[Estimated reading time 13 minutes]

Production preparations for the international professional dance event Ice Hot Nordic Dance Helsinki are well underway. In early spring, the event organiser published its very first sustainability programme, focusing on the theme “soft footprint, strong handprint”. The slogan conveys the message that the Nordic Ice Hot Helsinki event aims to both minimise its environmental load and maximise its positive impacts, such as the strong artistic, cultural, and networking contribution it makes, as well as increasing awareness and agency when it comes to environmental issues.

In this article, we consider how ecological sustainability relates to the physical spaces in which dance is performed. What kind of thinking and collaboration do sustainable operating models require? What kinds of challenges and opportunities are being identified in performance locations?

Finally, we present a number of concrete suggestions for those developing sustainable performance spaces and venues.

At the request of dance lovers

On the construction site, structural work is complete and the focus has shifted to the interior surfaces and technical installations. Dance House Helsinki – an event venue designed especially for dance – is taking shape at the city’s Cable Factory, and lovers of dance art are eagerly awaiting its completion. The opening ceremony is scheduled for early February 2022, on the eve of the Ice Hot Helsinki event. Dance House is the main cooperation partner of the Ice Hot Helsinki event.

Dance House construction going on

Marketing and Development Manager Raine Heikkinen of Cable Factory, the property developer of Dance House, has been monitoring the contracting work closely. He predicts that Dance House will bring all kinds of innovations to what is Finland’s largest cultural centre. The former industrial site’s 56,000 m2 premises currently house three museums, ten galleries, dance theatres, art schools and numerous musical groups and artists, companies, and creators from a whole range of sectors. Dance House will expand the old property with new construction.

Taking the local environment and birds into consideration

A broad urban environment perspective is also a key element of the construction.

“Dance House is located in part of a block zoned as parkland, and we have aimed to retain as much of the green area as possible. We engaged in dialogue with our neighbours. Dance House will have green roofs, and the relationship between the city and nature has been considered in the architecture. We carried out light and shadow studies and looked at how birds will react to the reflective surfaces on the building.”

Cable Factory is committed to the EcoCompass system. According to Heikkinen, the environmental management system has made it possible to accelerate the implementation of sustainable development principles throughout the cultural centre site. Cable Factory will apply for The EcoCompass certification in 2021.

Head of Technical Department of the Dance House Petteri Laukkanen – in his own words a “theatre technology and cultural leadership person” –also swears by EcoCompass.

“Especially in small organisations such as Dance House, it’s simply not feasible to have a full-time staff member focusing exclusively on sustainability issues. People’s core competencies lie elsewhere,” Laukkanen explains. Prior his current role, Laukkanen was a distinguished figure heading up technical production at the likes of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, where he also contributed to sustainable development advances.

Spotlight on the future

According to Petteri Laukkanen, the ecological sustainability of Dance House – Ice Hot’s main stage – can be examined on two levels: firstly in the infrastructure and actual construction of the performance building, and secondly in the organisation’s internal processes.

“To start of with, I have to mention the location of the venue. In all performing arts, big audiences are an objective but also a challenge from the sustainability perspective. In an ideal world, the venue would have sold out performances on both stages. When you have a thousand audience members arriving, as well as staff and performers – who could easily total 50 people – the main issue is how people are getting to the performance venue.”

Dance House is located at a hub of public and non-motorised transport. Ice Hot’s audiences will be able to easily reach the venue by rail – be it metro or tram – or by bus.

Another long-term impact comes from the technology used in the performance spaces.

Petteri Laukkanen, Head of Technical Department of Dance House. Photo Sanja Kulomaa.

“All of the performance lighting in Dance House is based on LED technology, which means that our electricity consumption will be just a fraction of what it would be with traditional lighting technology. I predict that it will be just a matter of time before all performance lighting follows suit.”

