Heidi Rustgaard interview
with Maria Geisler and Marianna Clešlak

Maria Geisler [M. G.]: Let’s start with a question about the beginning of your cooperation with Hanna Gillgren. How did you start working together?

Heidi Rustgaard [H.R]: Hanna and I were both trained to be dancers. We used to go to a morning professional class after we graduated, and then we connected through that. We realised that there were a lot of shared interests. Moreover, we were both Nordic people living in the UK, which was an important part of connecting. Hanna was already working by herself, and she invited me to work with her on one of her projects. Then, we decided to join forces and started working together.
That is our brief history behind the choreographic works. At the beginning, we worked not only on our own projects, but also as dancers for other people. Initially, our shared work was not our main interest, but gradually over time it was becoming more and more essential to invest in our own projects. We used to work more in the UK, as we live and studied there. That was the reason why we did not have many connections in the Nordic countries, so it took a bit of time to establish those and find work in Norway and Sweden.
With the festival, we started in 2018, so there have been two editions so far. Just before the pandemic, and then during the pandemic, we created something called Fest en Fest – LAB which was online. It wasn’t supposed to be online, but it had to be. Fest en Fest – LAB was focused more on presenting artists, processes and conversations.

Marianna Cieślak [M. C.]: Why did you decide to make a festival in the UK, not in Sweden or Norway?

H.R: There are many reasons. At first, I thought about setting up a festival in Norway aimed at presenting British works because there is very little exchange of performance art between the UK and the Nordic countries., The Nordic countries are noticeably connected to the rest of Europe, but the UK is somewhat outside. I saw that as an opportunity to invite artist from the Nordic countries, as well as promote artists originating from the United Kingdom there. We wanted to spread awareness that the UK is a place where there are a lot of things happening, because it was not viewed in such a way.
Another reason was connecting the artists. There are not many spaces in London where artists can get together to talk about work and create support networks among ourselves. The festival frames expanded choreographic practices, which does not occur in other already established festivals. Furthermore, although big festivals, Dance Umbrella for example, reach broader audiences in different parts of London, they do not provide artists with already mentioned opportunity to gather and come together.

M. G.: Was it hard to create this festival in such a big city as London, where there are a lot of other festivals. How do you try to make your festival more seen?

H. R.: It is always difficult to establish something new. Fortunately, as choreographers, we had already known that it will take probably as much time as it takes to create a place for oneself in the artistic community. There are so many things to tackle with the festival, it might be we are a bit overambitious. One of those challenges was finding appropriate space. In the meanwhile, I started teaching at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, which is an educational institution. It made me realise that I had this opportunity to actually use space at Laban, which could benefit other artists.
Usually the institutions are closed for the people who are not students there, but the spaces they have are often empty, for example during the holiday period.
We decided to make it very local, so it is in Deptford, an area in southeast London. There are two grand educational intuitions there: Laban, where I teach, and a university called Goldsmiths, University of London.
There is also a theatre space that presents more community based work called the Albany. So there were all these spaces very close together in this small area of London. Our reasoning was that if people come to Deptford, they would stay for the whole day, which we would fill with our programme. They would not be wasting time on commuting just for one performance.
This is exactly our thinking about how you care for the audience. We have a full programme for the entire day, which in my opinion creates a sense of gathering and an open space for conversations. All this sort of in-betweens are very important to the festival as well. This is why we called it Fest and Fest. “Fest” is not only short for festival, but it also means a party in Norwegian and Swedish. The party is very much a part of the festival.
We also wanted to provide the incoming artists with an opportunity to show their works, not only in London. One theatre in Cambridge and one in Colchester collaborate with us, so we are able to show the works there.

M. C.: What is your target audience? Do you have people who you want to reach, you are just working with whoever is already interested?

H. R.: We are trying to fill a gap and create space for artists together. They are our main audience, and this is actually something the Arts Council in England is not so keen on. However, I do think this is an important part of cultural life, particularly in such a big city like London, where it is difficult for artists to come together.

M. G.: Do you in any way involve teenagers or students to help you with the festival?

H. R.: We are developing a programme for young people by giving the opportunity to teenagers to curate the festival. We want to facilitate ideas of their perfect festival, so they do not have to limit themselves to choreography. However, it is a separate project.

Laban is not really engaged in the festival beyond giving us the space. We get support from technical staff; infrastructure, equipment and space of course have a lot of value. But we are trying to find ways for the festival to become part of the curriculum, or at least something more integral to it. For example, many international artists come for the festival, so it would make sense for them to address the students. The experience of the artists is extremely valuable to share. However, it is a broader problem of institutions not exchanging information and integrating the artists into the life of the city. So in this context, we would like to get institutions to communicate with each other.

M. G.: What about funding from embassies. Is it hard to obtain it?

H. R.: It depends on the embassy and what kind of money they are able to reserve for cultural projects. We acquire money from the Norwegian and Swedish Embassy, they supported us each time. However, it is a more long-term relationship, as they had previously supported us on touring our work in the UK. Having a relationship is crucial, because it is not only applications people see, but actual human beings. Furthermore, the Norwegian Embassy is quite different to the Swedish Embassy. The Swedish do not have a proper application form that you can fill in. One just asks whether they are able to support a certain project. Norwegian embassy has a more formal process where you have to fill in the application form and do the proper budget.
The main part of the funding comes from the UK, from the Arts Council England. In order to be a recipient, one has to have partnership funding. Fortunately, the space we are using at Laban counts as one.
To be able to use the Nordic Culture fund, we had to somehow make work happen in three Nordic countries. However, rules are changing, so hopefully gathering a Nordic audience or presenting Nordic works in the UK will be enough to obtain funding.
There is also a grant called the National Portfolio, which means that an organization gets funding for four years at a time. There are of course many questions that we have to pose ourselves, before we apply. Although, it would be amazing to have such long-term founding, we are not sure how regular our festival will be, how to promote it and popularise it and whether we should make strict frames for it. Not to mention, that making our structures more formal (having a board is essential to get this grant) would mean less flexibility.

