Former Laureates

Frie Leysen

2014

The Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has awarded the 2014 Erasmus Prize to the Belgian festival director Frie Leysen (1950). This year, the theme of the Erasmus Prize is ‘Theatre, audience and society’.

Frie Leysen is a fearless champion of the arts and contributes to innovation in international theatre. She is a vigorous advocate of unknown theatre-makers, driven by her own artistic curiosity coupled with a desire to give audiences a special experience. She is always searching for new generations of artists and new forms of theatre, and is committed to providing a podium for non-Western productions in Europe. With her international orientation, fundamental curiosity and critical attitude, she exemplifies the Erasmian values that the Foundation embraces.

Frie Leysen (Hasselt, 1950) is a Belgian festival director. From 1980 to 1991, she was the founding director of deSingel in Antwerp. Under her leadership, deSingel became an internationally renowned arts centre with a unique programme of music, dance, theatre and exhibitions. In 1992, she founded the bilingual Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels, which she led until 2006. During that time, it grew into an influential festival for both Belgian (Flemish and Walloon) and international arts. Over the following years, she expanded her area of work into Europe and beyond. From 2006 to 2008, she organised the multidisciplinary Meeting Points festival in nine Arab cities. From 2008 to 2010, she was curator of Theater der Welt in the German Ruhr area, and from 2010 to 2012, she held the position of artistic director of the Berliner Festspiele. From 2013 to 2014, she was theatre director of the Wiener Festwochen. Her work can also be seen in the Netherlands: from 2012 onwards, she has curated the series ‘Get Lost’ – a selection of exceptional international theatre and dance performances.

In 2003, Frie Leysen was awarded the Flemish Community Award for General Cultural Contributions and in 2007 she received an honorary doctorate from the Free University of Brussels.

Photo Ilja Hoepping

Citation

Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows:

“Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, social sciences and the arts. The emphasis lies on tolerance, cultural pluralism and non-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation tries to achieve this aim by awarding prizes and by other means. A cash prize is awarded under the name of the ‘Erasmus Prize’.”

In accordance with this article, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize 2014 to Frie Leysen.

The Prize is being awarded to Frie Leysen for the following reasons:

  • Her work is characterised by perseverance and boldness.
     
  • She has an antenna for scouting out new talents and creating a platform for them.
     
  • She encourages us to be open to non-European theatre traditions and emphasises the importance of a change in perspective.
     
  • When programming festivals, she is non-compromising and she is prepared to deviate from established rules.
     
  • For Frie Leysen, the ultimate criterion for making a festival is to give centre stage to the artists and their art.

Laudatio

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen,

Theatre, audience, society. With these three keywords, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation sums up the theme at the heart of the Erasmus Prize this year. The links between these three words trace the lines along which questions are posed, tension is felt, and discussion has been conducted so intensively in recent years. Within the world of theatre itself, in the media, at conferences, and in the political arena.

Public debate about art and culture is a positive sign, because it proves that culture matters to people. It is important that people feel involved in the debate surrounding the meaning of theatre, and that they reflect and offer their views on how we shape it. In terms of its artistic substance, but also talent development, internationalisation, entrepreneurship, and the role of government.

The international dimension is an important consideration for this prize. After all, when it comes to musical and theatrical tradition, no country is an island. Culture is the best way to sustain dialogue, and it is important to emphasize that, especially at the time when culture is under so much pressure. Theatre says a lot about the maker’s personal environment, but it also crosses borders. Learning about other theatre traditions and forms encourages us to reflect on our own practice. Familiarisation with Asian or South American or other non-European theatre traditions often gives us a refreshingly different perspective on our own society.

Performing arts exist by the grace of artists and audiences. The live encounter between the two is what distinguishes performing arts from other forms of art. This is especially true of theatre and drama. It might sound like a cliché, but theatre is more than mere entertainment. Theatre holds up a mirror to society, provoking reflection and self-examination, offering us an opportunity to view life from another standpoint and to learn from it. That isn’t always easy, and can sometimes even be confrontational. It can be a necessary consciousness-raising effort for those who see themselves as critical contributors to what you could call the participatory society.