“When you have all the lights in the theatre on during a performance, it consumes a lot of electricity. Power levels are high and electricity generation must be scaled in accordance with consumption peaks. One solution comes in the form of LED lights, the efficiency of which is in a completely different class to that of traditional lights, where the majority of the electricity consumed is transformed into heat, rather than light. At times, very bright light is needed in the theatre, and a whole variety of light colours are often required, which decreases the efficiency even further. This means that with traditional solutions, a huge amount of electricity has been used to produce the necessary amount of light, in turn producing a vast amount of heat in the building, which then has to be mechanically cooled.”

Solid faith in the opportunities for sustainable event operations is a theme that echoes clearly when Laukkanen speaks. This could perhaps be because he is also used to tackling challenges head-on.

“LED technology requires less in the way of maintenance and is an attractive option in many ways. At the same time, we must accept that a certain degree of tradition will live on in performance technology: there is a desire to renew, but there is also a hesitancy when it comes to making changes.”

“It would have felt ridiculous to opt for technologies that are already becoming outdated from a responsibility mindset, and perhaps some other perspectives too. What’s more, we’ve had lots of comments on our solutions, saying that even if we encounter challenges, we must look forwards, not backwards.”

Prerequisites for success

Operators building sustainable performance infrastructure may find the range of variables in environmental impacts to be frustratingly varied. How do you get a team together whilst still keeping an eye on the ball?

Petteri Laukkanen clearly understands the importance of a strong sense of team spirit. It appears that behind the scenes at Ice Hot’s main stage, responsibility is in everyone’s interests, regardless of job title.

“The community’s own strategy is pivotal. If guidelines and principles are not written into the strategy, there’s the temptation to say let’s not bother prioritising this more responsible solution that is perhaps a little more expensive. At Dance House we have a shared responsibility principle, and right from the strategy formation process, accessibility, equality and other factors relating to sustainability have been taken into account. In my view, this is a prerequisite for success.”

“One advantage of establishing a new organisation that will start its operations in a new building is that right from the start we can take sustainability issues into account. On the other hand, it is also more challenging, because there is no background of experiences that can provide a basis on which to make rectifications.”

A common force for change

Production solutions are always implemented locally, so the role of cooperation partners and subcontractors is significant from the perspective of responsibility in production chains.

“Ice Hot is a fantastic partner to Dance House, placing as it does a strong emphasis on sustainability and responsibility considerations in its operations,” states Petteri Laukkanen.

In its recently-published environmental policy, Ice Hot outlines how it intends to lighten its environmental load through means such as utilising the services of local operators as far as is possible, for example in terms of catering and printed products. Efforts will also be made to reduce amounts here.

“At Dance House we are seeking out partners who not only favour but also create their own sustainable and responsible operating practices. On the horizon we can already see indications of, for instance, theatre production materials of the future being reusable and recyclable, instead of props and furniture being disposed of at the end of the performance cycle as there is no room for storage. These kinds of operating models and companies already exist in the UK and France, to give just a couple of examples, and soon they’ll be coming to Finland too.”

“Alongside strengthening of sustainability and reduction of our load, there are also other areas of added value: marketplaces could be created for service providers who could rent out twelve rococo chairs, for instance. Or they could host prop workshops where recycled materials are adapted to suit customers’ needs. Good things come together.”

Maximum positive impacts can also be achieved through means of communication. Ice Hot seeks to encourage everyone to think and act more sustainably and to engage in discussion on the topic. The power of inspiration and learning from others should not be underestimated, as ideas can resonate widely in international networks.

Three sustainability tips for performance venues

Incorporate responsibility into the strategy. When responsibility is a shared value and strategic objective, it serves as a leadership tool and encourages staff to make ecologically sustainable choices independently, too.

Invest in planning. What materials and props will be used in productions and how? Think about material cycles and reusability before starting to build. Bring in assistance from expert partners if necessary.

Steer change and highlight the positives of more sustainable choices. Make them a part of the cultural experience through communication, transport, catering, and merchandising. Provide audiences with public and non-motorised transport route planning assistance and remind attendees of the benefits of cultural experiences without having to worry about parking. At the very least, it might serve as encouragement to leave the car at home next time.

Text by Helmi Saksala. Translation Claire Ruaro.

Author is Communications Specialist and Entrepreneur who contributed to the environmental policy Ice Hot Helsinki published early 2021.