DanceXchange – Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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The season of festive shows is now well and truly upon us, with Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl following hot (or should that be cold?) on the heels of the recent run of Slava’s Snowshow at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Presented by DanceXchange, Pita’s production is a beautiful, enchanting and surprisingly funny adaptation of the classic Hans Christian Andersen story that sees the little match girl (here named Fiammetta) transported to an unnamed Italian town where Christmas festivities are well underway.

The show is in large part an exploration of the meaning of Christmas, bringing together an eclectic mishmash of traditions with the kind of sombre, poignant reflections that tend to creep up on us on long winter nights towards the end of the year. Fiammetta’s own joy and wonder at the the beauty of her surroundings reminds us of the happiness of any young child anticipating presents and games on Christmas Eve. Then there’s the mouth-watering, Neapolitan-style Christmas food list rattled off by the wealthy and gluttonous Donnarumma family. The flamboyance and grotesqueness of that little trio, complete with its own ridiculous dame of a mother, is obviously inspired by a long history of British pantomime. Nevertheless, as self-absorbed as they are, the Donnarummas also on some level communicate the idea of Christmas as a time for family, a theme more sensitively dealt with in Fiammetta’s visit to her grandmother’s grave, where she, like many others at this time of year, spares some time to think of absent loved ones (that “auld acquaintance” that we so often toast on New Year’s Eve).

The_Little_Match_Girl_-_Bayes_1889Sensitively, Pita opens up both the meaningful and the shallow sides of Christmas, like two sides of Fiammetta’s single shiny penny, highlighting the hypocrisy of much of what goes on. While the Donnarumma family and others like them give gifts and eat together, the notion of Christmas as a time for sharing does not extend as far as poor Fiammetta, left barefoot and empty-handed in the cold. Rather than simply allowing her to drift by, ghostlike and unnoticed, however, Pita brings her into direct conflict with a jealous pair of rival match-sellers, as well as with the obnoxious Donnarummas.

The design of the show is utterly gorgeous, from the giant full moon hanging low in the inky sky to the rows of little houses that disappear and reappear onstage. The lighting is also beautifully atmospheric, with pools of streetlamp glow highlighting little patches of falling snow. Even more crucial to maintaining the mood is Frank Moon’s fantastic music. Performing onstage, Moon is drawn in to the world of the show, sometimes as a kind of incidental street musician, other times as a more direct part of the story, in a role he aptly described in the post-show discussion as something akin to that of a narrator. Interestingly, his music evolved symbiotically with with the movement, rather than being set to the dancing or the action being choreographed to a ready-made score, a process which has worked fantastically well. Moon attended creative sessions with the cast and director throughout the development of the production, and the result is a wonderful meeting of violins and theremins, haunting, Danny Elfman-esque sounds and jolly Christmas tunes.

The little cast of four is utterly brilliant all round, with Corey Annand convincingly innocent and vulnerable as Fiammetta (though with a surprising strength and determination when necessary), and Angelo Smimmo, Karl Fagerlund Brekke and Valentina Golfieri hilarious in show’s various other roles. The one thing that let the show down, however, was an apparent reluctance to allow the darkness in the story room to breathe and to sink in with its audience. It’s understandable that for a festive family show, something a little more light-hearted was called for than Andersen’s almost unbearably bleak tale, which is enough to reduce grown-ups, let alone children, to blubbering wrecks. Nevertheless, the fact of the match girl’s death was so lightly skimmed over that at least one of my fellow audience members was left confused and unaware of what had actually happened. Shifting a single scene to a point a little later in the show would probably have been enough to resolve this lack of clarity. Another, related issue was Smimmo’s semi-comedic take on Fiammetta’s grandmother who, like Clementina De Magistis Donarumma, is played by a male cast member in drag. For me, her heightened singing and pantomime dame qualities took away too much from the emotional resonance of her reunion with the little girl, a touching moment in the story that should have been more joyous, as well as more sad.

