A Visit to Derby Festé

Review from: Derby Festé; 27-28th Sept 2019

Derby’s annual festival of street arts and spectacle has always caught my eye on paper but this, their 13th year, was the first time I’ve been able to get along and check it out for myself. Lucky 13 then, it turns out, as the programme has been brilliantly put together to offer a rich and varied menu of events that locals can dip in and out of, or visitors like me can appreciate over the whole two-day event. Almost everything is free, with tickets only required for the two evening headliner shows from exciting international companies Los Galindos and Close-Act Theatre. But I’ll come onto those later.

What struck me most about the festival is that there really is something for everyone. My partner was keen to try VR headset experiences in the QUAD arts centre, and I was very pleased to be able to listen to audio description in two of the sixteen events, which each ran twice over the two days. A street circus spot gives both consummate Covent Garden entertainers and emerging local performers a platform. Walkabouts and parades bring the streets to surprising life, and stages set in the city’s open spaces offer a rotating rostra of full shows, mostly between 30-45 minutes long, for all ages. It’s not a circus festival but, like with so much street work, there’s often a porous boundary between circus and other skills on display in each show.

‘The Tom Show’ at Derby Festé

As well as animating the shopping centres, parks and squares of Derby city centre, the festival this year also has a special experience in the cathedral. Visual artist Luke Jerram has created a lifelike replica of the moon that seems to float massively above our heads inside the ornate cathedral. I hear other visitors talking about how having the installation here for everyone to visit and photograph makes the normally imposing building feel more accessible and welcoming, and I also personally appreciate the way the artwork offers a new way for historic cathedral visitors to contemplate the infinite, recognising contemporary technological achievements and perspectives on the universe. While this is far away from my usual circus focus, it’s worth mentioning as a unique feature of the festival, and also as the focal point that ties together this year’s theme: ‘Space, Moon and Tides’.

The watery element of the theme can be seen and heard in the stilt walking Lionfish of Artemis Productions, in the canalside puppetry and storytelling of Extraordinary BodiesSplash, in the shipwreck-like set of Belly of the Whale by Ockham’s Razor, and in the hilarious paddling pool concert of Cie Barolosolo‘s Île O. There is too much on to be able to see everything, but I made a clever choice with Île O, as the two-man French clown show was one of the best things I’ve seen all year. Mathieu Levavasseur and William Valet are musicians who find their stage flooded by ten inches of water. One stoically plods through regardless, the other clambers over his partner and the overhead truss trying to avoid wetting his feet or his instruments. The shrieks of laughter in the packed audience are not just from the splash-happy children, and I’m glad I made a beeline to the wooden stands early to get a seat.

Cie Barolosolo with ‘Île O’

The unpredictable waters of good ole British rain dry just in time for the festival’s first show on the Friday afternoon, but lingering dampness may have compromised the planned choreographies of the Splash company. It gets off to a fabulous start – seating ‘rocks’ that vibrate underneath us as hidden speakers below play a pre-recorded undersea soundscape; sparkling glove fish that involve the audience and allow us to wriggle and move as part of the show’s circumstances instead of feeling restricted to traditional ‘sit still and be quiet’ theatre etiquette – but the initial buzz wears down to a rather dull storyline that swings from confusing to didactic. I’m listening to the audio description, which includes a large portion of narrative interpretation, and wonder as I do so how much of the slowly-paced physical storytelling I’d follow without this helpful framing. Speaking to my other half afterwards, I found he had indeed felt rather lost. For many audience members it might be the first opportunity to see disabled people represented on stage, which should never be under-estimated. But I was left a little confused about who the target audience for the production is. I certainly recommend taking up the option of listening to the audio if you’re attending the show.