Sometimes the encounter between performing artists and audiences occurs spontaneously, but usually it requires other people who facilitate this contact. Such ‘facilitators’ belong to various categories, from technicians and dressers to programmers and managers. But for this prize, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation looked in particular at individuals whose objective is to develop the art by venturing down new paths on the strength of artistic passion. We looked at individuals who have succeeded in bringing together artists and, in doing so, sometimes helped to lay the foundations for new forms of art that would otherwise not have emerged.

Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the Erasmus Prize this year is a festival maker who embodies our theme in outstanding fashion. Frie Leysen established her name as the founder and director of deSingel in Antwerp and Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels. As a curator, artistic leader and organiser, she has been involved in various festivals, big and small, established and once-only, in Europe and beyond. In the field of performing arts, Frie Leysen is a world authority, as Jerry Aerts put it.

During her career, Frie Leysen has always stayed faithful to her vision, even if that meant swimming against the current. The investigative artist has always been at the very centre of her efforts to establish relations between art, society and audiences. For Leysen, language barriers or cultural differences form no obstacle. She made a festival in Brussels in which she eliminated political differences by ignoring them. She also took that attitude to other countries where she worked.

Throughout her career, Frie Leysen has consistently endeavoured to scout young, talented artists and give them a stage. In addition, she embraces large, well-known festivals such as Theater der Welt in Germany and the recent Wiener Festwochen into the scope of her work. It is precisely there that she searches, with an understanding of tradition, for new and topical meaning. She brings together old and new, known and unknown, and allows something new to emerge. She is assertive in a pleasant manner and sets things in motion.

These experiments are often successful, sometimes they are not, but her reluctance to settle for the safety of certainty speaks volumes for her conviction and determination, and her willingness to make radical choices and take risks. What matters most to her is the substance and the artist, and after that the money. And if necessary – and she sometimes deems it necessary – she can voice sharp criticism of festivals and venues that, in her view, no longer put the development of art and the artist first. She is then radical for herself and departs. According to Frie Leysen, a festival means more than making a programme. A festival means making a statement, adopting a position, reflecting on the world and the times we live in. That, in her view, is not ‘simply a series of twenty fine shows.’

Active and charismatic, she is capable of connecting widely separated countries, worlds and languages. In the Netherlands too, where in recent years she has compiled the ‘Get Lost’ series. As Frie Leysen said, ‘non-western art confronts you and the audience with the limits of what you can understand with your own baggage. Understanding the limits of your own capability is a lesson in modesty. From there you can become curious about the Other and the Others.’ (Quote by Frie Leysen from an interview with Thomas Bellinck in Etcetera, September 2014).

Ms Leysen, our Foundation awards you the Erasmus Prize because you are a passionate advocate of the performing arts. Throughout your career, you have supported little-known theatre makers on the strength of your artistic curiosity and your desire to enable the audience to experience something remarkable. You are forever searching for new generations of artists and new forms of theatre, and you are committed to providing non-Western theatre productions with a stage in Europe. With this international orientation, this fundamental curiosity and critical attitude, you express in exemplary fashion the values of Erasmus that this Foundation cherishes so dearly.

On behalf of our Foundation, I would like to congratulate you with your prize. May I invite you to come to the rostrum so that the King can invest you with the adornments that accompany the Erasmus Prize.

Acceptance Speech

A story from Seong-Hee Kim, a friend and colleague from South Korea. Millions of years ago the first creatures crawled out of the sea and onto land, became reptiles, and then mammals. But after a while one of them, probably a reindeer, changed his mind, anticipated the big crash of a meteorite, took a deep breath, and jumped back into the sea. He thought his chances of survival were greater there. The whale: one of the biggest, most intelligent, and most empathic animals on earth, and the only mammal in the sea. An illustration that taking a step backwards does not necessarily mean regressing, but can be the right thing to do.

I received this prize for the reasons you have just heard. I received this prize while I was in Vienna at the Wiener Festwochen, fighting a losing battle to defend precisely these ideas and values. It was a difficult time, and the fighting spirit went hand in hand with serious doubts and uncertainty. It was a battle I couldn’t win in the end, since it is impossible to defeat dinosaurs. We should not waste any more energy on that. So I resigned my contract of 4 years after 9 months and left after just one edition of the festival. Back into the sea…

For me it was a curious moment of discord, driven to despair yet honoured at the same time. What does this prize mean in such circumstances, for myself and for the ideas and principles I stand for? I doubt very much whether I belong on the prestigious list of Erasmus Prize winners. In the past this prize has honoured brilliant minds and gifted artists. I am neither.

