The 2022 edition of BIBU - the bi annual International Children Festival – was held in Helsingborg, a fancy coastal port in one of Sweden's oldest cities built around an EPIC medieval fortress. This edition was also billed as the annual ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering for the global sector to gather.
Myself, along with 4 others, were invited to be part of the Scottish delegation, a dream come true for any theatre maker. When travelling to festivals with my own company's shows - the pressure of having to present and promote our work means I rarely have the time and energy to fully explore the host event's programme. There I was, one of the many official international theatre makers, producers, programmers and artists gathered for 5-7 days, with the brilliant assignment to watch, discuss and share knowledge about creating theatre for children and young people. I attended shows and seminars in theatres, arts spaces, gym halls and schools around the town. It had been a long time since I had been in a new place for work- in the flesh (I had originally applied and been included in the 2020 delegation due to travel to Tokyo to the ASSITEJ World Congress and Festival, which ended up online instead due to the pandemic). Away from family duties and amongst a fresh team of colleagues to get to know, I was eager for this gig to get started: bouncing off the wall’s kind-of eager.
That eagerness was fulfilled in 5 glorious days during which I fully awakened my senses and re-invigorated my passion for unbound contemporary dance and performances that push the boundaries of interactivity. Below is a small list of shows/companies that I'm still thinking about...
'SHEL WE' by dancer/ choreographer Tupua Tigafu (Aotearoa, New Zealand)
Just blew my socks off... inspired by the 'off-beat' works of song writer, illustrator and author Shel Silverstein. Tupua's super skilled dance show starred five 6ft+ guys and jumped between the intimate to the bold, serious to comedic. It fused ballet, contemporary, breakdance and physical theatre. Ballads from Johnny Cash's “a boy named sue” and “Dr Hook” (written by Silverstein) as well as classical tunes from Vivaldi scored the movement. I loved how the piece was a homage to his favourite writer and explored environment, family and masculinity in political and tender way. Myself, amongst a 800+ strong audience, jumped to a standing ovation at the end. I managed to chat to Tupua and loved hearing how he dreams up choreography while listening to YouTube on his porch.
‘Playful Tiger’ by Barrowland Ballet (Glasgow)
A piece created specifically for children with Autism.
It was my first time experiencing immersive work created for children with profound learning disabilities and neuro-diverse needs. From the get go, the scenography was super slick - a square metal structure that the audience is free to move around, to feel its textures and made to dodge objects falling from above (feathers, oranges, ping pong balls) set to an atmospheric soundtrack. The performance was commanded by the dancers who physically connected with the kids with gentle lifts and pressure massages (like a contact improv session) – and acrobatically dived and jived around the set. I found the performers' intuition and joy infectious. I also loved how the stylishness of the work didn't infantilise the children. Everything felt live and improvised and shifted my thinking about the potential of truly interactive movement work that thrives on the audience's physical presence.
Hearing Natasha speak about her process was brilliant. I'd never thought about re-visiting an existing piece through an audience-specific lens to create an equally brilliant derivative piece. After the show, I called my 12-year-old cousin Jude (who has autism) and his mum in Southport to share my excitement. We would love to attend a Liverpool showing of the piece if ever there was one and it has inspired me to be more playful with them on my next visit too.
Do as I say – by Bobbi Lo produktion, Malmo Sweden
It was a show that seemed to split opinion amongst the programmers of the festival.... and I was SOOOOOO up for seeing it.
Billed as an interactive piece about bullying aimed at 13+, five good looking dancers dressed in cool black garms scowled at us we were brought into a school gym hall. A ‘Squid Game’ like voiceover ordered us around the space for the next 50 minutes while the dancers glided between abstract / gestural choreography and gut-wrenching expression to a minimal tech sound track.
The show gave me all the feels. I was quivering /crying remembering past experiences, raging with anger at being told what to do and squirming with shame realising I didn't speak up in certain circumstances of the piece. A post show discussion grounded us all as we got to place those feelings and talk about being passive in some circumstances can amount to being an accomplice.
This piece left the biggest mark. I think a combination of being actively involved, emotionally manipulated, placing it in a known environment and speaking in a language of pop culture spoke to me, as I’m sure it did to lots of teenagers, in a clever and unpretentious way.
The festivals themes creatively educated me and shifted my paradigm in understanding about ways to actively facilitate, engage and create work with underrepresented audiences and communities. I loved getting to know the team behind Imaginate festival as well as the other artists and delegates in our group; I even got to try an an electric Scooter for the first time. Visiting the festival gave me fresh head space to reflect on my own practice, the Scottish sector, as well as connect with other artists and programmers who I would never normally meet.