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Bradley Hemmings: 'The arts can help us be our best selves'

Image: SPARK, 26 - 27 August | 9pm | The Queens House Lawns, SE10 9JH

Back for its 27th year, the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDIF) will be bringing 17 days (26 August - 11 September) of free theatre, dance, art and circus to audiences. This year the festival welcomes a record number of international artists from around the world and with a programme designed to bring us all together.

Get ready for an eclectic line up including celebrating Ukraine’s cultural legacy, a cinematic dance odyssey, a combination of geology, sci-fi and rave culture as well as an opening night filled with biodegradable floating light sparks. We spoke with the founder and Artistic Director of the festival Bradley Hemmings MBE and asked him about the festival, its theme and overseeing it all alongside a brilliant team, bringing global artists into the fold as well as his views on arts in public spaces.   

Naz: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and share an overview of the festival?

Bradley Hemmings:
GDIF and I have been together since 1996. Back then, there was no way of crossing the river at Greenwich, other than by foot tunnel. When you stood in Cutty Sark Gardens and looked across the Thames, there was just a single tower at Canary Wharf and much of Greenwich and East London was inaccessible. Since then, I like to think that the Festival has played its part in changing the way people think about and enjoy public spaces across Greenwich and East London, by opening them up for everyone and offering new perspectives.

In our second year we brought audiences into the outdoor spaces at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich for the very first time. Now you can wander freely and even cycle through the site. It was a different story then. Back in 1997 the Navy were still in residence. If you deviated from a prescribed path from Greenwich Town Centre to the Chapel, you were in deep trouble. The last Commander of the Naval College, Johnnie Maughan (previously commander of the Royal Yacht Britannia) became my ally. He had an extraordinary capacity for conviviality and thought that my idea of bringing several outdoor dance companies from Barcelona to Greenwich was just what the place needed. The result was extraordinary. A night on which audiences poured into the Naval College and wandered freely to experience stunning performances in courtyards and colonnades which they’d never seen before. It was magical and, at the time, rather revolutionary, transforming classical spaces with contemporary outdoor dance, courtesy of Barcelona’s Dies de Dansa festival. I’ve never forgotten it and since then, have tried to create a sense of occasion and impact wherever we go – I hope that this year will be no exception!

Image: Bradley Hemmings, founder and Artistic Director, GDIF

Naz: The theme this year is 'Common Ground' which sets out to remind us of the importance of shared values, rituals and togetherness. As the saying goes ‘there is more that unites us than separates us’ - is the festival’s aim bringing us closer when we may have never felt so far apart?

Yes, we are living through the most challenging times: a gruelling cost of living crisis at home, war on our doorstep in Europe, climate change impacting across the world and fractious discourse everywhere. Of course, we’re not here to solve these big problems, but we can try to lend a hand by providing memorable shared experiences in publicly accessible spaces; spaces where people can come together for free. Perhaps we all need a bit of sanctuary right now, so this year we’ve gone for the theme of 'Common Ground' and are setting out to unpack a festival where artists and audiences can be inspired, stirred, challenged and connected with each other.

Naz: The festival opens with Spark, created by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde. It sees thousands of biodegradable light sparks floating through the air, taking inspiration from fireflies and inspiring visitors to wonder and reflect. What was the reason behind choosing Spark to launch this years festival?

We’re so excited to be hosting the UK premiere of Daan Roosegarde’s extraordinary new installation Spark. Following the last two difficult years in which so many of us have found consolation in the natural world, it’s a beautiful way of celebrating our deep seated need for connection with nature. It’s also a wonderful, and perhaps radical way of reinventing the way in which public celebrations might take place in the future. Its focus on environmentally sustainable materials rather than pyrotechnics is a provocation for us to think more intelligently and poetically about how big public events might take place in the coming years.   

Image: Discover Ukraine: Bits Destroyed, 26 - 29 August | 8.30pm, 9.00pm, 9.30pm & 10.00pm | Lower Grand Square

Naz: The 17-day free festival is a wonderful and massive undertaking involving a very large amount of people in front of and behind the scenes. What is it like to oversee it all?