On the Friday evening, on our way to the yurt home of Catalan company Los Galindos, we pass by a parade of stilt-walkers in fantastic winged costumes, beating drums and minded by scurrying minions wielding spitting, sparkling flares. This is a taster of the festival’s grand finale, and sets the pulse racing for the elaborate spectacle of tomorrow night. This evening’s fare, cosily tucked inside the canvas and wood yurt ring, is a more intimate affair: subtle facial expressions and surreal comic comings and goings from the four sombre-looking performers of UduL. Company directors Bet Garrell and Marcel Escolano are greying, their faces lined. Anna Pascual and Benet Jofre could be their adult children, or younger versions of themselves. Maybe this is a bizarre family, maybe a strange timewarp of life flashing before one’s eyes in the moments before final sleep. Slapstick, acrobatics and scenographic clowning are the main features of the delightfully bemusing and entertaining show, while segments of pole, aerial and trick bike work have heightened impact in the snug confines of the yurt circle.

Los Galindos in ‘UduL’

Although not part of the official theme, I’m struck by how much of the work integrates live music. I only get a glimpse of the sequins and feathers bedazzling Tickertape Parade‘s Fantabulosa children’s cabaret as I pass by, but hear the sung messages of positive self-image – and confetti canons – as I stand in line at the nearby churros stand (delicious by the way). Then it’s on to the fifteen minute drumming and movement innovation of Pulse from Joss Arnott Dance, based around a large circular structure designed by Rolls-Royce. Somewhat like an overgrown, immobile German wheel, the structure has a bass drum at its centre, and various percussion devices attached to its outer rungs. Emma King and Sean Moss, both wearing dungaree shorts with long hair tied back from their faces, clamber playfully about the structure, getting to know the sounds it makes. Emma leads the complex beaten rhythms, while Sean breaks out into spinning leaps across the concrete in front of us. It’s an energetic, fun and highly unusual show that I decided to see twice – the second time listening to the audio description, written and recorded by Vicky Ackroyd. Whilst I’ve only been engaging with AD over the last year and a half, this is easily the clearest description of a movement-based show that I’ve listened too. I hope the festival continues its accessible programming (which is sadly still rare in public events like this) and, more importantly, makes the availability really clear on all publicity, as I only discovered this show had an AD option in the pre-show announcement and it was slightly tricky to track down the necessary instructions.

Whilst I’ve been aware of Déda, as a venue that often hosts indoor touring circus work, I didn’t know anything else about Derby as a city, and wasn’t expecting the historic church and cathedral in the city centre, the River Derwent running alongside, or the big green spaces of Bass’ Recreation Ground along the riverbank, where we were directed on Saturday night for the thrilling finale spectacle.

Close-Act Theatre‘s Malaya combines all the best elements of the festival into a fantasy battleground that catches standing and easily mobile audience members right up in the middle of it. Opera singing and live cello, jabbering stilt-walkers and their spark-wielding companions, elegant skeleton vehicles, flames and flying puppets… This time the audience shrieks are the excited-scared of the fairground in an atmosphere of anarchic danger and extravagant carnival beauty. The towering performers are not afraid to keep to their pathways, and it is down to us mere mortals to scamper out of their way, constantly checking around for where they might be coming from next. Of course, if it all gets a bit much, it’s possible to retreat to the edges of the performance area and still see everything going on above the heads of the ever moving crowd. It seems a battle is building, each side gradually ramping up their arsenal of warriors until the final face-off between the leaders of the white and black factions. I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s fairy king and queen, fighting bitterly, ignoring all the smaller, insignificant humans in their path, but reconciled, however temporarily, by the end of the night. Although this is all more elatingly real than any dream. Forget recently, Malaya is one of the top productions I’ve seen ever.

The company, founded in 1991, is Dutch, and it’s a sad thought that hits me as I wonder at their scale and detail: that the funding structures and insurance regulations of this country don’t allow for the creation or development of such grand and risky public work. An even sadder thought, as I type this: that we may also lose access to these exceptionally high quality European productions as a potential consequence of Brexit.

All the more reason why festivals such as Derby Festé should be congratulated and supported for showing us what’s possible. They’ve laid a creative trail through the city, and each step offers a chance to shake up the familiar and find your own magic in the diverse selection of treats served up. I look forward to seeing what’s on next year’s menu.

Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’ in Derby Cathedral
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