I regard the prize this year as an alarm bell. Do we realise exactly what we are losing in this climate of shifting to the right, nationalism and commercialisation?

This prize is presented to me by the King of the Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander. Your Majesty, your country has become a place where the arts can hardly breathe any longer,

  • a country where the distinction between art, culture and cultural industries is scarcely made any more;
  • a country where funding for culture and arts is being slashed. The theatre landscape alone has been thoroughly erased, rigorously pruned as though it contained a proliferation of weeds. What a pity, because it is precisely from there that renewal and change can come;
  • a country where places of artistic creation, laboratories and research centres no longer exist;
  • a country where conservatism runs rampant;
  • a country where art is dismissed as a ‘left-wing hobby’;
  • a country where the international circulation of artists and their work is reduced to a ridiculous minimum;
  • a country where (almost) all theatres, with the odd exception, do the same: offer a bland programme containing something for everybody, the main goal of which is to reach targets. As a result, most of them have emptied;
  • a country where artistic audiences are no longer satisfied;
  • in short, a country where art and culture, and their audiences, are under severe pressure.


Not only in the Netherlands, by the way, but also throughout Europe, the attack on art and culture has been launched. My home country Belgium has also been dealt blows recently. There is one thing I don’t understand. Belgium and the Netherlands are among the richest regions in the world, and in both countries the crisis has been relatively mild. Until recently, both implemented a highly stimulating and progressive arts policy. How is it possible that this policy, along with all that investment, could be abandoned just like that, with one stroke of a pen? I really do not understand that. Indeed, I refuse to understand it.

The changing political climate is one thing. But a time-honoured motto tells us it is good to look at our own heart, so there is no harm in some critical self-examination. Have the arts gone too far in political, economic, diplomatic, flirtatious logic? Aren’t we trying too hard to serve political interests by attempting to solve problems that politicians have failed to solve, such as social deprivation, migration and racism? Problems that the arts will not, should not, and cannot solve. Not even the modish “participatory art”, or the “everybody is an artist!”. Not everybody is interesting, and everybody is certainly not an artist. Aren’t we justifying ourselves too much with figures and economic arguments instead of with artistic substance? Haven’t we reduced ourselves too much to entertainers, who obediently obey the rules of managers, marketers and accountants instead of remaining the sources of disruption and inspiration that we should be? Shouldn’t we, just like the whale, take a few steps backwards again, seek some distance, retreat into the sea, in search of the right biotope to regain our clout?

Besides as an alarm bell, I view this prize as a plea for a free space for artists and their work. A free space in which artists can freely develop their visions and artistic vocabulary, can analyse our society critically, can point to its fault lines, and can inspire us, the audience. A free space that really is free of political, economic, social and aesthetic pressures and agendas. That’s what this is about. That is the sea.

This prize defends artists, who are in danger of drowning in a bourgeois and artificial world of glamour, money, power, name-dropping, prestige, commerce, coquetry, compromises, unhealthy careerism and vanity. The Disneyland of the artistic 21st century.

This prize also defends the international circulation of artists and their work, at a time when borders are in danger of closing again and navel-gazing reigns supreme, not only in the Netherlands but also in Europe. How I miss the Ritsaert ten Cate’s in this country.

This prize is also for new generations of artists and performers, from all corners of the world. We may not know them (yet), but they will offer us a totally fresh perspective on our time and our world, at least if we give them the chance to do so.

This prize also honours a critical, curious, demanding and adventurous public, an indispensable sparring partner for artists. People who need other visions and opinions, who are curious about new art forms and languages, far from commercial consumption and from the rapidly advancing culture industry.

This prize is about the very core of our work, about artists and their work, about engagement, about taking risks, about radicalness and change. It is about revising structures and ways of working, adjusting them to meet the needs of today.

