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Interview: New Yorker David Binder on the Local-Global hybrid of LIFT 2018

Photograph, David Binder, Guest Artistic Director, LIFT 2018

Where can you see 1500 LED-lit pigeons take to the sky, join an all-night creative adventure on foot, or ride a ‘political ghost train’ to confront your very darkest fears? The answer is at LIFT 2018, the capital’s inimitable celebration of the most exciting performance from around the globe. Taking over the city throughout June and July, with shows from as far afield as Australia, South Korea, DRC - and Tottenham, the festival promises to be an absolute treat for anyone who likes their theatre a little left of centre.

David Binder is the guest artistic director for 2018’s festival, after working for several years as a LIFT artistic associate. A New Yorker with a stellar producing CV that encompasses everything from cult Broadway hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch to David Bowie’s High Line Festival, in 2019 he’ll taking up his post as artistic director of Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), New York’s iconic centre for avant garde performance and arts.

Amber Massie-Blomfield catches up with him ahead of the festival.

Amber: Tell us about LIFT 2018 – what are your unmissable highlights of the festival programme?

: Where do I start? The festival is packed with so many treasures! I think the biggest highlight is what the festival is celebrating as a whole – the world in London and London in the world - every show embraces community in all its forms and offers global perspectives. I’m particularly looking forward to bringing the tour de force that is Anna Deavere Smith to the Royal Court Theatre after an absence of 25 years, with her powerful Notes From the Field. Barack Obama has described Anna as an artist who can ‘help us understand what it means to be human’ so that feels pretty unmissable to me. I’m also really excited about bringing the National Theatre of Korea’s epic, contemporary music theatre piece Trojan Women to the Southbank Centre – the show uses a modern spin on traditional Korean Pansori storytelling music and feels like a fusion between a Bjork music video and an Olympic Opening Ceremony. Dries Verhoeven returns to LIFT this year with a Phobiarama, a haunted house of collective fears that will place audience members in bumper cars in the middle of King’s Cross - I saw this for the first time at the Holland Festival last summer and it blew me away – I can’t really tell you too much about it so you’ll just need to book tickets. And I can’t wait to party in Tottenham with Session, a huge collaboration with the choreographer Dan Canham, local afrobeats music producers Empire Sounds and the community dance collective Steppaz – it’s going to be really, really joyous.

Photograph, ’Trojan Woman’ by National Changgeuk Company of Korea / Ong Keng Sen. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, 2-3 June 2018.

Amber: As a New Yorker, you were appointed as guest artistic director of LIFT in February 2017, although you had worked as an artistic associate of the festival for several years before that. How did you go about getting to know London, and plan a festival programme for this city?

I grew up coming to LIFT, in fact in 1997 I saw the Argentinian theatre collective De La Guarda’s show, described by one critic as ‘an acid trip without the acid’ and I ended up going on to produce that show in New York and all over the world. London is definitely my other artistic home - this city, and particularly LIFT, has played a key role in shaping my aesthetic, it has introduced me to amazing new artists from around the world whose various disciplines, ideas and energy have offered me a different perspective from what I find at home in New York. It’s a city that surprises me – you can walk down one street here and feel like you’ve stepped across continents, that collision of culture feels very unique to London and it’s what LIFT has always embraced and celebrated.

Photograph, ‘Phobiarama’ by Dries Verhoeven. West Handyside Canopy, King’s Cross, 8-18 June 2018.

Amber: You have said: "In these very challenging times, I think LIFT’s role is more vital than ever.” What role do you think the arts is playing – and should play – in healing the divisions caused by the Brexit vote?

Much like New York, London can often feel like it’s at odds with the rest of its country - particularly at the moment – yet both cities remain as open as ever. Of course, the arts have a huge role to play in capturing that openness and giving it a platform to talk to a wider audience - it can start dialogues, challenge preconceptions and unite us. It also offers an antidote at a time when communities can feel incredibly divided - I remember the day after the Brexit vote in 2016 which was right in the middle of the festival, there was a heavy smog of shock and sadness in the air but then we opened Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker at the Barbican – 45 minutes of immersive Japanese youth culture in all its neon glory – it was a communal celebration of cultural difference and exactly what the city needed.

Photograph, ‘Session’ a collaboration between Still House, Empire Sounds, and Steppaz. Bernie Grant Arts Centre Courtyard, 22, 23, 26, 27, 29, 30 June 2018.

Amber: As well as international artists such as the Netherlands’ Dries Verhoeven, DRC’s Faustin Linyekula and USA legends Taylor Mac and Anna Deavere Smith, LIFT 2018 features work by Tottenham-based community and youth groups. Can you talk about the relationship between the global and the local in the festival?

The dialogue between the local and the global is an essential element of LIFT and has always been a key part of our work – we create meaningful interactions between international artists and local audiences and artists that challenge the definition of culture itself and celebrate a city and its people on its own terms. Take Session for example, a brand-new show made in Tottenham, one of London’s most diverse areas. This is a show that combines world-class contemporary dance with hip-hop, afrobeats and folk dance in a part-gig, part-outdoor dance party that invites everyone to get involved.  

Amber: A number of performances take place in unusual venues across the city, such as East Wall, a dance and music show in the grounds of the Tower of London; Nocturne, an overnight performance in the streets of Deptford; and Fly by Night – performed by illuminated pigeons over the river Thames(!). What is the significance for you of presenting theatre outside conventional performance spaces?

Imaginations can’t be contained in buildings… the international artists we work with are global explorers so who better to take audiences on a new discovery of the city? These experiences offer opportunities for audiences and artists to step out of their usual patterns; to come together to celebrate the city. These artists and their work have the power to transform individuals and communities and I think that’s a really important role of a festival such as LIFT – we promote diversity, we bring neighbours into dialogue and increase creativity, all of which makes cities better places to live.

Amber: You will soon be taking up your post as the new artistic director of Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). What are your plans for the venue?

BAM is located in Brooklyn - in one of the coolest cities on the planet, it’s so rich in diversity. I’m looking forward to celebrating a real sense of place. At BAM, like at LIFT, we will explore the dialogue between local and global, introduce new forms and present some of the world’s most exciting emerging artists and alongside international superstars – it’s an incredible place.

Amber: Finally, if you could stage an arts event in any London location, where would it be and why?

LIFT’s famous for our unexpected interventions into the city and for transforming public space into political and theatrical playgrounds, so what better place to have a pop-up performance than the Houses of Parliament? Maybe I should drop Theresa May an email…

LIFT 2018
26 May - 22 July 2018
Various venues and locations, London

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