wed 21/11/2018

theartsdesk at bOing! International Family Festival - the best of European children's theatre | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at bOing! International Family Festival - the best of European children's theatre

theartsdesk at bOing! International Family Festival - the best of European children's theatre

Visual and aural adventures at well-programmed weekend introduce the young to the arts

'Androcles and the Lion' by Teatret Gruppe 38 and Carte Blanche

Theatre for children can often be dismissed – a box to tick for parents who want to keep up with cultural practices; a job for actors who haven't quite made it in the mainstream; theatre that mums and dads want to see that works for their little ones, too.

It's actually quite rare to find theatre that works purely for children – something that excites, inspires and invigorates on their level without worrying too much about the olds. But at bOing! International Family Festival, contemporary dance, conceptual theatre, live art installations, classical and modern music, film and storytelling come together to do exactly that.

The two-day festival is now in its fifth year under Liz Moran, Director of Arts and Culture at the University of Kent, where the event is held. It really is thoughtfully programmed – this is a conglomeration of fantastically produced arts for children. Companies from Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands and France – some that have been touring the globe for years – are artfully set up around the University campus in Canterbury, for a day-time extravaganza that allows parents to get their littles into bed right on time (the programme runs from 10am-5pm).Beatles for Babies by La Petita Malumaluga

We stroll past the Bewonderment Machine on day one – a cycle-powered carousel of knee-high wooden carvings – for a quick boogie at DJ Frietmachine's tent where we name a potato Geoff, test his energy, peel him, dance as he's deep fried and then eat him on the way to our first ticketed foray, Beatles for Babies. Spanish company La Petita Malumaluga (pictured above) invite us into a studio space with a white square floor and tented ceiling sculpture, where white-clad musicians – alto-saxophone, violin, cello and percussion – and a contemporary dancer, introduce this dinky group of under-threes to the fine work of John, Paul, George and Ringo. What better way to learn about music than The Beatles? There's percussive pace with "Hey Jude", an up-close look at the cello with "Yesterday", rhythmic pleasure in "Yellow Submarine", and melody in "Here Comes the Sun". The look of wonder and joy on the babies' faces as they instinctively jig along, take part thwacking plastic tubes, or wander into the performers' space is absolutely priceless.

Spanish hair installation artists Sienta la Cabeza weave polystyrene balls, curly wire, colourful hairclips and vintage toys into the manes of hilariously excited participants (young and old) to an obscure DJ playing techno teletubbies-inflected set on the library lawn. French modern hip-hop group D-Construction, perform an intriguing piece in the car park, beginning in the crowds and ending up on a scaffolding set. Baba Yaga's House sees an old crone and her Slavic fairytale house drift past as we make our way to the Gulbenkian Theatre for Aracaladanza's Constellations. Conceptual dance for children is a pretty tall order, but this Spanish dance group has created a perfect introduction with a piece based on the bold and vibrant shapes and colours of Joan Miro. The mix of starry-sky lighting, movement that corresponds to the measure of the music, props that delight and costumes that elicit wows as the dancers sweep and glide or bounce and play across the stage, softens and simplifies the notion that movement can exist around pockets of ideas as opposed to narrative.Katena Luminarium at bOing! International Family FestivalInclusivity is also well represented in Frozen Light's ticketed performance, The Isle of Brimsker – a company which specialises in theatre for audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Stopgap Theatre Company also perform Bill & Bobby throughout the day in a bathtub on the theatre lawn. My children all watch the duet, intrigued. There are only questions about whether or not there is water in the bath – not about why the male dancer has no legs.

Just when the bairns are starting to get restless, we finish off the day with another blessedly bite-sized performance (none of the shows we see run for longer than 45 minutes). This one sees us hanging in our own nest of hammocks, as a Danish storyteller with wild white hair gives us an excellent rendition of Androcles and the Lion (main picture). Teatret Gruppe 38 have perfected the art of the legend, creating a warm, intimate, safe space to lie back and gaze at projections on the ceiling as we listen to the ancient tale.

Day Two unfortunately brings the rain (this is a UK bank holiday, after all) but the festival copes well with a wet weather plan, moving promenade theatre into auditoriums and the like. We head straight for the Yurt for Little People, where under-fives can take part in arts and crafts, storytelling and song, then watch The Campervan of Love, by the brilliant and bonkers New Art Club before the downpour kicks in. Tom Roden and Pete Shenton shock and delight in equal measures as they tell the story of Cupid trying to rediscover his powers after falling in love. Particular shout out to the brilliant musician, hunched and intent on singing his sad poetry or smashing out a drum solo to keep the show together.

It's a mesmerising experience, creeping (and crawling) through the dodecahedral domes

One of the main attractions of the festival was Katena Luminarium (pictured above), a huge PVC pineapple plonked in the centre of the proceedings. UK company Architects of Air has created an immersive installation of light, colour and sound inspired by Islamic and Gothic architecture. It's a mesmerising experience, creeping (and crawling) through the dodecahedral domes, watching wind change the colours of the shapes on the ceiling and listening to the soft sounds of rain falling onto the temple-like construct.

Sunday saw a brief bop at the Silent Disco, puppet-making, sing-along stuff in the cinema that we didn't manage to get around to, 10-Minute Dance Parties and STEM workshops that I wish we'd had time to do. Another unsuspecting slot saw us queuing in the rain to enter into a big white truck, which promised us the world's biggest pop up book. The Secret of Nanna is way more than that – a magical little ride beautifully detailing the power of the imagination when faced with four blank walls. Imaginauts with secrets from Cia de Teatre Anna Roca have created an extraordinary yet simple show that spoke to children at their level (if occasionally in a different language), but also left parents feeling buoyed, having experienced a whole new realm of creativity.

It's a feeling that permeates the whole of bOing! festival. It's a fantastic gathering of companies programmed to showcase work that gently lulls children into the arena of the arts in a way that is all-encompassing, and which will create a comforting memory of visual and aural adventure for years to come.

@katiecolombus

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