During my life I have set up a number of new, tailor-made structures (deSingel in Antwerp, the KunstenFestivaldesArts in Brussels, and Foreign Affairs in Berlin), in order to realise my ideas and values. But just as crucial for me was to leave these structures on time, to hand them over to the next generation. Is there still space today for new structures? Has the landscape become too crowded in the meantime? I am not so sure. The point is that structures and art centres claim, and have been accorded, a timeless status. Initiatives of a temporary nature are seldom set up, yet new life must go hand in hand with death. We are bad at dealing with the notion of finiteness. More space is needed, mental and political space, to change structures from within. New generations must be able to take over existing institutions, change things around, revise and reshape them to reflect new insights.

In the political and economic arena, Europe no longer plays a role of any consequence. Our culture and arts still lead the way internationally, however, and we must continue to support them. Countering the tendency to reduce everything to the preservation of our past in museums, we must continue to invest in a climate of vibrant, open and innovative arts for the future.

This prize honours ideas, principles and ways of working now subjected to severe pressure, not just in Vienna and the Netherlands but also throughout Europe. I share this with everybody who helps to defend them: artists, colleagues, audiences, and even the occasional public official.

I dare to dream that this gesture will make the political world stop and think about where all this is leading the arts, for whom, how and why.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I suggest we all retreat together into the sea!!!

Video Frie Leysen, an introduction

'Get Lost'

'Get Lost' is a series created by festival director and 2014 Erasmus Prize winner Frie Leysen.

'Get Lost'

'Get Lost' is a series created by festival director and 2014 Erasmus Prize winner Frie Leysen.

'Get Lost'

'Get Lost' is a series created by festival director and 2014 Erasmus Prize winner Frie Leysen.

'Get Lost'

'Get Lost' is a series created by festival director and 2014 Erasmus Prize winner Frie Leysen.

Masterclass Frie Leysen 'Localizing the International'

Discussion during the Masterclass 'Localizing the International' with Frie Leysen. Photo Laureen van Rijckevorsel

Erasmus Prize winner 2014: Frie Leysen

The Erasmus Prize 2014 is awarded to the Belgian festival director Frie Leysen.

'Get Lost'

'Get Lost' is a series created by festival director and 2014 Erasmus Prize winner Frie Leysen.

'We are all Ivanov'

One of the highlights of Frie Leysen's serie 'Get Lost' is the play 'Ivanov', on present-day Iran.

'Resistance or Rituals'

A programme exploring the dynamic between performing arts and social change, on 9 November at the Compagnietheater.

Erasmus Prize winner 2014: Frie Leysen

The Erasmus Prize 2014 is awarded to the Belgian festival director Frie Leysen.

Erasmus Prize winner 2014: Frie Leysen

The Erasmus Prize 2014 is awarded to the Belgian festival director Frie Leysen.

Erasmus Prize winner 2014: Frie Leysen

The Erasmus Prize 2014 is awarded to the Belgian festival director Frie Leysen.

Erasmus Prize winner 2014: Frie Leysen

The Erasmus Prize 2014 is awarded to the Belgian festival director Frie Leysen.

Masterclass Frie Leysen 'Localizing the International'

Discussion during the Masterclass 'Localizing the International' with Frie Leysen. Photo Laureen van Rijckevorsel

'A Tranquil Star'

Performance 'A Tranquil Star' in Frie Leysen's serie 'Get Lost'.

Exhibition 'Frie Leysen’s World'

Exhibition 'Frie Leysen’s World' in the Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam, in collaboration with the magazine Theatermaker.

Publication magazine 'Theatermaker'

Frie Leysen is guest editor for a special October/November issue of the magazine Theatermaker.

Debate 'Resistance or Rituals'

Debate 'Resistance or Rituals' in the Compagnietheater with Frie Leysen and Peter Sellars (Erasmus Prize 1998).

Frie Leysen receiving the Erasmus Prize 2014

Frie Leysen receiving the Erasmus Prize 2014.

Frie Leysen receiving the Erasmus Prize 2014

Frie Leysen receiving the Erasmus Prize 2014.

Frie Leysen receiving the Erasmus Prize 2014

Frie Leysen receiving the Erasmus Prize 2014.

Frie Leysen receiving the Erasmus Prize 2014

Frie Leysen receiving the Erasmus Prize 2014.