That said, the show gets an excellent and powerful ending when we are transported to a more contemporary town where, over a century later, another young girl attempts to sell cigarette lighters on the streets, which left me feeling as though there should have been some kind of charity collection on the way out.

Overall, what this production loses in Andersen’s devastating emotional blows, it makes up for in irresistible charm and a sense of genuine magic. Guaranteed to warm your heart like a handful of matches in a snowstorm, it’s a perfect Christmas treat for kids and adults of all ages.

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Children of the Night: Dracula by DanceXchange and the Mark Bruce Company

draculaAs we near the end of October, the time for spooks and ghouls draws ever closer, and what better way to get ready for Halloween than with the Mark Bruce Company’s award-winning production of Dracula?

Formed in 1991 by internationally acclaimed director, dancer and choreographer Mark Bruce, the Mark Bruce Company quickly made its name on innovation in performance, subverting expectations by breaking conventions of style and genre. Having won the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Dance in January, Dracula is no exception.

Packed full of tricks and treats galore, this Dracula is a gloriously chaotic fusion of dance, music and theatrical styles, as eclectic as the many adaptations of Bram Stoker’s story have been over the years. And it draws on all of them, from the original text, through Hammer Horror, right up to more recent, self-sufficient reimaginings of Mina Harker in comics and on TV, with many scenes that could just as easily have been taken from a silent movie as from a live dance production.

The show opens with a menacing, otherworldly incarnation of its title character, running through eerie moonlight with seemingly superhuman speed. At this point he disturbs us – he is a being more monster than man, more muscular than feeling. Later, however, the strange, slippery Count (played with a breathtaking energy and mind-boggling adaptability by Jonathan Goddard) becomes comical, breaking into a hilarious tap-dancing routine that seems to come out of nowhere, before showing a moment of fragility when attacked by Jonathan Harker (Wayne Parsons), simultaneously acknowledging the often ridiculous nature of melodramatic gothic horror, as well nodding to the more sympathetic vampires to which we’ve recently become accustomed in teen fiction and angsty television shows. Like Gary Oldman’s 1992 Dracula, he’s also romantic, sometimes seeming to feel a genuine connection to Mina, portrayed by Eleanor Duval with an irresistible earnestness. But even in these quieter, more sentimental moments, we’re ever aware of his awesome power and the danger of giving in to his charm: his vampire brides, here a kind of tortured chorus leading us through the story, serve as a potent reminder of the consequences of trusting him too far. Nevertheless, its easy to forgive his victims their weaknesses. As ever, Dracula is disturbingly alluring, an intensely sexual nightmare creature born of painfully repressed desire. While Lucy Westenra (Kristin McGuire) may wear her lust on her sleeve, it is Mina who responds more passionately to the vampire’s advances, her loneliness and isolation strengthening her yearning for his attention.

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For all that, to infer from this that Mark Bruce’s Dracula is purely derivative would be grossly unfair: though it may well suck up essential elements from other, pre-existing Draculas, much like the woman who ultimately emerges as its unlikely heroine, it comes away from these other, undying versions as its own beast entirely.

This is the real triumph of the show: unlike almost any other interpretation of the story, it hints at some hope of escape for Mina Harker, leaving her in a refreshingly ambiguous position when the lights go down. Almost literally torn apart by the whore, wife and virgin archetypes that are forced upon her, this is a Mina that somehow manages to defy them all, and to do so on her own terms. As the show ends with her leaning over the dying vampire, surrounded by men eager to destroy the threat he represents, we can’t quite be sure what her final decision will be, or, indeed, whether it will involve any of the men who wait for it. What we can surmise, however, is that Mina Harker’s future is very much in her own hands.

Dracula will be showing again in Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre at 8pm tonight. For more information and to book, visit the DanceXchange website, or check out the Mark Bruce Company‘s site for full tour dates.

