Posted on May 15, 2010
Co-artistic director David Massingham admits to having had more than a few concerns when the volcanic ash cloud descended just four days before the second biennial International Dance Festival Birmingham was due to open. “Things got quite nerve-wracking for a few days,” he said. Fortunately most of the artists were already in the UK, others found ways round the restrictions, and amazingly, only one small show was lost.
With dancers and companies from 20 countries across six continents, this year’s event was as diverse as the city itself, with almost every form of dance imaginable on show. The programme featured productions by well-known international names alongside those of local artists, including one group performing their way through the West Midlands using a canal barge as their base. Referring to the latter, Massingham delights in telling how a group of Brownies were joined by locals piling out of a pub to watch one performance; a classic example of spreading the word and what festivals can do in unexpected places, he says.
Dance also happened in unexpected places in the city, where on-street activity included Luca Silvestrini’s (in)Visible Dancin’. Dancers appeared as if from nowhere and passers-by were drawn into the Festival as they stopped to witness their work, which culminated in Visible Dancin’, an effervescent and uplifting celebration of street art.
As in the inaugural festival, the big outdoor event was in Victoria Square, where large crowds watched Utopia, a colourful spectacle put together by Arthur Pita. Over a single weekend some 6,000 people watched the loud and colourful celebration of different cultures that saw Russian, Spanish, Indian and African dancers joined by local contemporary performers and folk band The Destroyers for a feast of modern but folk-influenced song and dance. Even the square’s central water feature, the “floozy in the Jacuzzi” found herself swathed in gold for the duration. So successful was the event that plans are afoot to tour it as a stage show.
The main stage shows opened with Mark Morris’ outstanding and well-received signature work L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at the Hippodrome, although the theatre was generally only half full. Things are changing, but to some extent Birmingham is still a ballet-oriented city. Furthermore, contemporary dance audiences in the city seem to be particularly price sensitive, and Morris was expensive compared with most other shows.
As if to prove the point, the only marginally cheaper National Ballet of Cuba almost sold out. Sadly, performances were largely disappointing. Carlos Acosta, who joined the company for two of the Magia de la Danza performances shone like a beacon that only emphasised what was missing elsewhere. While the others showed some good footwork, ballet is about more than steps. In the Magia programme it was difficult to tell one ballet from another, while in Giselle there was little personality, the storytelling was poor and the acting old-fashioned and wholly unconvincing.
Previously it has been difficult to attract dancegoers to the Birmingham Rep, but this time both Sutra and Circa drew good audiences. The latter in particular was a hugely entertaining evening. The Australian dancer-acrobat-gymnasts blew everyone away with their prowess, daring, beauty and humour. The atmosphere was very different over at the Town Hall though, a cavernous venue that has never truly suited dance. Akram Khan’s Gnosis may be stylish and even enthralling at times, but it is also repetitive and single-paced.
Both Massingham and fellow co-artistic director Stewart Griffiths are keen that the Festival should commission new work for theatre stages, so it was good to see Birmingham-based choreographer Rosie Kay attract decent-sized crowds to the Patrick Centre for the premiere of 5 Soldiers. This sobering and sometimes moving look at the reality of soldiering today raises a number of issues and is reviewed fully in the July issue of Dancing Times.
As impressive as Kay’s work was, undoubtedly the most enjoyable evening at the Patrick Centre included “rashers and sausages,” and even “an egg on a plate.” Not breakfast but, as Birmingham-born Riverdance star Colin Dunne explained, mnemonics used when learning Irish dance. Dunne’s one man show Out of Time was a delightfully engaging, laid-back and playful exploration that integrated his own experiences with archive footage of performances from the 1930s onwards.
A surprise highlight of the Festival was Outspoken, a mini-festival of performances, film and discussions within the main event that showcased contemporary dance from the Arab speaking world. It may have been hard going sometimes, but the references and comments on the human and political situation in the region were always intriguing. Best works without a doubt were Muhanad Rasheed’s Crying for My Mother and Insomnia, both performed by Iraqi Bodies and brimful of meaning and emotion. This group of artists, formed in 2001, originally lived and performed in Baghdad, but left the country to wait for it to return to a more tolerant society when one of their members was shot following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Insomnia was staged at the Ikon Eastside, again the best small venue, although even here some performances left a little to be desired. Xavier Le Roy’s Self Unfinished featured Roy sitting in the corner of a stark white space he had fashioned for himself with just a ghetto blaster for company. When he pressed play there was nothing, which was rather appropriate. Later he bent his body into various shapes that lacked intent or meaning. Reactions varied. Some were fascinated, a few walked out and for others the whole thing simply provoked laughter.
There was so much more. I missed the Patrick Centre’s family weekend, although reports indicate it was great fun with the venue filled with the sound of children’s laughter. And the final evening again saw a large-scale outdoor event, this time Put Your Foot Down at the Bull Ring, which included a mass participation hip hop dance.
Dance in Birmingham has come a long way since BRB moved there in 1990. Even so, while I never doubted that the city, the organisers and the sponsors had the will to make a success of an international festival in Birmingham, I was far from alone in wondering if there was the necessary audience for such a concentrated series of performances. But this year saw attendances more than double over 2008 to over 65,000 at the latest count.
There are still issues of course. Almost all of this year’s large-scale productions were visiting the city as part of a wider UK tour – it would be good to see some exclusivity for the Festival – and the directors need to think more about how to increase numbers at some of the larger-scale contemporary dance shows. But, as Massingham correctly observes, having this much contemporary dance in the city is still quite new. Perhaps one solution might be for more innovative ticket deals. Massingham feels this was always going to be the difficult year because the success of the inaugural 2008 event raised expectations, but if anything it was even better. There was certainly more of a festival feel to events and the city. With plans for 2012 already taking shape it seems certain that the IDFB is here to stay. Massingham is not alone in considering that it is really putting Birmingham on the map as a centre for dance in all its forms.