The history of Steps

Anyone who would like to delve more deeply into the history of the Migros Culture Percentage Dance Festival Steps will find what they are looking for here: in the context of the developments in contemporary dance over the past 30 years, this extensive text traces the evolution of the festival from its beginnings in 1988 to the present day. Find out which individuals played a major role in shaping it, what areas of artistic focus were defined and how Steps became the festival that it is today. The festival's position in the Swiss dance landscape is also explained. Enjoy the read!




A history in four steps
Steps 1998-2018


In 2016, Britain's Candoco Dance Company opened the 15th edition of Steps in Fribourg, thus laying down a marker. A marker that can today be read as a snapshot of what has become of the intercity dance festival founded in 1988 by the Cultural Initiatives department of the Federation of Migros Cooperatives; but also of what has been important to the respective artistic directors over the years: Walter Boris Fischer (1988-1998 editions), Isabella Spirig and Samuel Wuersten (2000-2010 editions), and Isabella Spirig (editions since 2012). Candoco, a world-famous company comprising dancers with and without physical disabilities, performed an American postmodernist piece: "Set and Reset/Reset" by US choreographer Trisha Brown. A commissioned piece by Belgium-based Thomas Hauert of Switzerland, "Notturnino", inspired by the Daniel Schmid film "Il bacio di Tosca", rounded off the evening. The group then crisscrossed Switzerland, taking these two pieces to Zurich, Meyrin, Vevey, Winterthur, Chur, Bern, Neuchâtel and Lugano.


To bring dance to Switzerland's various regions; to create bonds between dance professionals from Switzerland and abroad; to present artists of different geographic and stylistic origins; to integrate and include artists with different possibilities – Steps represents all these objectives.


The history of the festival could be divided into three phases, based on the individuals in charge of the programme: the founding and setup phase from 1988 to 1998 under Walter Boris Fischer; prudent reorientation under co-directors Isabella Spirig and Samuel Wuersten from 2000 to 2010; consolidation under Isabella Spirig since 2010. However, the history can also be told according to the various threads that those in charge of the respective programmes over the past thirty years have introduced, incorporated, extended and interlaced. The "steps" that give the festival its name are not merely to be understood as dance steps, but also as steps beyond the stage: towards the audience, into Switzerland's dance landscape, towards the independent scene and towards an aesthetic of diversity.


Steps towards the audience


The invited companies' extensive tours right across Switzerland, throughout an entire country, constitute the most striking feature of Steps. This cannot be found anywhere else. Particularly in an age of rapidly increasing mobility, Steps founder Walter Boris Fischer's idea of an intercity dance festival has proven to be one of foresight: bringing culture to the people, instead of leaving it to the people to come to culture. It also fits in with the ideology of the Migros founding couple Gottlieb and Adele Duttweiler. In 1925, Duttweiler sent the first mobile shop through Zurich, enabling people to obtain groceries more cheaply. Even as the network of brick-and-mortar shops expanded more and more, these vehicles remained in operation for a long time, bringing goods to Switzerland's most remote valleys and villages. In Valais, the last two vehicles were decommissioned in 2007; they had still been serving 33 municipalities.


Steps was still in its early days when it arrived in Valais, namely in 1990, bringing the Jubilation! Dance Company of black dancers from New York to Théâtre du Crochetan. This theatre in Monthey, built in 1989, is just one of many that have contemporary programmes, to which the Migros Culture Percentage's festival has contributed, and continues to contribute, every two years. Steps can be experienced at large establishments like Theater 11 in Zurich, LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura or Théâtre du Jorat in Mézières, but small stages like Le Loft in Vevey, Teatro Dimitri in Verscio or Phönix Theater in Steckborn are equally involved.


The complex tours call for sophisticated logistics and relationship building, to be repeated for every edition. In 1988, there was dancing on 16 stages; in the 1990 second edition, it was already 24; today, it is around 40 stages each time. Dance is presented in all three major linguistic regions, as well as in nearby border towns. In 1988, six of the 16 stages were in the French-speaking region. In 1990, Steps went to Ticino for the first time: initially to Verscio and later also to Chiasso, Lugano and Bellinzona. The partnership between the Migros Culture Percentage and the local organisers has increasingly intensified over the years. Today, Steps offers the organisers a number of productions subsidised by the Migros Culture Percentage, which they can choose from. This gives the local organisers much more of a say; in addition, all partner theatres benefit from a centrally managed comprehensive communication campaign. The politico-cultural effect of this cooperation is not to be underestimated: in Switzerland, as is well known, responsibility for culture mainly resides with local and cantonal bodies. This is now supplemented by a lively nationwide network for dance, which has emerged because of Steps.


