David Mead talks to Let’s Dance International Frontiers executive artistic director Pawlet Brookes, and looks ahead to the 2017 festival.
Let’s Dance International Frontiers (LDIF), Leicester’s annual spring dance festival has been gaining increasing attention since its inception in 2010. While it has one foot in academia, organiser Serendipity is based at De Montfort University, LDIF executive artistic director Pawlet Brookes is very committed to it being an event for all, with plenty of excellent, accessible dance on offer. It helps, of course, when you are able to attract impressive overseas companies that usually come to Britain only to appear in the city, this year Urban Bush Women and Philadanco, both from the United States.
This year’s festival starts on April 29, the International Day of Dance when, returning from New York after their huge LDIF success last year, Urban Bush Women will perform in the old ballroom at the Mercure Grand Hotel with a jazz programme that includes Walking With Trane, Side B, inspired by the life of American saxophonist and composer John ‘Trane’ Coltrane (1926-1967), who pioneered free jazz in a time of great racial tension and who remains one of the most significant saxophonists in music history. Urban Bush Women will be joined by Grammy award winning composer George Caldwell, who will play his original accompaniment live.
Philadelphia-based Philadanco will round things off with a quadruple-bill at the Curve on May 12 and 13. Founded in 1970 to train and present African American dancers, the company is led by Joan Myers Brown, who has been instrumental in Black dance training in America, and was recognised in 2013 for her lifelong work to drive equality for black dancers in mainstream dance by President Barak Obama. Philadanco will not be appearing in Britain outside Leicester.
Myers Brown will also be a keynote speaker at LDIF 17’s conference on May 9 at Leicester City Hall, when the theme of ‘Identity and Choreographic Practice’ will be discussed by a range of practitioners. The conference has deliberately kept small. There is only capacity for 60 people. This makes it much easier to meet the artists and presenters, and makes for a much more effective networking opportunity as well as a better learning opportunity, Brookes explains.
Elsewhere, LDIF 2017 includes the usual wide spectrum of events. Besides the big-name performances and that conference, there are performances of brand new works by up and coming UK dancers and choreographers, films, workshops (Urban Bush Women’s residency and the Philadanco’s workshops are already sold out) and discussions.
Brookes explains that the idea for LDIF started when she went to a performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Nottingham. Why, she wondered to herself, was she having to go to Nottingham when the main hothouse of dance in the East Midlands used to be Leicester. “Leicester used to have an amazing dance festival. People like Merce Cunningham used to come. I sort of felt we had slipped off the dance radar. We still produce a lot of the region’s dance companies, and a lot of national companies have dancers who were trained in Leicester, yet we didn’t have any way of celebrating, of focusing down on dance. So, I thought I’d try and put on a festival.” Backing was soon obtained from the city council. Leicester’s quite a festival city, Brookes explains, but there was nothing much happening around the end of April, the time she was interested in.
“We started small, but each year it has grown and got better,” she says. “We’ve crafted our own identity as we’ve evolved, and now I think it’s a date in the calendar that people look out for, both for the quality and calibre of work we bring in, but also because you tend not to get that work anywhere else.” This includes Kyle Abraham, who national tour promoters are looking at after his visit in 2015, and Urban Bush Women, who appeared in 2016 in their first UK visit for over twenty years. “The Curve is a perfect venue to programme that sort of work,” she continues. “It also fits into the cosmopolitan nature of the city.”
Brookes explains that LDIF always has clear strands within it. “Yes, we have the big-name visitors, but we also space for emerging artists. We take those emerging artists and try to develop them. We start with Signatures, a showcase of innovative new works by emerging artists that’s a partnership with Dance4. Then we select some and they progress to Autograph. We also look around for people who have been around a while but who have been forgotten. There are opportunities for everyone to progress.”
This year’s Autograph at the Attenborough Arts Centre includes a new solo, Elephant in the Room, by Lanre Malaolu, co-founder of Protocol Dance Company, who made an impressive mark at last year’s Breakin’ Convention with his I Can’t Breathe. His new piece, he says, explores today’s world, one that is full of fear, image obsession and the need to fit in, in particular, one man’s battle with mental illness and the stigma attached to it. That is paired with Grey Matter by Jessica Walker, which considers the mixed race narrative, concerns of categorisation and identity perception.
It is unusual to have a festival that includes everything from conference to emerging artist platforms to big international visitors, agrees Brookes. Each year there is a publication too, she adds. “Everything is archived, documented. That is important. We are preserving history. People are forgetting some of the companies that have gone before, who have shaped or paved the way for how dance looks now.”
While LDIF does have big international names, Brookes emphasises that there are a lot of British voices too. “When you look around the dance world, it doesn’t always recognise some of these diverse voices we are now starting to bring to the fore.” Looking at the British dance scene as a whole, she feels that it doesn’t always showcase the strength of diversity that is part of the dance world
What does Brookes look for when considering companies to bring to LDIF? “A history to the dance, people who have really drilled down on their form and their style, people with a really strong identity and technique that they’ve honed,” she says. “They must be clear about what they do. You then see that strength.”
For her, dancers should also ‘hear’ the music even when it’s not playing. They need to feel and be in sync with the rhythm and that beat. She recalls how Urban Bush Women performed with such elegance despite the intensity of the effort and movement. “And the breathing. They had learned to breathe. You could rarely hear them. If you could hear them breathing it was because it was part of the movement, because you were meant to, not because it was hard work. That’s a technique. It’s about being well-trained. It’s about understanding their bodies and what they can and cannot do. It’s a training that doesn’t happen here anymore, but I think it’s important. You don’t go to dance to hear people panting on stage.”
Brookes is always keen for LDIF to visit unusual and forgotten spaces. Last year, Catherine Dénécy showcased her new work, Mi-Chaud, Mi-Froid, in the New Walk Museum and Victorian Art Gallery. They had never used the museum in that way before, Brookes says. Rather smartly, rehearsals took place during opening hours, with the public around, many of whom were intrigued enough to return for the performance itself.
She continues, “We always use the Guildhall, another museum space, and one of the oldest buildings in Leicester. We transform it into a small space for 50 people. The old ballroom at the Grand Hotel hasn’t been used as such for at least 30 years. I think it’s quite exciting transforming spaces and bringing them to life.”
Serendipity is a diversity-led organisation, and ‘diversity’ is a key word, Brookes agrees, “but what we say is that we are diverse, international, creative. So we don’t exclude. There is a lot of work coming out of black culture, and I’m not going to apologise for it. It’s good work that we don’t often get to see, and I am proactively seeking that in terms of the high-quality work visitors that we bring. But when it comes to the emerging artists, the whole point is that they’re learning skills that they can use from these visitors. In Signatures, people submit, and the best get chosen. Not the best black ones, just the best. And you see that on stage. We are looking for diversity in its truest sense. LDIF is always a very mixed programme in terms of people’s cultural origins and where they come from. It’s about quality and nothing to do with the tick-box culture that I think we sometimes have. That’s not diversity.”
Let’s Dance International Frontiers runs April 29-May 13 in Leicester. For more details and to book events, visit www.ldif.co.uk.