Belfast Children's Festival
Dance Focus conference showcases eclectic artists from across Europe
The Belfast Children's Festival may be celebrating its 15th birthday this year, but it is showing not one iota of teenage cynicism or angst. On the contrary, under director Ali Fitzgibbon, it has augmented its famous sense of wonder and fun and has, once again, opened its arms to embrace the world.
The eight-day programme features a number of outstanding companies from across Europe, who are renowned for their work for young audiences. Several are presenting Irish premieres exclusive to Belfast, while special prominence is given to home grown excellence in the shape of two premieres by Replay, a revival of Cahoots NI's highly acclaimed Egg and several works in progress by companies north and south.
The festival has also organised a raft of industry events, aimed primarily at professional arts practitioners working in the fields of youth, education and research, thereby opening up valuable exchanges of opinions and experiences between Northern Irish artists and administrators and visiting companies.
Dance Focus is one such event. Organised by Belfast-based Dance Resource Base, in association with Maiden Voyage Dance and Young at Art, it brings together an eclectic mix of people of different ages, backgrounds and nationalities for a day of performance and discussion.
The morning schedule takes in three productions and is followed in the afternoon by a panel session, chaired by Gilly Campbell, dance development officer of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Panel members included Jack Timmermans, artistic director of the Dutch company De Stilte; Ives Thuwis, co-founder of the Belgian players collective Nevski Prospekt; Johanna Figl, a Vienna-based freelance programmer of dance for young audiences; and Sandie Fisher, co-artistic director of Assault Events.
Delegates are struck by the emergence of so much common ground between countries, particularly in the areas of funding, outreach, audience development and artistic vision. But clear differences are also evident, not least in terms of the way in which the arts are so deeply embedded into Belgian, Dutch and Austrian society.
Thuwis talks about the high level of interest in youth arts in Belgium, adding: 'Schools are obliged to take children to the theatre at least once a year, so there is a lot of demand for work of this kind.'
Timmermans vividly describes his desire to put the arts at the heart of his community. 'I don't want to sit in the cellar of society, beating on the door to get out. I want to be at the centre. Art is not a pastime, whether it is for adults or children.'
He speaks about his preference for working with artists on a long-term basis, while mentioning that his 15 dancers have contracts of (only) nine months duration. The near impossibility of a company, with even a small number of contracted dancers, currently existing in Northern Ireland is explained to the visitors.
Strong views are voiced on the thorny subject of how funding requirements impact on the quality of work. Panellists express a unanimous refusal to sell their souls, while acknowledging the need to follow the money and satisfy the ever-changing demands of statutory funding bodies.
The MAC is the venue for the first performance, Nevski Prospekt's Hop, described by Thuwis as 'not dance but theatre performance without words'. Before entering the auditorium, the young audience members are brought right into the action by animateur WimDe Winne, who humorously reenacts the feat of Icarus, the mythical boy who put on wings and flew high into the sky.
Once inside, the children are invited to draw their own ideas of flying objects. Their drawings form the backdrop to the set and play an active role in the touching story of a father-son relationship, sensitively performed by dancer Thuwis and actor, Gregory Caers. And the young people take away the story in the form of white feathers handed out to them as they leave.
Then it's a bus trip across the city to the Victorian splendour of the Grand Opera House, where Assault Events present Mumo, a fun-filled performance piece for pre-school children. As is usual in this company's methodology, collaboration plays a major role in this delightful work, which has been developed in conjunction with Little Treasures Day Nursery in Limavady.
Dancers Claire Mullen (Mu) and Stevie Prickett (Mo) make such engaging playmates that some toddlers can hardly be restrained from joining them in pulling a colourful assortment of toys and games and tricks from a creaky old trunk.
The piece ends with the chance to play. Fisher explains during the afternoon discussion that structure and content are all important in the piece, and that the changing stimuli of the individual segments are designed to work with the attention span of tiny children.
Last stop is the Lyric Theatre, where, as a result of a last minute cancellation, the delegates comprise almost the entire audience. De Stilte is a company that loves to play off audience reactions, but the two brilliant, attractive young dancers – German Alex Havagy-Nagy and Elena Sgarbi from Italy – do not seem even slightly fazed by the unusual constituency facing them.
The surreal, dream-inspired Mr. Pickwick takes us into an edgy, fast-moving, multi-media universe, where the adult world and childhood collide. The title character is a hard-nosed businessman, whose perceptions of normality are challenged when he is caught up in an adventure with a very knowing young girl.
This sophisticated, slickly presented piece works at a number of levels, and is another fine example of the high quality work for young people currently being produced across Europe.
Back at the panel discussion, it is the effervescent Timmermans who gets the biggest laugh of the session when he describes meeting his local mayor in the street and being asked what he would like from him. 'He said I could use his name wherever and whenever I wanted, such is the value placed on our work.'
The silently exchanged looks around the room say it all from a Northern Ireland perspective, and underline the distance the arts in our small corner of Europe still have to go. Belfast Children's Festival runs until March 15.