M. C.: What was the greatest hardship you had to overcome in doing those two festival editions?

H. R.: We are completely understaffed, as there is only three of us, which of course is exhausting. There is a lot of work with preparations, but the delivery of the programme is quite hard, particularly if you need to navigate different spaces. As organisers we want to be present for the people we invite.
During the delivery of the programme, there are things which are destined to go wrong. There is always something happening last minute with live performances, and it is good to know that you have the capacity to deal with that.
We learnt this the hard way, when last time there was a performance coming from Ireland. The flight got delayed because of an enormous storm, and we ended up with cancelling the performance. There were a lot of crisis meeting.
In my opinion, rigid planning and somebody with an overview of the whole programme is what makes me more calm.

M. G.: So you care about individual contact with every artist you invite. Why is it so important?

H. R.: Being a part of a festival as a visiting artist gives me the perspective that if one feels taken care of, it gives more sense of being invited not as a project or show, but as a human being. The downside of us trying to make the artists welcome is that we have to be everywhere all the time.

M. G.: Are you planning on expanding your festival, or would you like to keep it as it is?

H. R.: Next year, we are planning on hiring one more person, especially because of the outside performances, we really had to stretch ourselves to oversee the whole festival.
Unfortunately, this is also a matter of budgeting. We want to be able to invite as many artists as we can, but if you have more people in delivery, you have less money for the artist. But of course, we also know that if we continue to overstretch ourselves, we could quickly burn out. That is why knowing your capacity to perform certain tasks throughout the festival is important.
I am ambitious on the behalf of the festival and I want to make it grander, however I am aware that if it becomes too big, it could change to a completely different idea. But still, gathering is the main goal. We think about Fest en Fest as a chorographic work. Because of that, we need to think a lot about the audience. We need to know how to connect the works together and how to structure conversations around them. We came up with a routine, usually it starts with a gathering, a conversation. It could be 2 artists talking about their practise that opens up to the general public, or it could artists-only space. It is also essential to talk among ourselves, without the kind of gatekeepers being in the room, so one does not censor themselves. After that, there are the two or three performances in the evening. And then, ideally, there is a party at the end. But we constantly debate advantages and disadvantages of this routine, we ask where we lose audience and why.

M. G.: How do you choose artists that you want to invite for your festival?

H. R.: The focus at the moment is to present Nordic and British artists on equal terms. Our goal is a balanced programme with the framing of expanded choreography, so it is not only about the works themselves, but also how they communicate with each other. Furthermore, our next goal is giving opportunities to artists who do not get a platform often, but who are nonetheless quite interesting. Also in the UK there is more focus on vast audiences, in a way if one can fill up a house, then the work is supposed to be good, which for me is not always the case. It feels like there is not enough space for the people who are actually expanding, thinking about expanding practises, who are experimenting, who are taking risks with their work, who are maybe making much smaller works for just one person to experience at a time or simply who make something outside of conventions. For us, this is not about entertainment, it is about choreography as a practise, the overall frame. We always think about who might be intriguing to present in relation to that. This is why artists are also our audience, because of the engaging conversations we might have. Though of course everybody is welcome.

M. G.: Does it mean you are open for a lot of subjects that artist present and focus on?

H. R.: When we invite artists, we do not want particular pieces. We do not regard artists as products, but we are interested in their practises, thinking processes. When we do get interested in a particular piece, we have a discussion with the artists whether they want to show it or there might be a different work to present or a better one to suit our festival’s context.

M. C.: I wanted to ask you if you are satisfied with the number of people who have participated in your project.

H. R.: In terms of audiences or artists– of course. While establishing something new, it takes time for people to know about it. But naturally, we always want more people to come.

M. C.: How do you reach the audience? How do people find out about it?

H. R.: It does take time and one needs to put a lot of effort into spreading the word about what it is that we are doing. I do believe that it is more tricky to do it than it used to be. For example, how do I find out about interesting things? And if it is through social media, there are certain things that will come up on my feed, and certain things will not come up on my feed. There used to be a space where all the things happening in London were listed. We have not yet solved the puzzle of how we actually reach people.

M. C.: Are there other ways that you use besides your Instagram account?

H. R.: We have hired a marketing team to take care of our social media. Outsourcing this part is helpful, especially during the festival, where there is little time between problem-solving and taking care of the artists. We also worked with an online blog specializing in arts and culture in London. They posted some interviews and have available lists of the current projects. We have our own website which needs to be improved. We have mailing lists to connect with our previous participants, I promote Fest en Fest to Laban students.

M. C.: And do you have any ideas that you want to develop in the upcoming editions?

H. R.: Our reasoning is that every edition will vary a bit. As a kind of choreographic project, it is also about trying to respond to the current needs of the artists. For us, it is not about creating a fixed structure worth repeating. We are aware that it is easy to repeat something that works, after all, constant fixing does take a lot of our energy. The questions that we ask ourselves is whether certain parts are still serving a purpose in supporting the artists. If not, then we must change something. So in that sense, the festival is always changing.

M. G.: What are your plans for the future?

H. R.: Fest en Fest is going to have two editions: Fest en Fest — LIVE and Fest en Fest — LAB. The lab will focus on working and creating, and the live version will be presenting performances. They will happen interchangeably every other year.