INTERVIEW: Greenwich+Docklands International Festival artistic director Bradley Hemmings on why the event ‘makes for quite a remarkable experience’

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Greenwich+Docklands International Festival takes place at various sites from 21 June to 7 July 2018. I spoke to the event’s artistic director Bradley Hemmings about what this year’s line up has to offer.

Windrush, votes for women and the ending of World War 1 will be celebrated at this year’s Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDIF). Now in its 23rd year, the annual event takes place at outdoor venues across Greenwich, Docklands and Tower Hamlets. Part of Royal Greenwich Festivals, GDIF will present an extensive programme of art installations, street theatre, circus, dance and music, produced and performed by homegrown acts as well as international artists.

This year’s line up includes more than 130 performances which celebrate dreams of love, struggle, ambition and flight. It has been put together by its artistic director Bradley Hemmings MBE who says the hunger for outdoor events as a way of bringing people and communities together is growing.

“There is no doubt that outdoor arts festivals such as the GDIF are growing in popularity,” he says. “Not only do they give people a chance to engage and connect with one another, be inspired, excited and entertained, they also allow us to reach a great number of people for whom the cultural infrastructure that you find in Zone 1 is not readily accessible. GDIF itself has gone from strength to strength – last year more than 100,000 people came along which is fantastic.”

The inspiration for this year’s line up has come from a variety of sources, not least the areas in which the events take place and the people who live there. “Here in South London we are blessed with some fantastic outside public spaces – some like Greenwich and Woolwich that we have used before as well as some new exciting ones,” explains Hemmings. “We also strive to have a mix of local talent as well as artists from other parts of the country and indeed internationally to show the area in a different light. It’s not like when you go to the theatre and the lights go down and you focus on the performance. Here, outdoors, you can’t help but be aware of the audience and so it’s okay to talk and chat and respond to what is going on. It makes for quite a remarkable experience.”

Kicking off proceedings on June 21 will be an extraordinary and magical union of public art and nature. For three nights, a flock of 1,500 specially trained pigeons with tiny LED lights on bands around their legs will take to the sky over Thamesmead at dusk in Duke Riley’s Fly By Night.Bradley says it promises to be a spectacular event.“We worked with the RSPCA on this and it’s going to be quite something,” he says. “The leg bands on the pigeons which have the lights on them were traditionally used in wartime for carrying messages.“Just before dusk the LED lights will come on and the birds will fly to create something that will be incredibly special and completely beautiful. It’s going to take place on the edge of land near Crossness which in itself is a fantastic location.”

Pic credit Tod Seele

For Bradley one of the highlights of the festival is the celebration of the arrival of Empire Windrush 70 years ago.“Outdoor arts have a special role to play in marking moments of public significance and resonance,” he says. “With Windrush, it’s a local as well as national story. The fact that it’s been in the news so much for other reasons is coincidental but it’s an important part of our history and should be told.“Windrush: 492 is going to be very exciting. It’s a performance which will see the names of those who arrived in that ship transcribed in photoluminscent powder on to the ground around the Cutty Sark Gardens. “As part of this piece we worked with Greenwich playwright Roy Williams who recorded some of the very many stories and memories of those people who were on board the boat and who came to the UK. It will form part of a soundscape around the Cutty Sark and promises to be amazing.”Other elements of the programme take inspiration from global stories of mass movement and migration, including Never Set Eyes On The Land, a new installation from Nutkhut recalling the experience and legacy of Partition in 1947, and the French hip hop company Dyptik, who explore the struggles associated with contemporary border crossings in D-Construction, an emotional production that takes place on and around a symbolic fence structure.The 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act (ROPA) which gave some women in the UK the right to vote, will also be celebrated with performances and participatory events across the Festival.Undaunted, is a stunning high wire walk from Phoebe Bullzini, the UK’s only female wire-walker and one half of the UK’s leading high-wire duo The Bullzini Family. It has been specially commissioned to mark the ROPA centenary. Woolwich will see the world premiere of Rise! an uplifting local and global story of the continuing struggle by women for equality and rights told by French company L’Homme debout.It will feature giant puppets who will move through the streets of Woolwich – something Bradley says should not be missed.Woolwich will also be the setting for the world premiere of Graeae Theatre Company’s epic outdoor production, This Is Not For You, honouring Britain’s wounded and disabled war veterans. Elsewhere, an established GDIF favourite, The Greenwich Fair will return to delight audiences between Friday June 22 and Sunday June 24.Highlights include the world première of Icarus from Southpaw Dance Company, co-commissioned with The Place as part of a new outdoor dance initiative called Stomping Ground.There is also a playful integration of circus and live painting in PLOCK! by Flemish theatre company Grensgeval, and the London première of Belly Of The Whale, a spectacular new production from circus dance company Ockham’s Razor.
Belly Of The Whale. Pic credit Mark Dawson Photography
At Canary Wharf, this year’s Dancing City programme brings together performances from nine dance companies, including award-winning Catalan Cia Moveo, Candoco Dance Company with a new commission, Dedicated to…, as well as entrancing performances of Dopamine from Ballet Black.New productions this year include Bicycle Boy which is aimed at those under 12 and will be staged at the Royal Naval College. “It’s a lovely interactive piece of outdoor theatre, with the performances powered by getting on bicycles!” enthuses Bradley. “I saw it in Brighton and loved it.”The finale to this year’s GDIF will be a large-scale, outdoor dance-theatre retelling of Jonathan Harvey’s iconic and landmark LGBTQ play Beautiful Thing, a tale of young love blossoming on a South East London housing estate. The site-specific production, combining spectacular staging and video projection, is staged close to the area of Thamesmead described in the piece and marks the 25th anniversary of the play’s first production.With such a varied and packed line up, and many of the events free of charge, Bradley is confident there is “something for everyone”.“The Festival is very inclusive and there is plenty for everyone no matter who or what age they are,” he says.“There are lots of people who live here who don’t go into the West End or South Bank and so to create quality arts experience on their doorsteps and allow them to become immersed in it all is very special and a privilege.“For me it’s also about discovering part of the cultural life of this area and shouting about it as much as possible.“There are great things happening in South London including the exciting new cultural quarter of Greenwich which will open in the next 18 months. It’s an incredible area and it’s fantastic to celebrate it in this way.“I hope the Festival inspires, delights and amazes.”

Greenwich+Docklands International Festival takes place at various sites from June 21 until July 7. Visit www.festival.org for a full line up.

Kate Gould on Twitter
Kate Gould
Kate Gould is an experienced journalist with other 20 years' experience writing across newspapers and magazines, including most recently South London Press. In addition to occasional theatre reviews, Kate specialises in interviews and features. Her myriad celebrity interviews have included Freddie Fox, Gary Barlow, Priscilla Presley, Jason Donovan, Linda Gray, David Baddiel, Jimmy Osmond, Lee Mead, Shaun Dooley, Petula Clark and Paul McGann.
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Kate Gould on Twitter
Kate Gould
Kate Gould is an experienced journalist with other 20 years' experience writing across newspapers and magazines, including most recently South London Press. In addition to occasional theatre reviews, Kate specialises in interviews and features. Her myriad celebrity interviews have included Freddie Fox, Gary Barlow, Priscilla Presley, Jason Donovan, Linda Gray, David Baddiel, Jimmy Osmond, Lee Mead, Shaun Dooley, Petula Clark and Paul McGann.