Bringing contemporary dance closer to the people – on the one hand, this can be seen in a geographic sense: in the thirty years since the founding date, dance has gone to the city and to the country, into shopping centres, schools, railway stations and Migros shops. On the other hand, it can also be seen in an intellectual sense: diversity reigns. The intention is for many facets of dance to be shown and for dance to find its audience in different ways. In addition, mediation work is a key component of the programme, in the form of activities, lectures, introductions, artist talks and workshops.


The mediation work has continued to develop on an ongoing basis. In the first ten years, it was all about bringing dance to places where nobody was looking for it: to the street, to the shopping centre, to school assembly halls – as a way of gaining a new audience. Since 2004, dance professionals have been going to schools to rehearse a dance sequence with the children, who then recognise that sequence during the festival in the famous guest companies' performances. Thus, in a targeted manner, a young audience is introduced to dance. This form of culture mediation incorporates trends from the Netherlands and Great Britain, while also pursuing the Steps goal of presenting contemporary dance at a high level and making it accessible.


Steps into Switzerland's dance landscape


Contemporary dance did not come to Switzerland for the first time in 1988, when the Federation of Migros Cooperatives presented the first festival on 16 stages: it was already here. Steps came about on the basis of experience gathered from two tours. In the early 1980s, the Cultural Initiatives department of the Federation of Migros Cooperatives presented Anna Wyman Dance Theatre from Canada. In 1983, this was followed by Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal with "Kontakthof" (Contact Courtyard). That was theatre and dance, the likes of which had never been seen before in Switzerland. In the same year that the men and women of "Kontakthof" were courting in Zurich, Basel, St Gallen and Lausanne, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Michèle Anne de Mey, with Rosas, brought their repetitive, only slightly shifting movement phrases to the Zürcher Theater Spektakel festival: "Fase" and "Rosas danst Rosas". That was the birth of an era. The signs pointed to a new beginning: in Belgium, in many European countries, in Switzerland.


Contemporary dance boomed in the 1980s. Already in the 1970s, dance professionals in numerous Swiss towns and cities had started studying new forms of movement, with which to convey what moved them. They did this outside the institution of the city theatre; the new dance called for a new form of organisation. They came from very different schools and traditions. In Bern, Annemarie Parekh founded the dance group Akar in 1976, after studying in the USA and living there for quite some time. In Zurich, Eve Trachsel, former soloist, ballet master and choreographer at Jean Deroc's Swiss Chamber Ballet, set up CH-Tanztheater in 1979, together with Peter Hauri. Erwin Schumann came to Switzerland from Guatemala at the end of the 1970s and founded Tamuté Dance Theater in 1979. Gaby and Rey Phillips-Gaugler had roots in classical and African dance, and began striving to blend these traditions in 1982, at Yno-Tanztheater. After studying modern dance in the USA, as well as yoga and aikido back in Switzerland, Fabienne Berger won first prize at the 1983 Nyon International Choreography Competition with her solo "Et l'autre". Etienne Frey had danced for Béjart's Ballet du XXe Siècle and other established companies; in 1985, he and Jean-Claude Pavailli began working with their own ensemble Sinopia in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Philippe Saire, who had studied contemporary dance, most notably in Paris, launched his own company in Lausanne in 1986. In Fribourg, Antonio Bühler and Brigitte Meuwly founded Da Motus! in 1987. Although these were just a few of the independent companies that sprang up in the 1980s, these were the groups that went on tour in the first edition of Steps.


Steps was the last of a whole series of dance festivals that emerged in the second half of the 1980s. The festival Zürcher Theater Spektakel, held for the first time in 1980, would go on to bring not only new forms of theatre, but also new dance, to Landiwiese in Zurich. In 1985, the former dancer and dance teacher Wolfgang Brunner, together with dance professionals from the independent scene, launched the platform Tanznovember in Zurich, which later spread out to multiple locations in Switzerland. In 1987, Reto Clavadetscher and Michaela Pavlin founded the festival Berner Tanztage, and at Basel's Barfüsserplatz, Heinz Spoerli presented a programme designed to contrast with his Basel Ballet, under the title "Basel tanzt".


