Wondrous Stories, a spectacular show set to open Birmingham 2022

David Mead drops in on rehearsals for the outdoor spectacular that will open the Birmingham 2022 Festival

The first thing that hits you as the walk into the cavernous Hall 11 at the National Exhibition Centre, is the buzz. With the performances now less than two weeks away, it’s impossible not to miss the energy and enthusiasm coming from the 250-plus participants as they get ready for the mass participation, large-scale production that will be the free opening show of the Birmingham 2022 Festival. They made me want to see the event next week, which is about as good a recommendation as you can get!

Directed by Motionhouse artistic director Kevin Finnan and taking place in Birmingham’s Centenary Square, Wondrous Stories will launch the six-month festival that aims to put the spotlight on creativity in the West Midlands and that sits alongside the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. It all happens from 17-20 March, with a livestream on March 18 if you can’t get there in person.

Featuring a mix of acrobatics, aerial work and contemporary dance, and as its title suggests, the show is about stories past and present. People across the region have been invited to share their stories, which have been combined to form a 2022 snapshot of Birmingham and the West Midlands. Some of those stories will feature directly in the performances.

Wondrous Stories being rehearsed at the National Exhibition Centre
Photo courtesy Motionhouse

Given that, what better venue than Centenary Square, home to the Library of Birmingham, Symphony Hall and Birmingham Rep, all buildings that house or tell stories.

The participants at the NEC were from the Birmingham 2022 Festival Critical Mass participation project, Motionhouse youth and adult groups, and Freewheelin Dance Company. ‘Diverse’ barely starts to describe them. They come from all backgrounds, all ages and all abilities. It feels like a perfect reflection of the make up of the city, however; sort of Birmingham in microcosm. As Finnan says, that is important. It also feels perfect for a show that aims to bring together and celebrate the wondrous stories of ordinary people across the region.

Whatever their previous dance experience, all seem to be enjoying being part of the project. Two of the Critical Mass participants, Angel and Curtis, talked enthusiastically about how it is bringing people together, the new friends made, and the new experiences they were having.

Although she has performed with up to around 30 people with her dance school, Angel said that Wondrous Stories was something else entirely. Confessing to sometimes not being the most confident of people, she admitted to initially having doubts about taking part and needing to be convinced by her mother. “But it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.”

The rehearsal schedule has been intensive. Balancing work and participation has not always been easy for some participants. One is even a NHS doctor, somehow combining hospital shifts and rehearsals together.

Curtis, a science teacher from Leamington Spa, had not danced since A-Level. He says he saw the calls to be involved in Birmingham 2022 and the Commonwealth Games as volunteers, but that Wondrous Stories appealed as it was something different. And yes, he said, it has encouraged him to continue afterwards.

Those are just a few of the participants’ own stories. The project being open to all and that no-one should be turned away is very important to Finnan. We can and have made allowances for and accommodated personal circumstances, including in the choreography, he told me.

The many dance artists acting as dance leaders are learning too. Jessica Barber, a freelance performer specialising in multidisciplinary physical theatre with an interest in collaborative, immersive experiences in non-traditional theatre spaces, told me how excited she was to be part of it all. She said she has learned so much from her group that is diverse in every concievable way, and which she is already looking forward to taking away and feeding back into her own practice.

Motionhouse dancers rehearse Wondrous Stories
at Birmingham’s Centenary Square
Photo courtesy Motionhouse

The roughly 50-minute show itself promises to be quite something. Apart from the sections being rehearsed at the NEC, there will be dance from Motionhouse’s company members, a giant aerial spectacle with a flying book, bicycles launching off the roof of the library, performers on zip wires and a large globe.

The artistic team includes long-time Motionhouse collaborators Logela Multimedia, whose digital projections have become a feature of the company’s productions; composers Sophy Smith and Tim Dickinson; and designer Sophie Donaldson, who is leading Birmingham City University students in costume creation. Apart from being inspired by the ‘stories’ theme, many of those costumes will also incorporate symbols of the city. Birmingham’s Choir With No Name, comprising people touched by a range of social issues including homelessness, will sing; and there will be live spoken word from Coventry and Birmingham-based artists Raza Hussain, Sebbie Mudhai and Leon Finnan, who act as story tellers.

Apart from Finnan himself, the show features additional choreography by Sonia Sabri and Jamaal Burkmar. While each has worked with individual groups, who will have their own moment in the show, Finnan explains that he has been careful to ensure that themes and movement ideas from each are also threaded through the whole work.

Finnan, who was choreographer and movement director of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, enthuses about the project as much as the participants. Also in 2012, he created The Voyage in the city centre (the giant cruise liner that filled Victoria Square will always be remembered), since when he and Motionhouse have created many similar spectaculars for international celebrations. He says, “It’s wonderful to now be creating this spectacular show right here in our home region, working with an extraordinary team of talented artists and performers to thrill audiences in Birmingham.”

Free and unticketed, Wondrous Stories is at Centenary Square, Birmingham on March 17, 2022 at 7pm; then on March 18-20 at 6.30pm and 8.30pm daily. Visit www.motionhouse.co.uk for more details.

The 8.30pm show on March 18 will also be livestreamed on Motionhouse’s YouTube channel.

For more on Birmingham 2022, visit www.Birmingham 2022.com.