International Dance Festival Birmingham 2016 – Ballet BC, Shun Ito/Kei Miyata/EEIH, Motionhouse & free events

<B>Ballet BC</B>: Christoph von Riedemann, Andrew Bartee, Emily Chessa, Scott Fowler, Kirsten Wicklund, Alexis Fletcher and Brandon Alley in Crystal Pite's <I>Solo Echo</I>.<br />© Michael Slobodian. (Click image for larger version)
Ballet BC: Christoph von Riedemann, Andrew Bartee, Emily Chessa, Scott Fowler, Kirsten Wicklund, Alexis Fletcher and Brandon Alley in Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo.
© Michael Slobodian. (Click image for larger version)

International Dance Festival Birmingham 2016
Ballet BC, Shun Ito/Kei Miyata/EEIH, Motionhouse & free events

Ballet BC: 16+ a room, Solo Echo, Bill
Birmingham, Hippodrome
21 May 2016

Shun Ito/Kei Miyata/EEIH: In A Landscape
Birmingham, Festival Hub (Municipal Bank)
14 May 2016

Motionhouse: Torque
free event in Centenary Square Birmingham
14 May 2016

International Dance Festival Birmingham (IDFB) has just finished its fifth edition and another 52,000 have been added to the audience numbers giving a running total of 224,000 touched by its power. To borrow from Clement Crisp: “That’s a jolly good thing.”

The Festival serves a number of functions, not least to bring dance to the attention of all in Birmingham, which it does with a bunch of free events and much advertising and leafleting across the city. It’s also there to show the breadth of dance these days, putting the magnifying glass on some special areas – this year dance from Eastern Europe and South Asian dance – and generally to fly the flag for Birmingham and show people that the best of dance doesn’t always happen in London. Of course it’s not just a big thing for Birmingham but also dance lovers in the counties around the city. It’s a great regional celebration and I applaud that – let’s get more dance out of London and for that to be a mix of the lovably accessible to cutting-edge challenging. To get a feel for all that was on at IDFB 2016 you could do worse than read our interview with co-director of the festival David Massingham.

Although many of the companies presented at IDFB are international or of international composition, I wouldn’t say that IDFB is a major international or national audience draw yet. The Edinburgh Festival in the 90’s (and a little later) seemed always to be bringing significant dance companies in from around the world (like New York City Ballet memorably) and you had to go to Edinburgh to see them… and in the doing get the general buzz of it all around smaller companies too. There was something of a move in such a direction when IDFB’s final Friday and Saturday night shows at the Hippodrome featured Canada’s Ballet BC (or Ballet British Columbia), a cutting edge contemporary company with interesting repertoire that hasn’t danced in Europe before and their only UK dates were in Birmingham. In a sea of great dance, the major parts of which have been reviewed much already (like Carlos Acosta and Hofesh Shechter) it was Ballet BC that jumped out at me as the must-see show worth travelling 220 miles for – and so I did.

Andrew Bartee, Scott Fowler, Christoph von Riedemann, Alexis Fletcher, Emily Chessa, Kirsten Wicklund and Brandon Alley in Crystal Pite's Solo Echo.© Michael Slobodian. (Click image for larger version)
Andrew Bartee, Scott Fowler, Christoph von Riedemann, Alexis Fletcher, Emily Chessa, Kirsten Wicklund and Brandon Alley in Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo.
© Michael Slobodian. (Click image for larger version)

In terms of on-trend repertoire Ballet BC‘s triple bill was as hip as it gets – all three pieces by female choreographers and one by the hugely-in-demand Crystal Pite. Pite works can be seen in London next week (Sadler’s Wells), next year at The Royal Ballet no less, and this summer at the Edinburgh Festival when Scottish Ballet present her work for the first time. Ballet BC’s Pite piece is called Solo Echo and it was absolutely stunning. To Brahms Sonatas, it’s in 2 parts, the first channelling the passion and exuberance of those in the prime of life and the second to the gentler cello sonata (played by Yo-Yo Ma) in which a band of 7 dancers make up an organism (or ‘collective body’ as Pite speaks about it) that pulses with life and energy, occasionally throwing off parts/dancers who mooch around only to be reabsorbed. It’s stunningly beautiful, seeing 7 dancers linked and flowing like water. You can see it as a family unit acting together or even as the support of friends or the way a good society should work – all helping one another. What I love about Pite is that she creates work that is indelibly human in scale – the dancers aren’t fantastic beings doing bone-crushing and bone-snapping this and that but real flesh and blood interacting. It’s uplifting movement, that goes with the human grain and as I enjoy it I also construct all these narratives around what I see. At just 22 minutes Solo Echo is a 5 star piece and there was a lot of animated discussion in the interval after.

