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Offstage and Up-close: Anna Efraimsson, Theatre Director

Continuing our interview series focusing on dance and choreography, we pick Anna Efraimsson's brains about recent cuts in funding, branching out and running Moderna Dansteatern (MDT), one of the leading venues for contemporary choreography and performance in the Nordic region.

Photo: Märta Thisner

C-P: You were appointed theatre director of MDT in the midst of Covid-19. We were in touch shortly regarding a project shortly after you took over the helm so I remember that times were crazy. Now some years later and luckily with the pandemic behind us; how have you settled in in your role?

A.E: Yes, I have settled in the role and have grown with it. I love this job. MDT is an amazing meeting spot and workplace for so many local and international dance artists, producers, thinkers, and of course audiences.  MDT is small, and sometimes we appear bigger than we are as though we are an institution even, but in fact we are a so-called “free stage”, meaning we have the same status (and bag of money) as an independent company. The smallness of it means my role as Theatre Director involves a lot of managerial tasks; budget, staff, a lot of fundraising work as well as overseeing the artistic vision. Things can move fast; and one must make quick decisions. I love working closely with artists and with our audience. I also love working with my colleagues, the MDT team is truly stellar.


I have had this role for four years now, and my contract was recently renewed for a further four years, I am extremely thankful for that. I was appointed in 2020, and it’s been a few wild years, no doubt. My first two years went to the pandemic, and then in 2022 and 2023 my colleagues and I were finally able to work more freely, and we’ve built up something that I am really proud of. To list a few, we solidified the way we co-produce works, we are consistently working towards and committed to inclusively on and off stage, and have launched a “pay what you can '' ticketing scheme to lower thresholds and ensure we are more accessible. We started a festival in collaboration with other partners on the island of Skeppsholmen – Lustholmen, and we started working closely with a group of teenagers.


As part of my vision, I enjoy inviting external curators in to curate parts of our programme, such as, to mention a few, Alma Söderberg with “eareye”, Andrea Rodrigo with “Amarre” and Ulrika Flink with Rado Istok with “Optical Alignment”. Collaborating always brings energy, new impulses and works that I may not have brought into the space.


Last but not least, we showed some inspirational and thought provoking local and international works, and sustained and developed our international networks over the years. In 2024 new challenges have arisen, given the cultural politics and the cuts of funding. It’s a tough financial landscape to be faced with, but I still hold onto hope that the dance community can weather it together.


Let’s see what adventures will come, I am sure there will be many.


C-P: How do you work with your team?


A.E: MDT’s team is very important. Everyone has deep and valuable knowledge of their respective work tasks and roles, and everyone is invested in artistic processes and artists. We work both independently and we do a lot of thinking together. Our amazing hosts are working artists and curators as well as being hosts: Diana Agunbiade-Kolawole, Vincent Duraud, Sona Stepanyan and Joel Nenander. This goes for many of our office staff too, who also have their own artistic and curatorial practices on the side: Jessie McLaughlin is a writer and curator, Masha Kotlyachkova is an artist and curator and Mmabatho Thobejane is a visual arts curator and healer. Even our finance person (Henrik Bäckbro) used to be a mime artist. Björn Kuajara is in charge of technical matters and planning. Hanna Erlman is an administrative producer. Mmabatho Thobejane is producing projects and curating our public programme Off Stage. Jessie McLaughlin and Masha Kotlyachkova are also producing projects but are having leave of absence.


C-P: The talk of town, across all artistic fields but especially in the dance field, are the severe cuts in funding which you already touched upon. For next year, less than 10% of all the applications to the Swedish Art Council have been granted. That is wild. How are you coping with this situation?

A.E: Yes, the past three rounds of project grants result from the Arts Council have been paralyzing, so few were granted as you say, only around 10%. In 2022, there was some reinstating of the grants for performing arts and music, around 14 million went to dance and circus at Kulturrådet. That, plus all the post-covid support was taken away at once, made the shift brutal. Many artists are having to leave the field or move elsewhere. At MDT, we were forced to downsize, for example by letting go of important staff. It's crucial to say that dance and choreography has always been underfunded, and we are used to operating with small resources, but what we are facing now is extreme.


