as an equal experience.”

She quickly adds that both experiences aren’t interchangeable. “You get to see more details on film, but in the theater you have that feeling of all sitting around a fire together. That is something completely different. But I certainly believe in video too. You just have to have the resources to do it properly.” And those resources can be found in the ticket sales, according to van Hove. “What’s more: I think that is also a condition to demand the viewer’s attention. Whoever pays, chooses to look at something.

And perhaps such livestreams also provide a more eco-friendly approach, De Keersmaeker thinks: “Of course we don’t want to go back to the time when Bach was only performing in Leipzig. But do we have to travel the world with trucks full of theatrical sceneries all the time? We have to think global and act local. Finding a right balance, that will be our challenge for the future.