 

The Birmingham Hippodrome Celebrates a Record Year

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With over 625,000 tickets sold, the Birmingham Hippodrome has now announced 2013-14 as a record-breaking financial year. The theatre has for been recognised for some time as the country’s most popular single auditorium, averaging around 500,000 visits per year. Representing about 85% of capacity, this year’s increase is thanks in part to a slew of major shows like The Lion King, War Horse and Phantom of the Opera.

The news follows many other important steps forward for the theatre over the last few months, including its successful energy use reductions, its nomination as one of the Sunday Times’s “Top 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For”, and its certification in OHSAS 18001 (Occupational Health and Safety Management), with the Hippodrome believed to be the first UK theatre to achieve the last of these.

stuart-griffithsSaid the Hippodrome’s Chief Executive Stuart Griffiths:

“It’s not very often that these programming moments come together so perfectly, but with more than a little help from our producer partners Cameron Mackintosh, Disney, the National Theatre and Pantomime producers Qdos, alongside others, it looks like we’ve shattered all previous known records.  It’s gratifying too that we’ve seen such a huge rise in first-time bookers with over 48% new to the Hippodrome in the last 12 months.

“Dance received a boost with our resident partners Birmingham Royal Ballet presenting its most successful Nutcracker  at Christmas; and Mathew Bourne’s sell out Swan Lake.   We ended the financial year this spring with two other huge successes, the classics Fiddler on the Roof and Singin’ in the Rain.”

In addition to a surge in ticket sales, the theatre’s Hippodrome Plus outreach scheme has been attracting a lot of attention, with the number of people involved in its creative learning projects having doubled to over 16,000. Big outdoor events like Summer in Southside, Illuminate and the Four Squares Weekender have been key to this growth. Elsewhere, fundraising has also increased dramatically, with generous donations from members of the public, as well as an expansion of the patron scheme and a rise in corporate membership of over 30%.

Neil Pugh - Building FrontEncouraged by this success, the Hippodrome team are now investing in lots of exciting new projects for the upcoming year. Said John Crabtree, Chair of the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre Trust,

“In keeping with the successful formula created in recent years, the success of the last financial year is already being used to invest in the programme and towards further developing a diverse audience.  The month-long International Dance Festival Birmingham, co-produced with DanceXchange, starts at the end of April, South Africa’s Cape Town Opera return in July with their production of Show Boat whilst St. Petersburg’s acclaimed Mariinsky Opera bring Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Birmingham in November.”

Theatre exterior photo by Neil Pugh.

International Dance Festival Birmingham: Breakin’ Convention & £10 Dance Shows

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With a diverse array of contemporary dance productions – some costing as little as a tenner to attend – the International Dance Festival Birmingham will return to the Hippodrome this Spring. Featuring a range of home-grown performers as well as international stars, there’s plenty to look forward to for dance fans and interested newcomers alike.

First, on Tuesday 29th and Wednesday 30th April, you’ll be able to see Alias‘s acclaimed Sideways Rain for just £10. Described as a “powerfully visual examination of human nature,” the show features 14 dancers crossing the stage with “hypnotic”, “mesmerising” movements. Next, on Friday 2nd and Saturday 3rd May, Kidd Pivot will present Tempest Replica, an innovative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, mixing dance, original music, text and special effects, with tickets again available for only £10. Performance work assembled by Sadlers Wells associate artist Crystal Pite is combined with a “rich visual design”, including masks, projection and imaginative costumes. Families are warned that the shows may contain nudity or adult themes, and as such, are not recommended for children under 12.

