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  • Miles Hedley


The true psychological cost of lockdown may not be known for years. But we do know it’ll be high and we’ll need all the help we can get to recover. How appropriate, then, that the theme of this year’s Greenwich and Docklands International Festival was Healing Together – and the treatment offered was a wonderfully restorative elixir of spectacle, dance, drama, music, poetry and family fun.

Two creations by Swiss artist Dan Acher at the Old Royal Naval College got the festival off to a flying, dazzling start. By day, you could marvel at We Are Watching, a flag 10 storeys high sporting a giant eye made up of thousands of mugshots of people from 190 nations. By night, Acher channelled the Northern Lights to create Borealis (pictured top) which left those of us lucky enough to see it awestruck. What an amazing double bill to open the festival.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain momentum worldwide, an important and deeply relevant new play by Mojisola Adebayo about the ethics of genetic research called Family Tree was enthusiastically received in the gardens of Charlton House.

Meanwhile, the festival’s determination to carry its message of hope to the widest possible audience saw artists taking their work deep into local neighbourhoods under the banner On Your Doorstep. At the event in Twinkle Park, Deptford, residents were treated to The Tide, a brilliant, hard-hitting dance drama by Talawa Theatre Company about immigrants arriving in Britain. By contrast, Just More Productions’ Do What Yah Mama Told Yah was a riotously funny romp about cooking, family and bravura hula-hooping. There were similar shows at The Moorings in Thamesmead and Well Hall Pleasaunce in Eltham.

Keeping with the hyper-local theme, Quays Culture’s Mystery Bird – a light show involving a giant cage and the birds that escape from it – toured twilit back streets in Plumstead and Charlton to remind us how wildlife has flourished during lockdown.

Dance has always been a staple of GDIF and this year’s programme was exceptional. The highlights of Dance By Design on Greenwich Peninsula were, for me, the fabulous Dandyism (pictured above), Patrick Ziza’s stunning tribute to the fashion-powered Congolese political movement Le Sape, and the breathtaking, gravity-defying Finale by Catalan ballet troupe Delrevés (pictured below) which featured two dancers performing perfectly synchronised horizontal pas deux high above the ground.

The origins of Greenwich Fair are lost in the mists of time but its latest manifestation was relentlessly modern with dozens of family-friendly attractions including Abba singalongs with the Big Gay Disco Bike team, food fun with The Rascally Diner and a fascinating reinvention of an old fairground favourite with Belgian artist Geert Hautekiet’s Automata Carrousel.

I saw an early incarnation of choreographer Jeanefer Jean-Charles’s Black Victorians a couple of years ago in the ruins of St George’s Garrison Church in Woolwich and it was terrific. This year it returned to the same site as a fully formed work (pictured below) – and it was sensational.

In the course of 30 scorching minutes, it laid bare the misery endured by people of colour in 19th century Britain by contrasting the smugness of privilege with the bondage of servitude which it further underscored with tantalising visions of lost freedom. This magnificent piece, which cleverly showed why the past is so relevant to the present, was one of the highlights of the whole festival.

Another great dance contribution to GDIF came in the form of Requardt & Rosenberg’s mind-bending alien adventure Future Cargo staged in the Royal Docks on a lorry trailer which had been lit to represent the inside of a UFO. Extraordinary costumes and choreography combined to give a truly otherworldly feel to a story about a stargazing human’s close encounter – and ET metamorphosis.

And there was yet more fabulous performance in Dancing City at Canary Wharf which included an intriguing work-in-progress from Gandini Juggling and a spellbinding, heart-searing sister act by Alleyne Dance called Bonded (pictured below) which for me was another GDIF star turn.

Flemish theatre-makers had key roles at GDIF this year. De Roovers gave us a tremendous version of Dennis Potter’s play Blue Remembered Hills on a derelict arsenal site in Thamesmead. The militaristic setting coupled with planes coming in to land at nearby City airport was perfect for a tragedy about wartime RAF kids.

Also from Flanders, the alchemical delight that was Balsam defied pigeonholing. Presented by Laika and Zefiro Torino at Building 41 in Woolwich, it was a magical mix of music, food and fellowship that was eclectic, electrifying and entrancing. Its soundtrack featured tunes from the 12th to the 21st century played on a bewildering array of instruments including bagpipes, saxophones, bugles and ukuleles and these were accompanied by tasting dishes ranging from olive popping candy to fermented black garlic. Balsam was immersive theatre at its hospitable efficacious best.

The final two days of the festival, staged on opposite banks of the Thames in Woolwich and the Royal Docks, had at their heart Reflection Gardens (pictured below), a forest of fire created by Walk The Plank that had audiences gasping with delight as the flames were lit each evening as darkness fell.

During the day, the sites were occupied by performance poets, robots, circus artists, weavers and, of course, dancers. My own favourite show was Is Dat U Yh by initiative.dkf which celebrated British Blackness with infectious joy.

By chance, I bumped into the festival’s founder and artistic director Bradley Hemmings in a street in North Woolwich after I’d been experiencing the wonders of Reflection Gardens. I told him I thought this had been the best GDIF to date and suggested he must be chuffed to bits. He nodded and said he and his team simply tried to put on something different each year.

Now I can’t wait to find out what next year’s festival will be offering…

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