At the time, the responsibilities were clearly divided: dance was mainly classical in the institutional ensembles, at the city theatres or opera houses, but contemporary in the independent scene. The Swiss dance landscape was split into two camps, separated by a chasm that seemed deeper than the well-known divide between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland. The new dance festivals were needed as a means of bridging the gap and promoting the growing dance scene.


Indirectly, this scene was boosted by competition and the expanding audience. The international companies that the festivals brought to Switzerland set standards for dance professionals, as well as for the audience. The dance professionals were inspired by new visions; the spectators, consciously or subconsciously, developed criteria that determined what they viewed as quality – and what made them come back. Steps, which the Migros Culture Percentage saw as an audience-oriented festival first and foremost, set itself the task of sending different facets and styles of dance on tour; this did a lot to attract new sections of the public to contemporary dance – in German-speaking Switzerland, as well as in Romandy and Ticino.


In the thirty years that have passed since the first edition of Steps, Switzerland's dance landscape has changed considerably. Stage dance has become a recognised profession, which can now be studied at six different Swiss educational establishments. Over the years, the focus has shifted towards contemporary dance. Also at the institutional companies, which make up an important part of the scene in German-speaking Switzerland in particular, there is now more and more contemporary dance. This even applies to ensembles that are still firmly based on ballet. Structural differences are no longer strictly identical to stylistic differences. Regular promotion of the independent scene, also with longer-term contracts, has become established. It is no longer possible to imagine the scene without places like Tanzhaus Zürich and Théâtre Sévelin. However, a certain polarisation between the independent scene and the institutional ensembles has remained, even though choreographers from the independent scene do create pieces with institutional companies here and there. This is precisely where Steps has provided important momentum.


Steps towards the independent scene


The history of Steps can also be told in terms of the festival's dealings with the Swiss dance scene. Incorporation of Swiss dance professionals has been a common thread throughout all editions of the festival, which now number 16 and counting.


In the first edition of Steps, in 1988, nine of the 19 invited groups came from Switzerland's independent scene. They went on tour alongside internationally renowned companies, such as Cullberg Ballet from Sweden, Reinhild Hoffmann Tanztheater Bochum, Elisa Monte Dance Company from New York and the world-famous Nederlands Dans Theater's junior company NDT 2. Eight Swiss ensembles were included in 1990, four in 1992, just one was left in 1994 and none in 1996's fifth edition. In 1998, the companies Buissonnière from Lausanne, Linga Danse Projet from Pully and Nomades – le Loft Vevey provided a Romand focus, supported by the Philippe Saire Company's street activities. In that year, a production from a city theatre was also presented for the first time, namely "Highland" by Joachim Schlömer with Tanz-Theater Basel.


The Steps tours enabled Swiss groups to perform in places that they would otherwise not have reached. However, particularly in the earlier editions of Steps, it was difficult for them to win recognition alongside the competition from internationally renowned companies. The audience was curious about the unknown and it was expected that foreign artists were more likely to provide that. For this reason, Walter Boris Fischer used the ensembles from the independent scene mainly for the mediation work, at schools and on the street, from 1992 onwards.


In 1998, under David Bosshart's Directorate of Cultural and Social Affairs, the Cultural Initiatives department of the Federation of Migros Cooperatives was restructured and divided into competence centres, such as Theatre and Dance, Music etc. Events and promotion were to be supervised by the same people who were responsible for them. Isabella Spirig, who worked in the Dance Promotion division, took over the general management and programming of Steps, and thus two very different tasks: the promotion of dance in Switzerland was very important to her, while at the same time, she had to keep the audience in mind. Isabella Spirig brought Samuel Wuersten into the team as co-artistic director: he had profound knowledge of the international scene and an excellent network as director of Holland Dance Festival, along with considerable experience in talent promotion as a dance teacher and as a jury member for various dance competitions. Later, the pair were joined by Beat Schläpfer, who then took charge of organising the symposium. From the year 2000 onwards, this symposium would get local dance professionals talking with the artists on the Steps tours and other protagonists from the international scene during every edition of Steps, thus providing inspiration, stimuli and networking for the Swiss scene. Christoph Haering, who had already been part of the Steps team in various roles since 1996, took over the festival's project management in 2002 as Head of Performing Arts and Literature.