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Following this, on Tuesday 20th and Wednesday 21st May, the Hippodrome will welcome back Breakin’ Convention, which will bring together emerging local talent with acclaimed hip-hop stars for a series of “jaw-dropping” shows. Hosted by Hip-Hop Guru and Sadlers Wells Associate Artist Jonzi D, the two-day festival will include performances by all-male company Antics, young Staffordshire dance group Company Elite, Birmingham duo Marius and Andrei, Nottingham’s NuProjeks and Wolverhampton’s 6-year-old YouTube sensation B-Girl Terra, along with her sister Eddie and their b-boy crew, Soul Mavericks. Many of these performers have already achieved huge success on stage and screen elsewhere, with Antics having made it to the finals of Sky’s Got to Dance contest, while B-Girl Terra’s amazing performance at the Pro Chelles competition in Paris gained her six million YouTube followers, as well as appearances on popular TV programmes such as the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

ILL-Abilities_BC12_Credit Belinda LawleySharing the stage with these Midlands-based artists will be RADA-trained hip-hop storyteller Ukweli Roach, the multi-award-winning French hip-hop group Wanted Posse and the internationally acclaimed ILL-Abilities, a dance troupe who aim to smash stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding disability, testing their own limits as well as challenging their audiences’ views.

The jam-packed festival, co-produced by DanceXchange, will spill out across the theatre foyer and and into public spaces beyond with various pre-show events, freestyle sessions, live DJ demos, workshops and a hip-hop marketplace. A full schedule is set to follow soon.

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Click here for more information about the International Dance Festival Birmingham, or visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website to book tickets.

Top photo by Paul Hampart Soumian. All other photographs by Belinda Lawley.

Illuminate and War Horse Sleepover: A Weekend of Special Events at the Hippodrome

As the autumn nights grow longer and the first wintry chills begin to creep into the air, the Birmingham Hippodrome will be bringing a little light into the darkness with a full weekend of special night-time events.

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From 25th-27th October, free, outdoor light spectacular Illuminate will be taking place across Birmingham’s Southside area. Amongst various roaming light performances, the festival will feature a stunning, 360 degree film igloo in which audiences can immerse themselves, awe-inspiring fire dance performances and a series of live, giant projections of Southside faces onto local buildings.

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lightsIn addition, Hurst Street’s Gallon Car Park will also be hosting the Lanterns of Terracotta Warriors exhibition, a breathtaking art installation initially created for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The installation features over 90 larger than life-size figurines inspired by China’s Terracotta Army.

Illuminate will close with a brand new performance, commissioned by the Birmingham Hippodrome in association with DanceXchange. Echoalia combines movement and projections, and was created through an innovative collaboration between choreographer Sonia Sabri and new media artist Andy McKeown.

Events will be taking place from 6pm-10pm on Friday 25 and Saturday 26 October and 6pm-8pm on Sunday 27 October and are all completely free. As if that wasn’t incentive enough, the first 100 visitors to the Hippodrome Square or LeTruc will receive an Illoom glowing balloon to enable them to join in with a light procession in Hurst Street. For more information, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

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From 7pm on Friday 25th October, families are also invited to participate in a unique, War Horse-themed sleepover that will see the theatre’s Patrick Centre transformed into World War I style trenches. Throughout the evening, guests can take part in a series of activities including art and crafts, games, singing and storytelling, as well as an exclusive, behind-the-scenes tour which will offer an exciting insight into the National Theatre‘s award-winning production.

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Said Liz Leck, the Hippodrome’s Creative Learning & Development Manager,

“We will be transporting families back 100 years to a time free of technology in a transformed Patrick Centre; families will find themselves in a ‘far-off field’ in France and make camp in ‘trenches’ overnight.”

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National Army Museum representatives will also be attending to share a range of genuine and replica artefacts from the museum’s collection. At the end of the evening, a collaborative family performance will be created from scratch: act, sing or bring along a musical instrument to join in. For the less theatrically-inclined, the “Hippodrome Herald” will be seeking out budding war correspondents and cartoonists prepared to put their journalistic skills to the test.

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Tickets for the sleepover are priced at £20 for children and £30 for adults, and can be booked by calling 0844 338 5000. Calls cost 5p per minute. A minimum of 1 adult per 3 children is required for each group.

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The Family Sleepover is part of a nationwide Family Arts Festival offering events and activities across the city. Click here for more information on the festival.

