GREENWICH + DOCKLANDS INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL in east and south-east London
You needed to be a glass-half-full type of person during the opening days of the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival as the rain bucketed down and threatened to play havoc with the event’s usual dazzling programme of international performers, world premieres and fabulous free entertainment for every age and taste.
But even a monsoon couldn’t dampen the spirits of a festival whose theme this year was Acts Of Hope. Indeed, it proved the old showbiz adage that the show must go on and also demonstrated the determination of tens of thousands of people to enjoy themselves come what may.
Later in the festival the sun came out and temperatures soared to record levels - so we simply used our umbrellas as parasols. And whatever the elements could throw at us, we were treated to as brilliant a selection of theatre, dance, music, circus, art and pure spectacle as you would find anywhere in the world.
Over the course of a fortnight, you could watch 37 acts from 10 countries do their stuff in Woolwich, Greenwich, Stratford, Thamesmead, Eltham, Abbey Wood, Deptford, Plumstead, the Royal Docks, Canary Wharf and the City.
One of the shows, The Architect, was a world premiere and was also my highlight of the whole festival. This stunning promenade production by the Actors Touring Company commemorating murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence is reviewed separately at https://www.thegreenwichvisitorblog.com/post/gdif-the-architect-on-deptford-woolwich-bus
The other acts were uniformly exceptional too, not least tightrope artiste extraordinaire Tatiana Mosio-Bongonga (top) who launched GDIF 2023 by walking, dancing and rotating on a wire strung high above Woolwich’s General Gordon Square in a death-defying display entitled Open Lines. Talk about an act of hope!
Greenwich Fair was, as ever, a glorious gallimaufry of family-friendly fun held in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College, Cutty Sark Gardens and Greenwich Park. Disability empowerment was at the heart of several acts, such as The Air between Us, Echoes Within The Earth, Birdie and The Way Ahead. If you like your acts accessorised, Exit offered thrills and spills on floating doors, Les Patineurs were rollerskating wizards, Roll Model combined hiphop and hoops and Gregarious gave us a fantastic, very funny display of male competitiveness using gym equipment.
Sadly the fair was badly affected by downpours but all 15 acts managed to perform at least one of their two allotted slots. And many of the artists reprised their shows in GDIF’s hyper-local strand On Your Doorstep during the following week in Eltham, Deptford, Abbey Wood and Plumstead.
GDIF has never shied away from politics, a stance manifested by Woman, Life, Freedom! (above) which paid tribute in a beautifully understated dance work to the courage of women who risk their lives by demanding their rights in Iran. This UK premiere by Ameena Hamid Productions in Stratford Park managed to be at once intimate and epic as well as optimistic.
Grime star Afrikan Boy, who grew up in south-east London, provided the score for Ancient Futures which turned a little corner of Thamesmead into a landing site for a group of visiting aliens, the Afrinauts. Great music, great words by Oneness Sankara, great costumes and great dancing and singing by Azula Bandit, Talisman Jaguar, Kofi Mingo and Mitchel Taunton made this an out-of this-world delight.
The high point, in both senses, of the first half of the festival was Resurgam, an aerial dance extravaganza over four evenings on the south facade of St Paul’s cathedral by US company Bandaloop. This spectacular event provided awed audiences with a double dose of hope – hope that the performers would win their battle against gravity on a building that symbolised hope during the Second World War. It would undoubtedly have been the star of the entire festival but for The Architect.
Further downstream at the Royal Victoria Dock two other shows offered alternative takes on the theme of hope.
Cygnus, by German company Loomaland, consisted of a dozen lifesize robotic swans cruising balletically over the darkened water in changing colours and patterns that feted sustainability and the glories of nature.
And Sliding Slope, by Vloeistof from the Netherlands, was a brilliantly bittersweet work about rising sea-levels set on the roof of a sunken house (above) that was part tribute to human endurance, part tirade against human indifference.
The halfway point of GDIF’s Week Two was marked by the start of eight performances over four days of Pan // Catwalk by Dutch duo Zwermers who celebrated self-expression and defied labelling by parading along a fashion runway doing scores of costume changes in the middle of the Canary Wharf shopping mall, that temple to upmarket consumerism.
Their last four shows were incorporated into Dancing City, 12 different acts that popped up all over the Canary Wharf estate on GDIF’s final weekend.
They included Norwegian trampolinists in Bouncing Narratives, a fabulous Royal Ballet presentation of Sleepwalker with disabled dancer Joe Powell-Main, the synchronised joy of Vivace, a new take on Indian classical dance with Deva, a meeting of South Asian and contemporary dance in You&Me, a powerful piece about the black body played out in a treadmill called simply Tread, a giant Newton’s cradle executive toy in Valse à Newton, an exceptional insight into what it is to be a 16-year-old boy in 4 Minutes, six shows by local company Casson & Friends entitled Arcade, a mix of dance and acrobatics in Moon and - my own favourite - one able and one disabled performer in a piece called I think we should start over. It was by Candoco, who in my book can do no wrong.
The last event I saw this year was Gratte Ciel’s amazing RoZéO (above) on Greenwich Peninsula. It featured three artists atop swaying 20ft poles accompanied by a virtuoso singer/multi-instrumentalist and offered a simple act of beauty and harmony against an urban backdrop of high-rise homes, hi-tech cable car, busy river, light industry and planes taking off for the nearby airport.
The contrast was huge yet, like GDIF itself, full of hope. What a sensational festival it was - what a promise of better things to come.