Float through the city

12th May 1995 at 01:00
Elaine Williams looks at the boom in festivals and celebrates the variety of events for young people.

When the Bradford Festival started eight years ago it inherited the Lord Mayor's Parade, a Chamber of Commerce affair which consisted largely of businesses advertising their wares on traditional float lorries carrying children dressed up in frilly clothes and waving balloons.

As the festival developed into the multi-ethnic cultural jamboree that has made it famous, an icon of community creativity, the Lord Mayor's Parade became the Lord Mayor's Carnival. Schools and community groups, artists and musicians became involved and more inventive apparitions such as giant puppets infiltrated the event, popping up between the building society floats.

This year the Lord Mayor's Carnival becomes the Carnival Parade and if everything goes to plan will be transformed into a spectacular show of installation and performance art.

The carnival's germination developed in typical Bradford Festival style: take an idea; make it big, whacky, colourful and exciting; commandeer some professionals; turn it into creative education for schools and community groups. Anybody who has ever attended the festival Mela in Bradford's elegant Lister Park, now established as the largest single Asian event outside of the Indian sub-continent, cannot fail to be impressed by the vigour of the cultural life of the city which attracts performers and musicians from all over the world.

Dusty Rhodes, Bradford's director had a vision. While visiting the Viareggio carnival in Northern Italy he was struck by the sight of a float bearing a 25-metres-high toilet pan, made from papier mache, with villagers dressed up as the Italian cabinet being flushed down it.

The approach was made, the deal done. Viareggio's float builder, Gilbert Lebigre, is coming to Bradford, along with Dr Annie Sidro, director of the Nice Carnival and of Carnival Sans Fronti res. Clary Salandry, plastician artist from the Notting Hill Carnival and Ali Allen and Marise Rose, builders of the temple lion and elephant figureheads of previous Bradford festivals, will make up the team which will provide float-building workshops in June for schools and community groups who want to take part in the parade.

The theme of the parade is the Centenary of Cinema, and schools and groups will be helped to make their ideas into living sculptures. The professionals are there to give advice on large-scale papier mache construction work, banner and mask-making, costume design and choreography. A teacher's pack on the history and mythology of carnival is being produced. Annie Sidro is currently visiting Bradford, holding talks with festival workers, teachers, artists and other interested groups.

More than 100 schools have become regularly involved in the Bradford Festival (June 23 - July 8) and Julia Calver, the festival's education and community co-ordinator has been approached already with ideas. She said: "One school wants to do a float showing the progression of film from black and white to colour. They want to link that into the school's curriculum this term, creating technology projects, for example."

Dusty Rhodes believes that some of the energy and creativity of the Festival can be carried over into the rest of the year. Having lost Bradford's Wool Exchange as a major venue, the Festival has taken over a derelict Victorian swimming pool and Turkish baths in the city centre which has been closed for the past 10 years. In order to recoup the cost of renovation. Bradford Festival Ltd is planning to keep it as a year-round mixed-arts venue, including cabaret - a centre of inventive entertainment from which touring events may also be created.

During July it will become the venue for a poetry festival within the festival with computer terminals linked up to the Internet delivering poetry from Australia.

Bradford Festival attracts nearly Pounds 700,000 in grants and sponsorship and is held up as an example of the community and educational work that festivals nationally can achieve.

Festivals are proliferating. According to the British Performing Arts Yearbook there are now 600 of one sort or another. Even the British Arts Festivals Association, which was set up in 1970 as an umbrella for the cream of high arts festivals such as Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, York and Cheltenham, has now extended membership to another 25.

Giving the name festival to a series of events is a way of attracting funds to places and persons that otherwise might not be forthcoming. Giving your festival an educational flavour is a way of attracting further cash.

Just as orchestras, theatre groups, dance companies and so on are required to run educational programmes in order to attract Arts Council funding, so festivals with educational underpinnings are proving attractive to sponsors.

Bradford's festival has been rooted in community and education from the beginning. Spitalfields Festival (June 7-28) in London's Tower Hamlets, with its focus on classical and contemporary music, is also admired for its long-running educational work.

This year, the composer David Bedford leads a project involving four schools, six artists - including a storyteller, singers, instrumentalists and a theatre director - and more than 200 pupils aged between 10 and 14 which will result in a performance called The Old House in June. Storyline, libretto, vocal and instrumental music, costumes and props are being created by the pupils during 40 workshops. The project has attracted a much-coveted award from the Performing Right Society, presented at Swanlea School yesterday and in general the quality work achieved in schools and community by Spitalfields has attracted praise in high places.

Gavin Henderson, principal of Trinity College of Music, London, director of the Dartington Summer School and former director of the Brighton Festival, believes Spitalfields represents the best of festival educational practice extending well beyond the three weeks of the festival, beginning in February and following through until October. Festival educational work, he believes, should be sending composers and artists working into schools and communities to create original works.

Until recently corporate sponsors tended to look to high arts festivals as a safe and glamorous method of entertaining clients. Sponsors now, he said, were interested in "good citizenship" and were seeking to support educational projects. But some projects, he believed, served a better purpose than others: "Education programmes should be there to develop an audience that wants to come to festivals as on a voyage of discovery," he said. "They should be there to nurture an intelligent audience."

This year the Brighton Festival (until May 28) has commissioned Operating Theatre, a company dedicated to "physical opera" to produce Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde with students and school pupils. Although a popular community party piece and regularly performed at festivals having been written for children's performance, Operating Theatre are recreating it as a piece for adolescents, The Flood as a symbol of seething adolescent emotion. As well as professional musicians and soloists, including baritone Geoffrey Dolton of English National Opera who will play Noah, the cast includes more than 150 young people as singers, actors and musicians.

Caroline Ward, Operating Theatre's joint artistic director stated that the aim of the company was to produce opera in residence in a community. The company held 16 music workshops in ten schools with more than 350 children between February and March. It also ran lighting and make-up workshops for teachers in response to teacher demand. With a cast of 80 young people having been chosen, the company has set up an intensive rehearsal schedule for performances from May 24 to 27. As well as singers and musicians drawn from schools across Sussex and the county music school based in Lewes Tertiary College, Operating Theatre is training gymnasts, unicyclists and jugglers with the aid of the Gandini Juggling Project and Ra Ra Zoo, the Brighton-based circus.

Caroline Ward said: "On one level this is a fantastic religious epic that requires enormous theatre and on another it is an intense family drama that makes it very accessible."

The company has produced an impressive teachers' booklet which gives a history, synopsis and analysis of the opera and biography of the composer, tying the company's work into the music national curriculum. During rehearsals and performance, eight students all seriously intending to make a career in performing arts production, will be given a programme of tasks shadowing the company's production team.

Caroline Ward said: "We are asking these young people to join a professional process and perform to professional standards. We are giving them the chance to test skills they are not able to test in the classroom."

The Pounds 60,000 production, largely funded through private sponsorship, will include a Schools' Day when schools previously involved in workshops will be invited to The Dome in Brighton. Here they will be introduced to the whole process of bringing a professional opera production to the stage, followed by a matinee performance.

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