Billingham International Folklore Festival of World Dance
30 December 2013
Annette Clark and Brian Toney report from one of Europe’s most flourishing folklore festivals
It has often been mentioned during an ISTD Summer School that if you get the opportunity to visit ‘Billingham’ it’s well worth it as you get to see teams from various countries around the world perform traditional dances and songs.
Now I don’t know about you but Billingham is not a town that I’m that familiar with and most people I’ve spoken to ask “Where’s that?” Billingham is a town in County Durham, close to Stockton on Tees, in North East England. It was founded circa 650 by a group of Saxons known as Billa’s people, which is where the name Billingham is thought to have originated. However, in modern history the chemical industry and in particular the company ICI, played an important role in the growth of Billingham.
So after Summer School this year Brian Toney and I made the trek further north to catch the end of this year’s festival.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Billingham Town Council had developed a new traffic-free shopping centre. Traditionally Billingham residents went to the larger and established shopping centres of nearby Stockton and Middlesbrough. To attract shoppers the Council organised entertainment in the centre, which, because it was traffic-free, lent itself to such performances.
On one such Saturday an Irish dance troupe led by a Sunderland head teacher, Phil Conroy, performed on the town square and attracted a large and enthusiastic audience. At the end of the show Mr Conroy happened to mention that his group had just returned from the continent where they had performed at a week-long folklore festival. He also remarked that the town centre would be an ideal setting for such a festival. Councillors present liked the idea. So, the Billingham Festival was born in 1965. Billingham then became a founder member of the International Council of Organisations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Arts (CIOFF) and Phil Conroy became its General Secretary. A post he held until his death.
From small beginnings (only Austria, Estonia and Hungary were represented at the first festival) over the years it has hosted over 15,000 performers from more than 90 countries and each year it hosts 8 – 10 groups with over 400 artists from abroad. The Festival presents the best that the world of folklore dance and song has to offer at two venues: the Forum Theatre and the Festival Outdoor Arena in Billingham Town Centre. In 1999 the festival became an independent limited company and registered charity. It has also concluded a partnership agreement with Stockton Borough Council, which guarantees its future.
“Billingham is a founder member of the International Council of Organisations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Arts”
This year saw the 49th Billingham International Folklore Festival take place between 10th to 17th August 2013. It is now advertised as being the largest festival of its kind in the UK and one of the oldest festivals in Europe. It celebrates the diversity and richness of traditional cultures, as well as contemporary dance companies from across the world by bringing together over 300 dancers, musicians, singers and craftsmen to promote and demonstrate their artistic work. The Festival concerts take place at the specially constructed Arena in Billingham town centre; the Forum Theatre, as well as the Picture House, Billingham and Middlesbrough Theatre. Special events are scheduled at Middlesbrough Town Hall and Dance City, Newcastle.
The countries taking part this year included the Basque Country (Spain), Macedonia, Mexico, Peru, Taiwan, Canada, the Ukraine, the USA and the UK.
The dance teams generally have three different programmes, lasting approximately 20 minutes. There are open-air concerts every afternoon and most evenings and at each concert different teams perform, so during the course of the week you should see everything! The best evenings, as far as I’m concerned, are the Gala Concerts in which all teams take part. These were held in the Forum and Middlesbrough theatres on consecutive nights.
It’s good to see the different countries perform. For some, their programmes were quite diverse. Taiwan gave us the beautiful dances inspired by butterflies in one programme followed by a martial arts demonstration in the next. It was also good to see the Basque dancers perform Reverance, a dance previously on our syllabus.
Of course being England, open-air concerts are very susceptible to the weather. However, should it be a little inclement before a concert starts there is usually a drier option available. It just might take a few minutes to organise and providing you are happy to ‘go with the flow’ the organisers make the transfer as much a part of the concert as the dancers themselves!
Whilst there we were also lucky enough to take a couple of workshops run by the teams. These do need to be booked in advance. We were taught a Hopak and two other styles of Ukrainian Dances, which were lead by the Canadian Group. We were both a little worried that the workshop taken by Taiwan may be based around their martial arts skills, but instead they taught us one of their traditional dances and the tricks of how to use their beautiful long fans. It was a shame that there was not more support from the locals as we were the only participants. However, I feel that this was better for us in the end.
Next year is their 50th Anniversary where I think they have something special planned. It’s definitely well worth a visit!
Annette Clark and Brian Toney