The other two Ballet BC works didn’t fare quite so well and their scores were played at such volume that small children were moving and leaving the auditorium – to be honest it wasn’t a bill for them at all. 16+ a room, by Ballet BC’s artistic director, Emily Molnar, opened the evening and really felt like a homage to William Forsythe and Frankfurt Ballet, where Molnar was a dancer. And the score by Dirk P. Haubrich (who also worked with Forsythe in Frankfurt) had the Thom Willems feel of electronic banging and clanking (I rather like Willems, I have to say). Although the programme talks of writers’ influences and being a study in “time, transition and stillness” I couldn’t see much of this or construct narratives as I so readily could with the Pite, though it did feature silly signs like ‘This is not the end’ carried on at regular intervals. Rather I couldn’t shake off this feeling of “not quite on the money 90’s Forsythe”. What it did do, though, was introduce the company – a diverse mix of ages and sizes all looking super fit and with big attitude. Molnar says of her company, “Ballet BC dancers are a group of open-minded and deep-thinking artists, each unique for their dynamic movement while sharing an intuitive passion for dance.” Yep – saw that in spades.

Livona Ellis and Darren Devaney in Emily Molnar's 16+ a room.© Michael Slobodian. (Click image for larger version)
Livona Ellis and Darren Devaney in Emily Molnar’s 16+ a room.
© Michael Slobodian. (Click image for larger version)

The last piece, Bill, was by Israeli choreographers Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, although the program mostly refers to it as Eyal’s creation – originally for the Batsheva Dance Company. Bill started promisingly with 5 interesting solos led out by the impressive Scott Fowler. The unisex costumes were an off-white all-in-one but the face, hair and arms were all chalked up leading to an eerie manikin look. All 5 solos are different – Fowler’s is a narcissistic Charles Atlas character, but we also get a fidget (constantly beating all over), a bendy person and a female full of waves of energy. All danced to a thunderous drumming score (Ori Lichtik). Interesting and certainly grabs the attention, if Bill tended to lose focus when more dancers were on stage. But towards the end of its 26 minutes it found its pulsing mojo again. Rather a surreal piece and Sharon Eyal is a choreographer others might well pick up on, just as we in the UK have run a long way with Hofesh Shechter. But, as I say, it was Crystal Pite’s night and it was worth the 220 miles round trip just to catch Solo Echo.

The Machine Show - part of Live Nights in Centenary Square during IDFB 2016. © IDFB. (Click image for larger version)
The Machine Show – part of Live Nights in Centenary Square during IDFB 2016. © IDFB. (Click image for larger version)

For the middle week of the festival IDFB took over Centenary Square (Symphony Hall, Birmingham Rep and the new Library front on to it) and presented a bunch of free events under the title LIVE NIGHTS. There was a stage installed and 2 video screens to magnify up the action. On Saturday (14 May) I caught the last day in the Square and went up for the afternoon and possibly night. While there were some good things it wasn’t entirely a success, I have to say. Just to get a grip on what was happening through the day (and importantly when exactly) took an age – nowhere on the website, brochure or Android app do IDFB show a clear chronological list of what’s happening when – you are clicking or shuffling from page to page to construct you own detailed list. Worse, on the Saturday I went they introduced a new item and changed the order of some things, and was this in an updated listing section of the site? Oh no. It was in a blog entry which you could easily overlook. (Thanks to the great Simon Harper on PR for alerting us). IDFB really need to do serious work on their website usability and the mechanisms that update it. The new item started at 3PM and was billed as an ‘Excerpt from The Machine Show‘ – that being the headline free event (one hour long) that went off at 21:30 each night. With a long journey home I’d been dithering about if I would stay for it, but in the end, after 5 minutes of watching a very lacklustre video, I decided not to stay for the show or the reminder of the poor video and shuffled off to get some refreshment.

