COLAB 2020 in Greenwich, Blackheath, Deptford, New Cross and Southwark
Updated: Feb 28
Major world premieres, medieval chants, Hindustani folk music, Hollywood soundtracks, Taiwanese dance, First Nation tribal traditions, a Tate takeover, 21st century pop, Baroque geniuses, Balinese gamelan, pioneering opera, jazz jams, infectious African rhythms and performances by world-famous virtuosi – CoLab 2020 had it all.
Trinity Laban’s annual festival of experimentation, innovation, improvisation, contrasts and collaboration has just completed its ninth outing. And this year’s edition set the bar at a dizzying height.
Over two hectic weeks, hundreds of TL students joined forces with guest musicians and dancers from around the world to devise and stage 85 different works, many of them realised from scratch in just three or four days before being unveiled to the public.
It would, of course, be impossible to go to everything, if only because so many of the performances took place simultaneously at TL sites in Greenwich, Blackheath, Deptford and New Cross or at more challenging venues such as Tate Modern. But even if you managed to timetable visits on only a couple of days you’d have got a good idea of what a brilliantly original festival this was.
My own highlight came in the second week – an astonishing concert of viola music at the Old Royal Naval College chapel dedicated to the First Nation Blackfoot People of Canada (top). The programme included no less than 10 world premieres of works for violas written by composers from the UK, Israel, Hungary, Catalonia and, of course, Canada, all of them inspired by Blackfoot traditions and all played by viola ensembles under Nic Pendlebury backing internationally-acclaimed virtuosi Rivka Golani – herself a TL staffer - and Peter Bársony.
To add the final flourish to this uniquely original event, the time between commissioning these extraordinary pieces and performing them at the ORNC was a matter of months. The result was a contender for CoLab’s finest-ever moment.
My only concern was that nothing else in the fortnight could live up to such a standard – but I needn’t have worried.
For example, the Brass & Byzantium concert at St Alfege’s parish church featured TL’s Trombone Choir playing a medley of late 20th century pop classics such as ELO’s Mr Blue Sky and Peter Cetera’s Glory Of Love followed by nine unaccompanied singers performing drone-rich 13th century Bulgarian church chants. What a sensational contrast.
Back at the ORNC chapel, Classical’s Roots had 10 musicians playing Dvorák & Liz Sharma compositions inspired by folk tunes from Hungary and Hindustan and a haunting improvisation on an Ottoman scale that segued gorgeously into a traditional Romanian air.
A few hours later some of those same musicians were at the Laban building belting out movie tunes, swing and hiphop at a party to mark the end of the Week One of CoLab.
Dance and music students spent two days at Tate Modern publicly creating, rehearsing and then performing extracts from Louis Andriessen’s ground-breaking 1975 Workers Union, the dancers (above) moving through the public space to an ensemble made up of baritone sax, bass clarinet, two keyboards, xylophone, french horn and clarinet.
On the final Thursday, St Alfege’s hosted Classical & Pop Inventions, a fascinating two-parter. It opened with strings, keyboard, french horn and two singers demonstrating the sort of improvisations musicians routinely used in the late Baroque while playing works by the likes of Bach, Handel and Corelli and closed with 17 TL musical theatre students covering songs that were hits between 2010 and 2019 such as Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. More fab contrasts.
Later the same day the world famous bass Sir John Tomlinson joined the Brighton Youth Orchestra, Junior Trinity and Trinity undergraduates for an evening of opera at the ORNC. I had to miss this, however, because I was at a parallel event at the Laban building listening to dance legend Lin Hwai-min (above) discussing his rise to international fame. His warm, witty, wise, humble, inspiring, insightful and poetic way of talking was mesmerising.
The following afternoon, dancers from the Taiwanese company Lin founded, Cloud Gate, joined TL youngsters for a series of workshops at Laban. But the main action of CoLab’s last day was at Blackheath Halls where events continued almost continuously from midday to midnight.
My pick included a stunning jazz jam by Oregon Again (above) - who reminded me of Carla Bley in her pomp - Yin-Yang, which combined Elgar lyricism with sinuous dancing, High Fantasy, a four-hander piano composition by student Ryszard Tan which was a technical and artistic marvel and a hauntingly beautiful mix of music and dance featuring visiting performers from Codarts in the Netherlands.
The grand finale was everything we have come to expect from this consistently dazzling festival. This year the stunning line-up included the brilliant Streetwise Opera, an 80s symphonic orchestra and foot-stomping sets of Afrobeat and South African jazz that channelled musical icons Fela Kuti – a one-time Trinity student – and Hugh Masekela and also provided a breathtaking showcase for young TL dancers (below).
It was the perfect ending to a spectacular night – and a spectacular fortnight. Trouble is, how will CoLab mastermind Joe Townsend and his incredible team improve on it when it comes to next year’s tenth anniversary edition? Watch this space…
Pictures, from top: Robert Workman, JK Photography, Maja Smiekowska (courtesy of Ministry of Culture, Taiwan), Greenwich Visitor, JK Photography