BE Festival – Review – Hub, Leeds

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BE Festival – Review

Hub, Leeds, October 2014

by Barney Bardsley

It is a bit of a stretch, to get myself out on a gloomy Sunday afternoon. I go down to the Slung Low theatre HUB in South Leeds to see one of their five o’clock shows. But I am so glad I do. It is a double treat: one, the performance – a triple bill from the Birmingham European BE Festival, currently beetling all over the country and beyond, on a whistle stop “Best of BE” tour; and two, the venue itself.

If you have never been to the HUB (and it was my first time), I urge you to give it a go. Less of a theatre, and more a multi-dimensional experience. The venue nestles under old arches in a wasteland of post-industrial abandon in Holbeck. From the outside, not inspiring. But once you are in, a series of dark caves with twinkly lights – bar area, eating and meeting room, stage itself – open and swallow you up, in a happy, welcoming fug.

be festival leeds barney bardsleyThe emphasis is on conversation and a shared experience. We are even fed during the interval, with a delicious chick pea chana dhal. “Pay what you think this is worth. Everything goes to the performers.” And there is interaction between performers and among the audience. Before, during and after the show. A perfect antidote to the solitary consumption of culture, too common in our digital age.

“Natural youthful rebellion”

To the show itself. The BE Festival, now in its fifth year, invites twenty companies from across Europe, every summer, to Birmingham, to perform. Festival highlights – in this case, three companies from Hungary, Austria and Belgium – then take their work on an extensive autumn tour. They always stop off in Leeds. But this is only a one-nighter. See if you can catch them later, on the road, somewhere between Canterbury, Edinburgh and Spain!

Radioballet from Budapest, is up first, with a solo from young performer Milán Újvári, ‘From the Waltz to the Mambo’. The idea is simple and quirky. Újvári got hold of an old ballroom dancing manual, used in Hungary in the communist 1960s. Its strange rules of decorum and convention (with hints of a political subtext) intrigue him. It fits with his strict ballet training, but jars with his natural youthful rebellion.

What emerges is a short, energetic piece. It focuses on the dance manual itself. He holds and reads from it throughout the dance. He uses it as his partner, his protagonist, his spur to action.

Ujvári has an expressive and malleable face. A gift for a physical performer. And his is an emerging style. Grappling with how to fit words and ideas into a powerfully physical context. Always on the move, trying to break free.

“Cacophony of movements”

be festival leeds hub holbeckNext comes Julia Schwarzbach from Austria, with “Loops and Breaks”. This one is pure fun. Again, the idea is simple, compelling. The performer sits at a table. She is formal, restrained, dressed in a man’s suit, writing notes. She looks up, invites the audience to take an envelope each. Inside is an instruction – different for each individual, and tailored to each venue, and the town, or country, she is in.

What follows is calculated mayhem. A strange and hilarious cacophony of movements, shouts, and random actions from the onlookers. With the hapless performer in the centre of it all. Dancing and responding to whatever comes her way. A push or a shove from a stranger, a weird heckle, a peculiar prop waved in her face. A glass of water poured over her head. It is delicious nonsense, from start to finish. Everybody engages. The whole thing holding together by the calm, inquiring nature of the performer.

“International flair”

After the break comes a very different piece, for the finale. Iraqi director Mokhallad Rasem offers up a meditation on the theme of “Waiting”. Three performers enter, with strange, ragged edged white fabric in their arms, over their faces. Onto this white canvas the faces of people are projected. Their spoken words – on the nature of waiting – fill the room. Slowly, the stories become more serious. The experiences those of refugees, living in the devastating limbo of exile, waiting for their official papers and permission to stay. Waiting for their lives to restart, for their new lives to begin. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

Having worked with refugees at West Yorkshire Playhouse, I can testify to the accuracy of this piece. The devastation of the experience reflects: and I can only applaud the dignity, beauty and simplicity with which it is performed. BE Festival, too, are to be congratulated, on fulfilling their brief. Of crossing borders, both linguistic and cultural, and countering the increasingly insular British political and arts scene, with a truly international flair.

images: Alex Brenner

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