<I>In A Landscape</I> by Shun Ito, Kei Miyata and Ex Easter Island Head.<br />© Cherine Stewart. (Click image for larger version)
In A Landscape by Shun Ito, Kei Miyata and Ex Easter Island Head.
© Cherine Stewart. (Click image for larger version)

I had a tea and cake in the Festival Hub (the old Municipal Bank) which housed an exhibition by Shun Ito of ingenious mechanical devices – almost like perpetual motion machines full of cogs and gears. The cafe itself was in the huge old banking hall and that contained another Ito installation, Cells, especially commissioned by IDFB. It consisted of large circular chrome mobiles within mobiles rotating this way and that. Watching them was really calming and restful – a bit like a Zen Garden. It became even more restful because the sculpture was part of the next (ticketed) event, In A Landscape, which had dancers slowly moving around the space, stopping, lying down and doing slow martial-arts inspired routines while incandescent light bulbs scattered amongst the mobiles slowly came on and off to give different twinkling views. Landscape was choreographed by Kei Miyata (a self-taught dancer) and used local yoga and martial arts groups. The backing soundtrack was played live by ‘Liverpool’s guitar-based percussive innovators Ex Easter Island Head‘, 3 chaps who stood at a table playing various instruments and bells – very ambient and gently repetitive. All up, it was a pleasant enough way to spend 45 minutes and I doubt it will ever be seen again, so unique was it. Choreographically its simplicity didn’t do much for me but the sound and visual installations really worked well and I’d like to hear more of EEIH.

Then a dash back to Centenary Square to see ZoieLogic Dance do their car-based routine, Ride. Unfortunately the small crowd was already 4 or 5 deep around the performance space, and all being on the flat you couldn’t really see a thing from the back. There were a couple of screens relaying what was happening, but they weren’t that large and in the sunshine the resolution/contrast didn’t really clearly show so much either. I went off to investigate the bar and 3 food stalls comprising the award-winning Digbeth Dining Club experience. Wandering around with a pint of cider I waited for the next event – Motionhouse‘s Torque complete with JCB Diggers. They need a huge space to perform which also means loads of people can see what’s happening. Bravo. There’s not much to say about Torque really – 4 dancers do amazing things, mainly in and hanging off of the buckets on 2 JCB diggers as they move around in perfect synchronisation. Whoever did the Health and Safety risk assessments must have had fun – it looked seriously risky at times. It’s great original theatre, just 20 minutes long, and a free event that worked really well.

Motionhouse in <I>Torque</I>.<br />© Dani Bower. (Click image for larger version)
Motionhouse in Torque.
© Dani Bower. (Click image for larger version)

After the excitement of Motionhouse there was 80 mins to idle away before Corey Baker Dance’s Phone Box. But like Ride this was another event on the ground of the Square and so only a few would see it properly and the screens didn’t seem adequate. Centenary Square’s not big on seats either. And I thought “Check out now and go home happy – you saw the great diggers” and so I did and got home at 9:00 PM, having left 9 hours earlier.

My overall feelings are that if I lived in Birmingham I’d be well pleased at the 3 week festival and the variety of dance it puts on, from Flamenco, through ethnic dance, to contemporary, to fun events and major shows at the Hippodrome. Even 2 conferences. It’s really trying to make Birmingham dance city and connect with both the dance aware and those who have never ever seen a dance show live before. The free events across the city are a good idea, if those in Centenary Square don’t really seem staged so well. That said, after a few drinks on a balmy summer’s evening, the main 21:30 show, staged as it is on a proper stage in the Square, might well look terrific. But overall hanging out (read standing) in Centenary Square for a few hours, waiting for things to happen, isn’t so great.

Corey Baker Dance presents Phone Box across Birmingham's city centre during IDFB 2016. © Dani Bower. (Click image for larger version)
Corey Baker Dance presents Phone Box across Birmingham’s city centre during IDFB 2016. © Dani Bower. (Click image for larger version)

It will be interesting to see where the festival goes to from here – it can carry on being a great regional celebration of dance or it might become more of a national or even international celebration that draws people in from all over. It would be terrific if in some future iteration one was talking to friends… “Have you seen who’s on at IDFB this year? – Paris Opera Ballet, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, a new Wayne McGregor premiere, Cullberg…” and most of these shows are nowhere else to be seen in the UK that year. Now that really would draw people in from London and beyond. Not cheap, and gearing up for it probably requires a dedicated team. But IDFB is great for Birmingham as is, and I hope those in and around the city filled their boots.

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