Freddie Opoku-Addaie, acclaimed choreographer, dancer/performer and Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Dance Umbrella, London’s flagship annual dance festival that returns for 2021 throughout October. 2021 is a transitional year for the company as it emerges from the pandemic and its leadership moves to Opoku-Addaie ahead of his 2022 inaugural festival. This year’s festival will be a hybrid, with the first live performances since 2019, as well as a collection of digital events aimed at sparking conversations, inspiring creativity and celebrating choreographic talent.
Highlights of the live programme include; Transverse Orientation from the extraordinary visual artist and theatre-maker Dimitris Papaioannou at Sadler’s Wells; a Dance Umbrella Festival debut from Japanese artist Takeshi Matsumoto with Club Origami, a new sensory show for under 5’s touring across London; an exhilarating live outdoor work exploring the choreographic potential of football movement created by performance-maker Ahilan Ratnamohan with Extra Time; and a takeover of Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford with two action-packed days of live performances including a double-bill from Dani Harris-Walters and Kesha Raithatha who will respectively present Happy Father’s Day, a reflective coming-of-age story featuring hip-hop dance vocabulary, rap and narration, and Traces, an abstract journey of human experience.
Dance Umbrella’s online programme will bring audiences closer to choreographers and how they create in Choreographer’s Cut, celebrate pioneers in their fields in intimate conversations between established artists and those they have inspired to dance, as well as give audiences exclusive access to a curated film programme and streamed performances, thought-provoking articles and topical panel discussions and workshops.
- How did dance find you or did you find dance?
I don’t think it was necessarily one or the other, it just happened naturally and it’s something I’ve always been around culturally from an early age. I grew up in Ghana from the age of four until the age of ten where dance was very much part of the cultural scene and something that I was constantly exposed to in my everyday life. I then came back to East London when I was 10 years old where I was mostly interested in football and was also very into crafts and carpentry at one stage; I’ve always been physical, so dance has been a natural progression of that. It wasn’t until secondary school that I started to learn technique and really began to see it as a career path. I then went to Newham sixth form college (NewVic) where I had an amazing dance teacher who got me into performing arts and I was introduced to a diverse breadth of work. After that I trained at the London Contemporary Dance school. In my third year I had an incredible opportunity to do an exchange year at CalArts in California which was very influential for me and opened up my mind to the endless possibility of cross art form practice. I also took classes outside of my formal training. These days many dance schools do classes in different practices such as hip hop which I really wanted to learn but just wasn’t available at that time, so I had to go outside of college to learn those techniques and immerse myself in different social dance scenes. That mish mash of styles has really informed my own practice, and how I want to curate in the future.
- How would you describe your first year at Dance Umbrella?
I’m still in my first 6 months so it’s very much a learning process! As we all know it’s been a horrible and really difficult time for everyone. In terms of putting on a festival, things have been a lot more last minute than they’d usually be, for a long time we weren’t sure whether we were going to be able to go in-person or even ahead. The team has been great, and it has been an exciting process to create and collaborate on this. Some of my colleagues hadn’t done a live in-person festival yet and some had, so we’ve been learning from each other. I’m very much taking this as a transition period, being really present and learning and observing as much as I can and being aware of how things might shift or change as we continue to move forward. It hasn’t been an easy thing to navigate, especially as an international festival when you can’t travel to see work. This year’s festival is a hybrid of live and digital performance and creating content has been a challenge as well as coming up with new ways of presenting it when there has been so much digital offering over the past two years. It was a really big challenge that we gave ourselves to do digital and live at the same time rather than separately, but I’m really pleased that we decided to go for it – it’s a big tick for access.
3. What have been some of the highs and lows and how much has the pandemic had a part to play?
Being able to support and present work from independent artists who have been hit so hard by the pandemic has been a real high, and on the flip side of that seeing how badly they have been affected and experiencing some of it myself as a part time freelance artist has of course been tough. I’ve been really proud to be able to offer the digital pass which means that both audiences and artists who can’t access the live offerings can still get great content for as little as £5 and less if needed. In the wider world around us, as we all know the pandemic has really exacerbated everything and it has really made us look at societal problems like racism, the environment and equality which have been brought to the surface. It’s a shame it’s taken the pandemic to make us face up to but that has been a good thing, and these conversations all trickle down and are core to culture and how we consume it.
- How does DU start to address the inequality and lack of representation in the industry?
I don’t necessarily think it’s about starting; I think we have been doing it already, but it’s about how we continue, how we have sustainability of ideas. This is absolutely something that I want to carry forward. I’m really passionate about finding and nurturing emerging artists as well as the more household names and giving them the support, they need and making sure they feel they have ownership over their intellectual property as well as the space to exchange experience and ideas with the more established artists. It’s very much an ongoing and evolving process.
- What does it feel like to be back doing live events?
Having done our first week of the festival, it’s been amazing seeing audiences enjoying live performance again. I’ve really enjoyed being able to engage and have a conversation with people, just seeing humans connecting over something has been really enriching. Dance, and art all artforms, bring people together and are such an important part of our lives. It has also been about learning to be in these spaces again with different people after the pandemic and being patient with ourselves and others.
- What do you think will be some of the significant changes due to Covid that have been positive?
One of the most significant effects of Covid was on freelancers who had such a difficult time, but in a way I think it made everyone more aware of how important they are to our industry. It’s been really interesting to see how wider society is starting to engage with collaborative working and acknowledge how important it is, when it’s something the arts have always done so naturally. I think another really positive thing is the improvement of access – I think it’s becoming less and less of a debate of whether to create accessible content and will instead be done without question.
- Tell us about some of the highlights of the festival?
I’m really proud of what we’ve put together this year. The hybrid nature of the festival is a highlight in itself and it’s exciting to be engaging and presenting the work of so many Dance Umbrella debut artists and us and partners holding space (as we should) to work that couldn’t be present last year. There’s a breadth in visibility of diverse practitioners and inclusive practices. This is a transitional festival in terms of leadership, still navigating a global pandemic and capacity to support artists to present their work as an international festival. We are already in the thick of looking ahead to next year, how we continue to engage with our global audiences, how they engage with us in our very special global city.
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