Australian acrobats. German flipbooks. Czech doll puppetry. Songs of Armenian exile. Aurora Nova's programme at the Edinburgh Fringe is an eclectic cabinet of wonders, but its contents are far more than mere curios. This revolutionary agency has a talent for gathering international performances that strike an unlikely chord with Edinburgh Fringe-goers, awakening them to tastes they didn't know they had.
The agency's director Wolfgang Hoffmann scours festivals across the world to identify “work that's unique, connects with the heart, and has relevance in our time”. As Britain alternately vilifies and sympathises with the thousands of migrants fighting to enter the country from Calais, Hoffmann points to “the concentration on the topic of borders” in this year's programme. “One of the big tragedies of our times is forced migration and the displacement of people who leave their home for economic and political reasons, but aren't accepted in their new home,” he says.
17 Border Crossings is a witty, fascinating solo performance that explores the “arbitrariness of the lines drawn on maps to create countries”, while Palestinian circus B-Orders looks at ideas of confinement and escape. And White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a text read by a different performer each night, was created by an Iranian writer in response to a ban on him leaving his homeland.
“These works are important to raise awareness of the fact that the world is becoming a smaller place, and for the chance to get to know people from other cultures we weren't considering before. Yet I'm also sceptical, understanding that in the theatre context we are usually speaking to the converted," says Hoffmann.
The agency made its name by converting Edinburgh audiences to the appeal of international dance and physical theatre, nourishing a growing taste for experimental work from beyond the UK. Hoffmann explains that “there's a universal truth in physicality: it's understood on a visceral level and an emotional level that works without spoken words”. One such work this year is Antiwords, which explores the movements and cameraderie of two bar room bores as they work their way (actually) through a crate of Czech beer. Its intense physicality speaks to the demands on the bodies, as well as minds of artists.
These are demands Hoffman knows well: his involvement in the Fringe sprang from his experiences as a dancer in East Germany's alternative art scene. In characteristically enterprising style, aged 22 he started selling chunks of the Berlin Wall to tourists to fund dance classes in the West. From there, his horizons broadened still further: “I came to Edinburgh as an artist in 1999 with the German-Russian co-production Hopeless Games, but we found it very hard to make ourselves visible.”
The production won a Fringe First, but despite this and further artistic success, Hoffmann rues that, “I'm really a jack of all trades. I've worked as a tool maker, performer, director and business manager but am inspired by artists who have found their one 'thing'". These include fellow Berliner Volker Gerling, whose Portraits in Motion fascinatingly documents an obsession with making photographic flip books that's lasted his whole career.
This fondness for singular projects says a lot about Hoffmann's own, rigorous mindset. “The usual model would be that you represent the entire portfolio of an artist, but I can only represent work that I truly believe in. Which leaves artists free to follow the contacts I've brought them through our time working together, and also leaves me to decide what I think is brilliant.” It's an exacting and unsentimental approach that enables him to find a meeting place between artistic experimentalism and commercial success.
But Hoffmann's respect for single-minded artistic ambition doesn't mean that he encourages artists to set out on the Fringe's Darwinian struggle alone. Aurora Nova ran its own hugely successful venue at St Stephen's Church from 2001 to 2007 along strictly collective lines: he might have crossed the border for dance lessons, but his East German roots remained.
“I invited companies who I admired to share the space and to promote each other's work. The name came from this tongue-in-cheek reference to the Russian battleship that fired the starting signal for the October Revolution. We were revolutionising a new kind of way to present work by using a more collaborative model.”
But collaboration didn't mean compromise. The venue became famous for its high production values at a Fringe where, then as now, design is the often-neglected icing on the cake. Hoffmann brought a team of highly talented technicians, called Trollwerk, from his hometown of Potsdam.
These high standards made the Aurora Nova church a site of pilgrimage for footsore Fringe-goers, but its loss-making programme still meant that Aurora Nova had to metamorphose from venue to agency once Brighton's Komedia pulled out of the venture. Lyn Gardner wrote on the Guardian theatre blog that, “When I first picked up my Fringe programme and discovered that Aurora Nova had been swallowed up by Assembly I felt much as I did on the day when I discovered the gerbil had escaped from its cage straight into the jaws of the cat.”
Instead of being digested by a malevolent moggy, Aurora Nova has kept hold of its own artistic integrity. But it's certainly had to change since taking shelter under the wing of one of the big four Edinburgh Fringe venues. Hoffmann explains that “these days the agency itself is not collaborative in its model. But what remains is the fact that I'm an artist, and it's the artists I'm representing. At heart I want to serve them as best as I can, and to be fair in the way I share revenue.” And he feels optimistic about the future of alternative economic models: “At the time I first founded Aurora Nova I was surprised that no one else seemed to have worked with this collaborative model where companies had to promote each other, because word-of-mouth is such a strong power at the Fringe. But with the Forest Fringe and the Free Fringe, there's always something new happening, and people are always finding ways to engage with Edinburgh in a way that works for them."
His view of Edinburgh itself is of a city in flux, under a constant state of revolution. “I kind of shudder when I think that the festival needs to keep growing. If it's development stagnated it would mean a crisis for the Fringe and for Edinburgh itself. It feels like an unstoppable movement, and it's been perpetuated by the artists that want to present their work here.” Like any revolutionary movement, Aurora Nova is in a constantly changing state itself. Inspiring, and unstoppable.