Ultimately, Swiss dance gained momentum quite directly from the festival's programming. Alongside independent companies, Isabella Spirig and Samuel Wuersten also sent institutional ensembles on tour. That had already happened once before in 1998 with Tanz-Theater Basel, but now Isabella Spirig and Samuel Wuersten were actively bridging the gap between the independent dance professionals and those at the institutions. They proposed productions and were involved in coproductions. Steps initiated and supported a ballet evening at the city theatre Stadttheater Bern, for which artists from the Swiss independent scene created short pieces. It also supported an evening with the Cathy Sharp Dance Ensemble, for which those in charge of the programme arranged younger choreographers from the Netherlands and Spain.


For the eighth edition, Steps was involved in three coproductions between institutional ensembles and the Swiss independent scene. Martin Schläpfer's Ballet Mainz brought choreographies by its director, as well as pieces by independent choreographers Gisela Rocha and Evelyne Castellino to Switzerland. Italian choreographer Simone Sandroni developed a piece with actors from the Lucerne Theatre and dancers from the independent scene. The Bern Ballet went on tour with the "Suisse Polydanse" evening, which included pieces by its director Félix Duméril, as well as by independent choreographers Philippe Saire and Foofwa d'Imobilité. Steps #9 reached out further and brought choreographers from the scene in Romandy together with internationally renowned companies, such as Ballet Gulbenkian and NDT 2. For the tenth edition of Steps, choreographers from city theatres arranged a gala evening with short pieces.


Such coproductions made a key contribution to the development of Swiss dance. Alongside training scholarships, financial contributions, guest performances and performance opportunities, they became another component of the Migros Culture Percentage's dance promotion model. However, cooperation between choreographers from the independent scene and institutional ensembles would not always be easy. The differences in production conditions between the city theatre and the independent scene posed challenges: clearly defined short time slots versus the freedom to sometimes spend longer exploring a theme. Collaborations like those initiated by Steps in the first years of the new century have since become more seldom, but are still welcome if they come about organically and provide for artistic synergies.


Swiss groups are still part of the Steps programme, regardless of which scene they come from. The important thing is that they contribute to the added value that Steps wants to bring to Switzerland's dance landscape. Steps presents productions and companies that would otherwise never be seen at the respective location. In 2014, for instance, Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève danced at the Zurich Opera House and Ballet Zurich went on tour through Romandy.


Steps into diversity


Steps also maintains continuity in its aesthetic programme: The biennial festival is intended to add to the dance offered in Switzerland. What is (or must be) added to, and how, has of course changed as the Swiss dance landscape has developed. The principle has remained the same. Steps wants to give the audience an understanding of new dance – new as in 'new to the audience', not necessarily new as in 'unprecedented'. Steps does not seek innovation at all costs, but repeatedly provides for discoveries. It presents an extract from the international contemporary dance scene, which can appeal to various sections of the public. Walter Boris Fischer, Isabella Spirig and Samuel Wuersten have never committed to a particular aesthetic, but have instead incorporated trends and, in the individual editions of the festival, positioned these in a context – aesthetically and sometimes also thematically.


Over the course of thirty years, the important lines of tradition at each point in time have been made visible. Occasionally, groups have been invited multiple times, so that developments can be followed. In the early editions of Steps, Walter Boris Fischer presented two movements in particular: On the one hand, the line of American modern dance and postmodern dance, with the company founded by the grandmother of modern dance as the highlight: the Martha Graham Dance Company's performance in 1992. On the other hand, he presented several protagonists of German dance theatre: Reinhild Hoffmann, Susanne Linke, Johann Kresnik and younger representatives, like Joachim Schlömer and Meryl Tankard. He opened windows to Africa, for instance in 1990 with the pioneer of contemporary African dance, Germaine Acogny; to Brazil, for instance in 1996 with Grupo Corpo and in 1998 with Balé da Cidade de São Paulo; and also to China in 1996, with Guangdong Modern Dance Company, that country's first modern dance company.


Under Isabella Spirig and Samuel Wuersten as co-directors, the festival retained its eclectic nature. The pair presented younger movements from the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Israel and North America. Steps #11 opened on the 11th of April 2008 with "Bahok" by Akram Khan Company. This highly sought-after Asian Briton would return for the next edition. The Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui also appeared on the programme repeatedly. Some editions of the festival were given a theme. For example, productions questioning the credo of the flawless body were presented under the title "Simply Perfect". The accessibility concept was expanded, removing barriers and promoting integration, as dance should be accessible for people with disabilities, be they on stage or in the auditorium.