In response, we are in close conversation with the artists that we are working with about how they are affected and how we can support them. We have started a local network of dance organizations in the city of Stockholm. We are meeting politicians and trying to advocate for dance. This weekend just gone, my colleague Sara Bergsmark and I organized a gathering with international and local speakers focusing on culture politics. An attendee described it as both depressing yet also strengthening. Gatherings and collaborations make us more united; we find arguments and stand in solidarity with one another.


My job has always been to fundraise, but now it has become even more so. I must also begin to think beyond our usual sources of income. I recognize this trend from the US, where I lived a few years, one of opening the door and gearing up the tool box to pursue private foundations and the philanthropy fundraising model. It feels like a huge and also very alarming shift. I have spent time speaking about the severity of the state of things in the Swedish media, but I honestly don’t know if it helps. I am torn, on the one hand I feel like we must raise our voices, on the other hand I am not sure if this actually helps. One thing I have learned about trying to advocate for dance these past months is that one should not directly speak about the need for more public funds. However, it’s hard not to, but we need training in advocacy. There is so much pedagogical work to be done when it comes to depicting the realities of how artists work and within that how dance artists and what they need and how they can be supported to make the best and the most challenging work.


It’s an important aspect of my work, and I find it interesting, but I would have to clone myself to have enough time to address it in the ways I want to. Sometimes, I am afraid I get too far away from the art and artists when I have to work so much with funding issues and politics. But there are things we can do also amongst us in the field. To lift one example up that perhaps could work as a model for more situations and across art sectors – an institution sponsoring with their budget and staff to make something happen in the independent scene. Dansens Hus is this Autumn supporting the festival My Wild Flag with money to invite international acts, as well as funding for technical and producing staff. MDT is hosting the festival and bringing in mainly staff resources. This brings me hope and I wish more institutions would realize how powerful their role in the whole ecology of the dance scene can be and use it to support the independent scene so much more than is currently the case. We all recognize that My Wild Flag needs to survive but as they were unsuccessful in securing project funds, without us joining forces this year’s festival might not have happened.

Photo: Märta Thisner

C-P: Tell me a little about your professional background prior to MDT?

A.E: I worked for some years at DOCH which then fused with some other arts academies and became Stockholm University of the Arts (SKH). There I worked as the Head of the Dance Department and before that as a lecturer. Before that in 2013-14, I studied an educational programme called Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance, ICPP, at Wesleyan University. It was an incredibly formative experience for me. Later I started a curatorial platform – The Blob – doing several freelance projects, one being an exchange between Istanbul and Stockholm based artists. I started up the International Dance Programme at Konstnärsnämnden (sort of a parallel to IASPIS but for dance) and I have also worked closely with Mossutställningar and Stella D’Ailly. I worked for some years as a curator/producer for performing arts at Kulturhuset (now called Kulturhuset Stadsteatern). Finally, I can’t pass on the opportunity to mention my first curation schooling experience- working as a curator assistant for Curator of Dance and Performance Dean Moss at the Kitchen in New York.


C-P: What I really appreciate about you, aside from your artistic eye, is how personable you are in person. You’ve very approachable at openings and events. I find that quite rare among artistic directors and senior curators.

A.E: That is so nice to hear, being approachable and transparent are values that I work for.


C-P: Also, something that has noticeably changed under your watch, are all the collaborative efforts; with Moderna museet, the annual art festival September Session (now in its second edition) or the current Ms. Vaginal Davis “takeover” which involves several institutions across town. 

A.E: Collaborations are key, partly because MDT is so small. Working together with others enables more audiences and platforms with dance and choreography. Also, collaborating is fun and one learns a lot and can exchange knowledge about artists, working methods and networks. I have always been a fan of multidisciplinary approaches.


