Against a backdrop of tall city buildings, a dancer leaps high in the air towards us


I is for International:
On programming dance from abroad

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Dancing City, GDIF 2021. Photo © Stephen Wright
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Lydia Wharf talks to Ellie Harris of London’s Greenwich & Docklands International Festival about the increasing challenges to international programming and co-operation
Headshot of Ellie Harris, executive producer at Greenwich & Docklands International Festival
Ellie Harris, executive producer at Greenwich & Docklands International Festival

Autumn 2022 in London, at the headquarters of Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, which has presented a cross-artform programme of (mostly) free outdoor fare annually since 1996 – twenty of those years including Dancing City, a weekend of work dedicated to presenting dance outdoors, against the dramatic corporate backdrop of Canary Wharf. This year’s festival is over, and the small team of dedicated staff, overseen by visionary artistic director Bradley Hemmings and nimbly managed by executive producer Ellie Harris, can reflect on the multi-layered challenges they face to preserve the all-important ‘I’ – for ‘international’ – in GDIF.

On the surface, it’s clear that the large majority of performances in Dancing City 2022 were ‘home grown’ works from the UK, with just 3 of 12 companies visiting from mainland Europe – unquestionably a less international offer than in previous years. In the wider GDIF festival, this proportion also holds true. Support from the Flanders Institute facilitated a small glut of exceptional Belgian circus artists, and there was a smattering of work from across western Europe. Yet for the festival team, the international element remains an absolute priority. As Harris puts it, ‘it’s embedded in the DNA of the festival’: a vision, and certainly a mission… maybe even a raison d’être in the crowded and competitive UK festival sector. So why the relative dearth of artists from overseas this year?

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The pandemic has arguably brought a longer-term shift towards having to invest more resources into supporting artist travel

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Just a couple of years ago, GDIF was hit hard by Covid, of course. While outdoor events in the UK got the green light, the pandemic severely impacted costs and labour: the additional load on festival co-ordination included constant monitoring of complex ‘traffic light’ travel systems across Europe’s borders, extensive (expensive!) testing, strict quarantine requirements, social distancing (no more room-sharing), and additional pastoral care for performers leaving their families while infection raged and death rates rocketed. Harris recalls a particularly nail-biting moment shortly before the 2020 edition, booking last-minute flights for Berlin-based Dolce Compania, whose plan to drive through Germany to a ferry became inviable and was abruptly aborted. Their air travel swerve brought Rainbow Ballet as a highlight of Dancing City 2020, where its segway-meets-catwalk charm made for brilliant and beautiful festival fare – but it was one of only a few international survivors on a programme that had originally looked more like a 50/50 mix of overseas and UK work. The pandemic required what Harris describes as ‘seat-of-the-pants, reactive decision–making’ – and yet it has arguably brought a longer-term, more profound shift towards having to invest more resources into supporting artist travel from abroad.

Of course, the UK’s uncomfortable exit from the EU has also erected hurdles for visiting artists. While GDIF is included on the UK list of permit-free festivals, it must still ensure that visiting artists arrive clutching a pack of paperwork; invitation letters, UK Border Agency paperwork, goods & vehicles registration… Add to this a layer of Covid complication (method statements, cancellation clauses in contracts, risk assessments affecting not only travel planning but also threading back to creation and rehearsal) and you have a heavy weight of labour and uncertainty that artists cannot shoulder alone. In its clearest shift towards capacity-building to absorb some of this additional work, in 2021 GDIF employed a consultant to develop systems of support specifically to facilitate international exchange, creating two staffing roles – ‘artist liaison’ and ‘inter­national artist liaison’ – where before there was one.

Two performers on long stilts in long bright dresses, one orange, one red, walking over a park area seated visitors - spaced and masked due to Covid restrictions. Behind them is the cityscape of London’s Canary Wharf district
Dolce Compania (Berlin) in Rainbow Ballet at GDIF 2020. Photo © Camilla Greenwell

While air travel rescued performers during the pandemic, going forward the festival takes its ecological responsibilities seriously, encouraging artists from within 6 hours away to consider travelling by land and sea, working collaboratively with them to generate new, more sustainable models and practices for international touring. GDIF leads by example, but must find ways to balance sustainability with other key principles – around access, for example: land travel is not viable for everyone.

It’s clear that GDIF are responding to numerous, seismic systemic shifts in the UK landscape. The determination to shoulder a burden of additional work rather than leave it with artists is truly admirable – but what if further, unforeseen complications are added to the mix? In 2022, prioritising visa applications for Ukrainians escaping war created a crisis for UK circus, when the subsequent delays in processing visiting artist visas meant cancelling tour dates. Across Europe, the spike in energy costs is presenting huge financial challenges to theatres and dance houses. Might the UK’s international festival circuit face a ‘perfect storm’ if conditions worsen? And is there still an appetite to visit, given the multi-layered barriers artists face?

It’s a ‘yes and no’ from Harris. She still feels an excitement from artists about visiting the UK – particularly as part of the well-established GDIF programme which has built a reputation for premiering and presenting new work. But there’s undoubtedly frustration and reluctance. While GDIF is doubling down on its capacity to ‘support artists properly‘, the budget breakdown for projects with multiple international partners clearly illustrates the disproportionate cost of a UK leg of touring.

Currently, those partners still see the value of propping up the UK element, but will that continue with the cost of every stage of production elevated to the hilt by rocketing energy costs? Where will the tipping point lie? The steadfast, cool-headed approach of festivals like GDIF, going the extra mile to preserve a long history of international exchange, makes a huge difference, but for how long? I’m sad to say that despite all their efforts, the brutal irony is that this year’s Dancing City was cancelled entirely due to the death of the Queen. Nobody saw that coming. 

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