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Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Dance Umbrella, Freddie Opoku-Addaie, talks about the 2021 iteration – a new hybrid festival that embraces live and digital works

Image: Photo of Freddie Opoku-Addaie by Miguel Altunaga Verdecia

Dance Umbrella, London’s annual international dance festival is back with live, in-person performances alongside a collection of digital events aimed at sparking conversations, inspiring creativity, and celebrating choreographic talent. Dance Umbrella will take place from 8-24 October 2021 across London. In his first six months as Artistic Director and Chief Executive, Freddie Opoku-Addaie, speaks to Run Riot about the festival, the context for programming the festival and his personal stance on dance in London today.

Grace Nicol: First off, anyone who knows of you and/or your work knows that you are a champion of UK-based dance work, what do you feel is particularly special about this work? 

Freddie Opoku-Addaie:
I would say my heritage, background and practice reflect the international outlook of UK dance, its aesthetics and voices. The UK is one of the foremost places for diversity in terms of performance content and in the people who participate in dance. In the same breath, there’s a lot of work still to do in the global playing field of the arts. Across the board, a true reflection of equity in representation is needed if we want to understand the multiplicity of our culture. UK-based artists are globally minded and engage with the shifting narrative of what contemporary (dance) is. Because of this, I see London as the upmost global city, as artists here stay busy with the ever-evolving international climate. There’s a vibe that cannot be found anywhere else!  

Grace: I totally agree and Dance Umbrella has always been a staple of this London dance scene. You also talk a lot about the urgent needs of dance artists in this time. What do you see these being and how is Dance Umbrella responding to these urgent needs? 

I believe one of the urgent needs of dance artists is for producing and strategies across the board to, not just invest in projects or products, but in individuals’ ‘Invaluable Slack-Time’. What I mean by this, is equal focus on a ‘finished’ product and time for artists to discover and play. Dance Umbrella is, therefore, focused on not simply being a ‘shop window’ but being an audible ally - creating structures of support for artists to sustain their careers. This manifests as not being solely focused on presenting international makers but supporting UK emerging/mid-career artists to collaborate and be presented internationally. As I said earlier, there is a ridiculous amount of talent here! Off genre script but I don’t want a Floetry, Estelle and others (those who know, know) leaving these shores to find a place for their work (outside of tick boxing systems) due to our ignorance and lack of imagination.

Grace: It is inevitable that we mention the c-word. In the wake of the pandemic, how has it affected your outlook on the field and the way that you have chosen to programme the Dance Umbrella festival? 

Before being appointed as AD/CE six months ago, I was an independent freelance artist for nearly 20 years, this precarity mostly benefited the organisational status quo and not ‘me’ - FACT. The c-word has absolutely exposed once again the inequalities in our sector and the arts - how many have fallen in the cracks or left the sector? My outlook in observation and conversation to date has, is, and will continue to be about widening the narrow and destructive pipeline of aesthetics. This ‘pipeline’ creates a hegemony of aesthetics where artists mould their work and practices into institutional ideals of what is ‘good’ in order to find support, while others are completely left out of the systems. In this transitional year of artistic leadership, navigating pandemic uncertainties and post Brexit, the energy is moving towards nourishing artists to be truthful to themselves and their work and not just grateful for any opportunity. Supporting this transition for artists is intrinsic to my outlook as well as the way that we have programmed the Dance Umbrella festival this year.

Grace: Coming from an independent artistic background, as you said, you often speak about supporting independent dance artists, why do you feel this is important? 

It will take 20 years for me not to talk as ‘we’ when it comes to discussions about independent artists. Independent dance artists continue to be at the bottom of the pile when it comes to making work, safe(r) working practices and the ecology of dance as a whole. Dance Umbrella, from its inception, has championed new independent dance voices on an international platform but established practitioners and organisations like us must do more.  

DU, as part of a new network Big Pulse Dance Alliance of European Dance (which consists of 12 festivals/development agencies), are currently probing into these ideas and contending with notions around suitability of touring and upscaling artists and their work.  Where we are at now with our support of independent artists can be seen in the Dance Umbrella programming and with initiatives such as SystemsLAB (which pretty much played like Celia Black for ‘Blind Date’ and was an initiative created when I was Guest Programming at DU 2016-19). I’m in a different role now with expectations from all fronts (and rightly so). Therefore, building our capacity for this work is one of my priorities. This is also important to me as 80% of our team are freelancers as well as most of the artists that we work with. This shows how effective we have been during this time but, as I said earlier, there is still more work to do and this work needs further resourcing to reach the desired impact.

From my experience, artists really have no interest in being put into the position of competing for funds/ platforms/research labs or being productive ‘products’. Independent artists also play a huge part in the economy by employing other creatives, so much so that many end up paying the people they employ a cut of their own fee to get the project down. We need to be better allies in supporting independents to not do ‘invisible labor’ and we need to absorb as much as we can of this pressure. This comes down to capacity once again but, as I mentioned earlier with this idea of the ‘shop window’, what would it be for festivals and organisations to offer year-round support instead of just in the moment of presentation?

Grace: Being an independent artist myself, I completely agree with what you're talking about here and also feel it is super important. What do you think is important for the future of the Dance industry? 

First and foremost, equity for all artistic endeavours and to move away from the 3Ts - Tick box/tokenism/Tolerated. I like how makers are not waiting for festivals, venues or organisations to come calling before making work happen. I believe that legacy and relevancy for an organisation must be earned. This for me manifests itself in an explicit call to diversify the field and challenge the limited pipelines that exist for artists to progress their careers or gain a sustainable practice. This absolutely fuels my vision to build capacity for Dance Umbrella to deliver this moving forward. 

Grace: Lastly, what can we look forward to  at  Dance Umbrella 2021? 

I wholeheartedly acknowledge that its precarious times but I’m observing the vibes and I’m excited with what the Dance Umbrella team, partnering venues, organisations, volunteers and ever-humbling artists and their teams are bringing to audiences in our global city. For the first time we have a hybrid festival  that spans in-person performances and an online offer (Digital Pass) which reflects the relevance of an international festival and has a global reach.  The Dance Umbrella team have been amazing, as well as holding space for postponed programming for 2-3 years, we have commissioned and produced two films with serious vibes by Dance Umbrella debut artists Jade Hacket and SAY (Sarah Golding & Yukiko Masui) and in-person events that span 2-weekends in Bell Square and Watermans Arts Center in Hounslow in this first hybrid festival. Across the board there is something for everyone from in-person live  performances to  online films, discussions, and articles. Our global and local audiences can really get international vibes across these platforms and I think it encapsulates the diversity of our city.

Dance Umbrella 2021
8-24 October
Various venues, London.

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