New Season Launch – Autumn and Winter at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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After the fabulous free theatre we’ve enjoyed over the last few weeks across Birmingham’s city centre, the summer may finally be over, but the fun is far from it! The Birmingham Hippodrome has just announced a new season packed full of all sorts of exciting shows to brighten up the cold, dark winter days!

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18389_sFrom October through to Spring next year, you’ll be able to enjoy a range of smash-hit musicals, National Theatre shows on tour, contemporary dance, world-class opera and ballet from the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Welsh National Opera, and of course, the return of the world’s biggest pantomime this Christmas.

The new season kicks off next month with the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café, E=MC² and Tombeaux (3-5 October) and later The Sleeping Beauty, (8-12 October) followed by the National Theatre’s War Horse (16 October – 9 November). If you want to get yourself some War Horse tickets, act fast, since the show is almost sold out already!

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Alongside the War Horse run, two additional special events will be taking place: Only Remembered (Friday 8th November), a concert featuring live readings from the original War Horse novel by its author Michael Morpurgo and music from John Tams and Barry Coope, and a War Horse-themed sleepover (Friday 25th October) that will see the Patrick Centre transformed into World War I-style trenches.

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Towards the end of the month, there will be more opportunities to experience free outdoor shows in Birmingham. Make sure you wrap up warm for Illuminate! (25-27 October) a three-day light spectacular featuring interactive street projections from Shanghai, dance performances and The Lanterns of Terracotta Warriors, an extraordinary exhibition originally created for the Beijing Olympics.

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Throughout November, the Welsh National Opera will present Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (12 & 16 November) and Gaetano Donizetti’s new Tudors series: Anna Bolena (13 November), Maria Stuarda (14 November) and Roberto Devereux (15 November). 

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As Christmas approaches, the Hippodrome will be helping you to get into the festive spirit with a Birmingham Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker (22 November – 12 December), as well as its excellent, all-star pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (19 December – 2 February). This year’s panto will star Gok Wan, Stephanie Beacham, Gary Wilmot, John Partridge and winner of the BBC’s Over the Rainbow series Danielle Hope.

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February is a great month to catch some ballet at the Hippodrome, with two more productions from the Birmingham Royal Ballet (Three of a Kind from 19-22 February and The Prince of the Pagodas from 25 February – 1 March), as well as Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (5-15 February).

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Meanwhile, March is the month for music, with three WNO operas and two exciting musicals.  The Welsh National Opera will present Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (4 & 8 March) as well as two brand new productions, Manon Lescaut (5 & 7 March) and Boulevard Solitude (6 March). From 11-15 March, award-winning producers Music & Lyrics will be presenting their take on Fiddler on the Roof, starring Paul Michael Glaser and, towards the end of the month, the theatre’s stage will be flooded with 12,000 litres of water every night as part of its Singin’ in the Rain performances (18 March – 5 April), starring Maxwell Caulfield and Faye Tozer.

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In April, Wet, Wet, Wet frontman Marti Pellow will star in Evita (8-19 April), while a brand new musical based on the classic TV series Happy Days will star Sugababes’ Heidi Range (22-26 April). The Happy Days musical is written by the series’ creator Gary Marshall, with creative consultancy from Henry Winkler, TV’s original “Fonz”.

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May sees the return of the biennial International Dance Fest Birmingham, co-produced by the Hippodrome and DanceXchange. The festival will kick off with Sideways Rain (29-30 April) by Genevan contemporary dance company Alias, and will also include Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s M!longa  (23-24 May), international hip-hop festival Breakin’ Convention (20-21 May), a new adaptation of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies by Matthew Bourne (14-17 May) and a performance from acclaimed ballerina Sylvie Guillem in 6,000 Miles Away (6-7 May). Bourne’s new production will feature young New Adventures dancers from the West Midlands as part of efforts to inspire a new generation to get involved in dance. 