Samuel Wuersten brought important contacts via his work in the Netherlands. Nederlands Dans Theater's junior company, NDT 2, had already been involved regularly since the first edition in 1988 and Walter Boris Fischer had also presented NDT 3, the company for dancers aged over forty, for the first time in 1994. In the year 2000 though, in what was a unique event for Switzerland, all three NDT companies appeared together in "Arcimboldo 2000". That evening, based on the 1995 ballet of the same name, was newly arranged and staged by Jiří Kylián to mark NDT's 40th anniversary. This production was a borderline case in terms of the intercity concept. Due to its size and complexity, the evening could only be presented at Musical Theater Basel, nine days after the last performances on the normal tours. This also showed the importance of diversity with regard to the size of productions: if Steps were to restrict itself to the world's very large expensive companies, this would contradict the basic idea of the festival – that of bringing culture to the people.


Due to its size alone, "Arcimboldo 2000" was one highlight that has remained in dance fans' memories. Others include the productions by Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who both keep re-inventing themselves. Australia's Meryl Tankard first appeared at Steps in 1998, back then with her own ensemble, Australian Dance Theatre. Her works repeatedly caused a sensation; in 2002, NDT 3 presented one of her pieces and in 2012 she made a splash, for the last time to date, with "The Oracle", a solo that she tailored to suit dancer Paul White, based on Stravinsky's "Sacre". In 2016, the dancing grandmothers, whom Korean choreographer Eun-Me Ahn brought from her home country to the stage in Zurich, Pully, Basel and Geneva, were also unusual. In that year, the festival's motto was "Future" and the dance performed by the young dancers in Eun-Me Ahn's company, in combination with the Korean grandmothers, provided a colourful answer to the question raised by Isabella Spirig in the programme booklet: "Where in our ageing society do people find themselves, as they live longer and longer?" At a party.


Those in charge of the programme have always attached a lot of importance to the opening performances. At the start of the festival, sparks should fly and a marker should be laid down, which speaks for the respective programme.


At the 2002 opening, Belgium's Frédéric Flamand and Charleroi Danses / Plan K, in cooperation with Jean Nouvel, immersed the audience at KKL Lucerne in an overwhelming world of images comprising real bodies, video and installation. That year, the festival was dedicated to interdisciplinarity and presented border crossers between genres. The multimedia performance "Body/Work/Leisure – Body/Leisure", conceived as a critique of consumption and technology, has lost none of its immediacy today, 15 years later.


A large project stood out in the 2008 programme as well: Ballet van Vlaanderen presented "Impressing the Czar" by William Forsythe. In 2010, Balé da Cidade de São Paulo raised a cloud of cinnamon at Theater Winterthur, evoking an atmosphere of Christmas and carnival in spring. The festival's motto was "The World Dances". In 2012, prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem danced at the festival's opening in Geneva. At the time, this exceptional artist had already been setting standards for a quarter of a century, both as a classical and contemporary dancer. She performed at the start of a festival that asked questions about the feminine in dance. In 2014, Steps opened with a Ballet Zurich premiere evening at the Zurich Opera House, simultaneously comprising three world premieres by renowned choreographers: Marco Goecke, Wayne McGregor and Ballet Zurich's new director Christian Spuck.


Finally, the 2016 opening, with Candoco Dance Company at Théâtre Equilibre in Fribourg, encapsulated what defines this festival. Candoco's new production of Trisha Brown's "Set and Reset", which originally premiered in 1983, represented a milestone in integrative dance, because until then, the ensemble had only ever commissioned new pieces. This American postmodernist classic, presented in Fribourg as "Set and Reset/Reset", referred back to the early editions of Steps, when there was a focus on dance from the USA under Walter Boris Fischer. The fact that a group of dancers with and without disabilities were involved here was not a matter of chance. It stemmed from Isabella Spirig's conviction that inclusion, put into practice and coupled with artistic aspirations, opens up new paths for dance that have never been travelled down before and provides new inspiration. The participating artists and the audience benefited from this to equal extents. In the second piece within this British ensemble's production, a work by a Swiss artist was shown – this, in turn, was an indication of the manifold connections that have been made, initially by the duo of Isabella Spirig and Samuel Wuersten as artistic directors, and by Isabella Spirig since 2010. Moreover, the tour by Candoco Dance Company, the most extensive in the entire history of Steps, once again emphasises the basic idea of Steps founder Walter Boris Fischer: bringing culture to the people, instead of leaving it to the people to come to culture.