Fabulous Folk dance festival is 50 this year!

South Korean Fan Dancers
The cultural smorgasbord of dance, that is the Billingam International Folklore Festival (BIFF to its friends) was welcomed to Newcastle’s Dance City this weekend. I am a long time fan of the festival and used to go to watch it with my mother when I was a young girl. I am so pleased it has lasted for an amazing fifty years and it’s nice to see it evolving, branching out and venturing up North for a change. 
Sunday’s World Gala performance featured groups from Southern Chile, Mexico, South Korea and Northern Russia.
I have your hat!

It was an unlikely start for a celebration of world dance culture, in the New town of Billingham on Teesside all those years ago but with passion and dedication from its founders and supporters, the festival has gone from strength to strength. It still brings dance companies from all over the world together, to showcase their countries’ traditional cultures  and involve the local community, in what is always a great fun week in August.

 

The Billingham Festival wasn’t always favoured by the Arts establishment but even the Arts Council have funded it now, so it must finally be cool.

All the nice girls love a Russian sailor

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Billingham Council had developed a new traffic free shopping precinct and to attract shoppers the Council organised entertainment in the centre as it was an ideal arena for this sort of event. This was the beginnings of the festival. Of course, town centres today aren’t what they once were, but BIFF is using this to its advantage. Shops may be struggling, but the former Dorothy Perkins shop is being used for some youth dance workshops and the international Dance Film Festival will take place in the former Savers premises! That’s what I call making the most of things.

Skirt speed whirling champions
First up on our Sunday evening menu was Ballet Folkorico Tupa Marka from Chile. They have been to the festival twice before but I hadn’t seen them perform. The company have been on their first European tour, funded by the Chilean Arts and Culture council and Pablo Cesar, its artistic director, had always wanted to return to our festival.The Chileans were from the South of the region which is quite a well-known tourist area and big for salmon fishing apparently.
Dance Chile – with bells on!
The Chileans are stunning elegant dancers and I particular like the men’s outfits covered in bells which made jingling as aggressive as it gets when one is flinging oneself around the stage.
Chile is hot!

The Mexican groups were more familiar. The colourful whirling skirts and the sombreros conjure up a vibrant happy Mexico. Ballet Recreacion also performed a more unusual dance based on the real dances and costumes of the Aztecs researched for authenticity by anthropologists. The amazing costumes were real show stoppers and the stunning head dresses were made from tufts of quail, pheasant, macao, parrot and wild rooster feathers. After vigorous stage storming during the fire ritual dance, there were quite a few of the aforementioned feathers strewn across the stage in the aftermath.

The Aztecs are coming
The second half of the programme featured the South Koreans and then the Russian dance troupe. I hadn’t seen the South Koreans before and I found them quite fascinating with their controlled precise movements and candy coloured costumes.
Lollipop ladies
Jung Yooyeong Dance Company are from Changwon City and specialise in traditional and ritual Korean dances which date back to the 14th century. They were also pretty nifty on the drums. In one dance women dress as men (which I presume was intentional and not just because they couldn’t get any men to do it) and they perform a slow deliberate courting type of dance with fans which is as fascinating as it is inscrutable. Word is, you can say a lot with fans, but it’s not a language I’m familiar with myself.

 

Banging the drum for South Korea

 

The Russians I’ve seen many times before but they are always pretty much top of the list as my favourites. The dancers are so light and athletic and full of infectious energy. Russia of course, is a very big place but the Siverko dance Ensemble are from the vast and snowy north of Russia. ‘Siverko’ is the mysterious wind that blows in from the white sea which can be icy cold. Tall, willowy and blonde, they spring about like well-coordinated antelopes. Dancer’s beautiful smiles always mask their extreme physical exertion.  You can’t have that boiled beetroot face look which seems to affect me when I’ve done a class at the gym.  Traditional Cossack dancing is always a thrill. The men fling themselves in the air with easy animal grace and the women aren’t far behind with their high speed jumping and spinning which sends their colourful embroidered skirts into dervish like circles. The group turned the stage into a real Russian village with its folk dances and traditional songs.
Hello Sailor!

One of the things I like most about the festival, apart from the dancing, is the chance to see peoples from different ethnic groups around the world side by side.  Genetically we are a bit of a hotch potch here in the UK but to see the tall blonde slender Northern Russians contrasted with the small dark Peruvians or the Asian beauty of the Koreans is like having a potted geography lesson where physical characteristics historically adapted to the climates and topography of different parts of the world.

The Billingham Folklore festival is quite a unique event, and always has such a positive and joyful feel to it. It is on for the rest of this week. If you feel in need of a smile, or a break from reality TV or the conflict in the middle East then I recommend you pay a visit. This blog Eccentric England has been nominated for the 2014 UK blog awards. If you’ve enjoyed reading it please vote for me by clicking through on the link here!

 

Baltic beauties