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As Spring leads on into summer, the National Theatre‘s five-star comedy feast, One Man, Two Guv’nors will arrive in Birmingham (26-31 May), providing an excellent opportunity to catch this highly-praised production if you missed it in London. One Man, Two Guv’nors is an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s classic 1743 comedy The Servant of Two Masters, reimagined in 1960s Brighton by Richard Bean.

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So it comes full circle back to summer. Next summer’s big musical show will be Wicked (9 July – 6 September). It may seem a long way to plan ahead, but tickets for Wicked are already being snapped up by audiences. In September, the Hippodrome will also be showing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Check back here for details about when tickets go on sale.

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To book tickets and for more information, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Happy watching!

4 Squares Weekender – Free Theatre to Launch the New Library of Birmingham

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If you’ve been following the news this week, you may well have spotted that the new Library of Birmingham was opened on Tuesday by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived being shot by the Taliban for championing girls’ rights to education.

Speaking on the day, Malala described books as weapons for beating terrorism, claiming that “the only way to global peace is reading, knowledge and education”. With characteristic eloquence, she went on to explain that,

“Books are precious. Some books travel with you back centuries, others take you into the future. Some take you to the core of your heart and others take you into the universe. […] It is written that a room without books is like a body without a soul. A city without a library is like a graveyard.”

Malala also spoke about the importance of Birmingham as a city, describing it as “the beating heart of England“.

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Following on from this official launch, a weekend of free live performance across Birmingham City Centre will celebrate the library’s opening, beginning at 9.30pm tomorrow with As the World Tipped, a spectacular, aerial outdoor show by Wired Aerial Theatre, set on a huge 12 metre screen against the night sky. Watch this space for updates: I’ll be attending and reporting back on both the show and the media launch beforehand. If you can’t make it tomorrow, the performance will be repeated at 9pm on Saturday.

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Across Saturday and Sunday, you’ll be able to see a diverse range of shows taking place across Birmingham’s Oozells, Centenary, Chamberlain and Victoria Squares, with something for all ages to enjoy. In the words of Peter Knott, Regional Director of Arts Council England, 4 Squares Weekender is, “a spectacular weekend to celebrate arts and culture”, offering “something to suit all tastes”.

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In Oozells Square and Brindleyplace, there’ll be a series of performances and activities organised by mac Birmingham. Inside Ikon’s galleries, there will be music by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as dance from Sampad and contemporary circus by Pif-Paf. Outside, you can take part in family-friendly activities, helping to build a giant city out of clay.

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A musical picnic will take place in Centenary Square, courtesy of Town Hall Symphony Hall, and featuring performances from Birmingham-based saxophonist Soweto Kinch. Meanwhile, inside four converted caravans, the Birmingham REP will be providing impromptu acting and storytelling, and inside the new library itself, there’ll be music from Ex Cathedra and the Birmingham Opera Company.

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TippaIrie2013In Victoria Square, NoFit State Circus will be providing performance and circus skills taster workshops. If you missed them at Summer in Southside, this is a great chance to catch up with their incredible acrobatics, as well as to take part and learn some skills yourself!

Finally, in Chamberlain Square, The Drum’s Simmer Down stage will be hosting a range of reggae, ska, bhangra, sufi and hip-hop music, including performances from Tippa Irie and Musical Youth. Inside the Town Hall, you’ll be able to see dance performances from the Birmingham Royal Ballet and DanceXchange, including opportunities to take part, while the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery will be presenting a full day of film courtesy of Flatpack Festival.

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Said Stuart Griffiths, Chief Executive of the Birmingham Hippodrome, “”Birmingham’s arts organisations offer some of the most vibrant and exciting programmes in the country. We are delighted to come together to welcome the new Library of Birmingham at this incredibly exciting time for our city.”

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If you’re attending, don’t forget to tell us about your experiences on Twitter, using the hashtag #bham4sq. As with the Summer in Southside festival, I’ll be hanging around over both days, so check back here if you’re curious about anything you don’t manage to attend.

Hope to see you there!

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