Hendrik Folkerts, curator at Moderna Museet, is very knowledgeable in performance, dance and choreography and we share many interests and aesthetics. Due to these shared interests, MDT and Moderna Museet have worked together on several collaborations, and hope to continue to do more. In February of this year, we worked together to present Dana Michel, which was so much fun, really re-configuring the museum experience in so many ways. Another memorable collaboration with Moderna Museet was when MDT’s Jessie McLaughlin curated a performance with BamBam Frost and Lydia Östberg Diakité for the Lynette Yiadom-Boakye exhibition back in 2021.


One other collaborative effort I want to mention again is Lustholmen. Lustholmen was the name of the island Skeppsholmen (according to the legend and Wikipedia). Since 2021 (minus this year due to scarse funding and resources) we have taken this legend and used it to make things in possible and impossible spaces with organisations on and outside the island. Our collaborators on the festival have included Toymuseum, Moderna museet, ArkDes, and Anrikningsverket and more. The idea of Lustholmen is to work site specifically, to use the island. Next year, we plan to tap into the military history of the island, and put this history in dialogue with our current context, Sweden’s new membership of NATO and status as one of the biggest weapons exporting countries in the world.

C-P: Speaking of collaboration; when will we finally see a collaboration with your arch rival Weld?

A.E: We believe in supporting all the field and its artists, and are in conversation with Weld in several ways. But yes, we should definitely organize something together!


C-P: That was a joke, of course. Out of curiosity, however, what is that one piece that you’ve seen that you keep coming back to in your mind?

That is such a good question. I don’t know if I have that one work that I keep coming back to…. it would be neat if I could mention a seminal choreographic work…. but no. I remember that Yoko Ono’s “Grapefruit” and all the things she did for Fluxus had a huge impact on me for many years in my 20's, probably still has a big influence on my curating. The playfulness, humor and sharpness – that is something I always try to bring with me.


C-P: From your position, as one of the key people in the dance scene, how do you see the local scene?

A.E: It’s a vibrant scene. Or shall one say rather, “scenes” plural. The local dance scene consists of several scenes I suppose, and I don’t know all of them, but I am always curious to meet new artists and practices. The contemporary/experimental scene is the one that MDT is mostly working with. But we have also hosted initiatives and artists who are coming more from street, ballroom, freestyle, the club scene, flamenco etc.


The programmes in Dance and Choreography at Stockholm University of the Arts (SKH) have been influential in creating an international milieu which keeps developing the discourse around dance and choreography and brings a lot of international students who actually decide to stay in Stockholm after they have graduated. This creates a rich milieu of practitioners and thinkers which I think is really special and important to the scene here.

Photo: Märta Thisner


C-P: Lastly, can you give us some hints on your upcoming fall program?

A.E: Very hard to pick! We are incredibly proud to be opening the season with the festival My Wild Flag (curated by Karina Sarkissova and Pontus Pettersson). They have built up something very unique over many years and their curation is always cutting edge. They will bring stage works by Ewa Dziarnowska, Tiran Willemse and Marga Alfeirão are not to be missed. This year’s festival also includes a collaboration with Moderna Museet. We are one of the stops of the amazing expansive exhibition of Ms. Vaginal Davis, who will present one of her movie nights with screenings of two movies, and we are all very much looking forward to it.


We are actually doing multiple festivals this season, plus a reoccurring one; Within Practice which is a festival of workshops and meetings with artists through their practices, not through their final works. Choreographer Björn Säfsten is the main artistic director and we have been bouncing ideas and choosing selected artists together. This year offers a great line up with locally and internationally based dance artists: Andrew Tay, Cullberg, Jeanine Durning Mette Edvardsen, Shirley Harthey Ubilla and Stina Nyberg.


Every year, we commit to giving one work a longer performance run in the MDT Studio and this year we are collaborating with the duo OR/ELLER as they make the work “DOLLY”, where they allow three sources of inspiration to lead the work: Dolly the sheep, Dolly Parton the iconic country singer and the doll. The work welcomes both young audiences as well as older adult ones, so I am very curious to see how it will unravel.

/Koshik Zaman

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