Even after 27 years the anxiety never goes away. However, I’m very lucky as our organisation is blessed with the most extraordinary in-house team of producers, production personnel, volunteers, access and marketing staff, plus of course partners and sponsors, who hold our hand each year and make a free outdoor festival a possibility. I’m so proud of everything that each and every one of them achieves for GDIF day after day. Each time a production takes place, our team have to begin from the ground floor. It’s not just putting on the shows; they have to build and licence the theatre too, whilst ensuring that the productions are accessible to everyone. Outdoor theatre and the people who create it are extraordinary and I’m very lucky to be supported by such a dedicated and resourceful group of people.

Naz: The festival welcomes a record number of international artists from countries including Spain, Germany, Flanders, Italy, France, The Netherlands, Ukraine and The United States. What’s the importance of bringing global cultures to audiences?

Internationalism is in our DNA. Global connections exemplify what London is all about, so of course working with international artists is at the heart of GDIF. Even with the pandemic and Brexit bringing new challenges, we’ve maintained our commitment to collaborating with international artists over the last two years. I also think that audiences recognise that outdoor arts is a big room - with lots of UK and global players. This year I think that sense of our audience’s emotional investment in international outdoor arts will shine through at the performances of 'Discover Ukraine: Bits Destroyed' at the Old Royal Naval College. This digital artwork captures the spectacular ambition and quality of publicly sited, monumental Ukrainian mosaics, many of which have been tragically destroyed since the Russian invasion in late February. It has been extraordinary and also genuinely humbling, to have been able to work with artists in Ukraine to create this event in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Knowing our audience, I’m confident that in presenting this at a UNESCO world heritage site in Greenwich, powerful emotional connections will be made. At times like this support across borders for artists and culture could not be more vital.  

Image: Charon, 1 - 10 September | 8pm | Limmo Peninsula, Royal Docks

Naz: You’ve founded and have been heading up this festival as Artistic Director since 1996. Do you have any observations you can share with us of what you think has changed over the years in relation to the festival?

I think as a country we’ve fallen in love with public space since the 1990’s. It wasn’t always like this. The alfresco culture that characterises the life of many cities today largely didn’t exist 30 years ago. Places like Somerset House in London, Centenary Square in Birmingham and Pier Head in Liverpool have taken shape during the lifetime of the festival. I think we’ve somehow ridden this wave and been part of the change. But I also love the way that the Festival has celebrated unsung public spaces – it doesn’t have to be a grand piazza or square: some of the most resonant projects we’ve done have taken place in overlooked and little known public spaces - a soon to be demolished block of flats in Thamesmead ('Beautiful Thing' 2018); a basketball court in North Woolwich ('846 Live' in 2020). That’s where what we do gets really interesting – helping us to see the everyday world anew.   
Naz: In a tumultuous world at the moment, what does the performing arts (and by extension, arts in general) have to offer audiences?

The arts can help us be our best selves. Because GDIF takes place in the outdoors, as an audience member you can never escape the fact that you’re part of a congregation. In a building based venue, your focus is on the stage and in the darkness you can forget who is sitting next to you or behind you. Not so in outdoor arts. Part of the beauty of it, is that we’re all there together and so the audience experience is shared, often in a very profound and moving way. It’s also so unpredictable and anything can happen. I can remember at the climax of a production of 'A View from the Bridge' presented by the Flemish company De Roovers on the Thames at North Greenwich, a flock of gulls swooping down as Eddie Carbone was killed. It was utterly moving but could never be staged again. And on many occasions I’ve seen complete strangers sharing how they feel as shows have unfolded, exchanging gestures, smiles and even hugging each other. In all the tumult and noise, it feels like the arts can provide moments of connection, an opportunity to see the world differently, perhaps sometimes a call to action, but I believe ultimately a way of glimpsing optimism and human possibility, even in the most difficult of times.

Greenwich + Docklands International Festival
London's free, annual outdoor theatre and performing arts festival. Taking place across Greenwich, Thamesmead and East London
26 August - 11 September


Image: Barrière, 27 August | 1.55pm & 4.55pm | King Charles Lawn

Image: Island of Foam: Version XVIII, 3 - 4 September | 6pm | Greenwich Peninsula

Image: Unfurl, 9 - 10 September | 8pm | Bethnal Green Gardens

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