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  • Miles Hedley


The divisions in British society today are as wide and bitter as they have been in decades, which is why events that celebrate inclusivity and diversity are so important. Step forward and take a bow, Greenwich and Docklands International Festival.

This year’s extravaganza did more to unite people than any politician could even dream of with its mix of artistic genres and community involvement which swept away social, racial and gender pigeonholing and proudly stated a belief in social and individual equality.

Cynics might say it’s a naïve view. But I beg to differ – along with the tens of thousands of people who flocked to watch hundreds of artists offering hope and cohesion to counter the growing menace of hatred and discrimination.

The festival set out its stall from the outset with a free programme in Woolwich town centre that included female stilt-dancers who performed next to the royal arsenal munitions works which were staffed by women in WW1, a black dance troupe celebrating hair and Grace Jones, an attack on toxic masculinity in a very funny show about parking rage and, my own favourite, Stopgap Dance’s amazing Frock, featuring three men – one in a wheelchair - in dresses and three girls in boots and braces who between them made a mockery of gender and disability stereotypes.

Day One ended with the festival’s official opening show, Cristal Palace by Transe Express, which featured a giant candelabra studded with musicians suspended above General Gordon Square.

This had the effect of turning the town centre into a giant ballroom, one that onlookers quickly took advantage of by dancing in the streets.

The following two days were given over to Greenwich Fair, centred on the beautiful surroundings of the Old Royal Naval College and the paved areas around Cutty Sark.

Among the multitude of highlights were the giant tableau vivant Pasture With (real) Cows, the brilliant Gandini Juggling, Babcock’s fabulous Heath Robinson fairground Poldercoaster, stories and songs is the drag show Fantabulosa, a stunning philosophical dance set by Candoco called A Graceful Act Of Stupidity and some gravity-defying aerial moves by Newton’s Ladder.

Meanwhile, across the river in the Royal Docks you could wander through and gaze in wonder at the extraordinary Daedalum, a gorgeous installation by Architects Of Air, before heading into the City to watch an Italian theatre company perform their unique take on Moby Dick outside the Guildhall.

Moby Dick was also the subject of one of the shows of Dancing In The City, an event that took in the whole of the Canary Wharf estate on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. It included hiphop, a 3.5m wheel of percussion, a devastating exposé of modern slavery called On Edge, a moving tribute to immigrants and a virtuoso turn by twin sisters Kristina and Sadé Alleyne. The day ended with Mo & The Red Ribbon, a bravura street parade in Bow starring a giant child-puppet.

Next day we were treated to a truly immersive event by Compagnie XY, an acrobatic troupe based in France who had spent the previous week in Thamesmead talking to residents and doing pop-up performances as they constructed their show, Les Voyages, which several locals actually took part in. The tumblers led a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers and wannabe participants to greens, gardens and play-areas across the Moorings estate and finally, as the Abbey Wood Choir sang, got the audience to join hands with one another in a moment of communal unity. It was inspiring, exciting and deeply moving.

The festival then moved to Eltham’s Plassey Place for Apocalyptic Circus’s witty show My House with Danish acrobat Sunniva Byvard and rope-walker Linn Brodén. Set within four Expressionist walls with the audience looking on through the windows, the pair mixed clowning, circus skills and real emotion in a way that had the crowd cheering.

GDIF ended as it began with a performance of Cristal Palace, this time in the Royal Docks. You only had to read the social media reaction to know what a triumph the closing ceremony was.

In fact, the whole festival was a triumph thanks to artistic director Bradley Hemmings and his team, the hundreds of performers who took part, the technical wizards and volunteers who kept it all running so smoothly and, of course, the crowds who packed out every venue. Was this the best GDIF yet? You bet!

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