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Greenwich and Docklands International Festival 2018 review – ‘a sense of dynamism’

D-Construction at Greenwich and Docklands International Festival. Photo: Mehdi Meghari
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There’s a real sense of dynamism built into this year’s Greenwich and Docklands International Festival programme, which spreads its line-up of eclectic outdoor performances to venues as diverse as a shipping container and the sleek cable-cars of the Emirates Airline. Acrobats perform beside lurching mechanical creatures while glowing deer parade through nearby streets.

Appearing as part of Gateway, a micro-programme commemorating the Windrush generation, D-Construction (★★★★) is a bruisingly physical and surprisingly affecting movement piece crackling with energy and aggression. Mehdi Meghari’s muscular choreography fuses the near-miss kicks and flips of capoeira with stylish b-boy posturing, but allows the six passionate dancers space to inject emotion into their act.

As the show unfolds, they swing and scramble around Bertrand Nodet’s set – a looming scaffold supporting a chain link fence, evoking an urban basketball court, guarded border, or internment camp. With audience members facing each other through the barrier as the performers surge and stamp between us, the show quickly builds an intimate emotional charge, powerfully reflecting on the things which divide or connect us.

Fly By Night at Greenwich and Docklands International Festival

Staged at twilight in the unglamorous marshland beside the Crossness pumping station, Fly By Night (★★★), by American artist Duke Riley, is a gentle but dramatic spectacle performed by several hundred trained pigeons equipped with LEDs. Co-commissioned by LIFT and appearing as part of 14-18 NOW’s ongoing First World War memorial project, the show tangentially refers to the historical role of trained birds as wartime messengers.

Silhouetted dramatically against the sunset, human handlers direct the birds with whistles and flag-waving, forming them into discrete flocks which circle, dodge, and occasionally plunge through one another. Though unstructured, it’s an ephemeral and strangely peaceful performance, giving the audience imaginative space to interpret the darting shapes as shoals of sardines, murmurating starlings, or the stately swirl of galaxies overhead.

Almost as sublime, but more delightfully ridiculous, La Belle Escabelle (★★★★) is a deceptively simple slice of street circus from brothers Luis and Miguel Córdoba. Equipped with five sets of stepladders, they perform extraordinary feats of synchronised spinning and balance, broken up with interludes of low-key clowning and accomplished acrobatics pulled off with charming nonchalance bordering on the blasé.

A few passages of music – soft tangos and delicate piano refrains – underscore the tonal changes, but the focus here is on the winning, wordless interplay between the performers, who channel both the wild-eyed head bobbing of David Byrne and the awkward openness of Tim Minchin. It builds gradually from silly visual gags to impressive ladder-sculptures, to a final image which perfectly balances aesthetic refinement and genuine physical jeopardy. It’s exactly that mix of risk taking and technical skill which makes the festival as a whole so enticing.

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Themes of movement and migration emerge from a bold and confident festival programme.