About Town – Video Art in Birmingham’s Southside

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Wednesday night saw the launch of About Town,  a video art exhibition presented by the Hippodrome in collaboration with Ikon Gallery. As its title suggests, the exhibition is spread out across a different urban spaces, all within the Southside area, from the Back-to-Backs and the theatre itself to Hurst Street’s Gallan Car Park. Free of charge, the exhibition is currently open to the public from 4-10pm daily until Sunday 16th November.

Intended to present some of the best in international video art and to provide viewers with a fresh perspective on familiar environments, About Town incorporates work ranging from intimate interviews to large-scale, multi-screen installation pieces. As the Hippodrome’s Chief Executive Stuart Griffiths explained, the exhibition was initially inspired by a visit to La Biennale international art festival in Venice, and the diversity of art on display reflects that of Birmingham itself.

About Town falls within the remit of Hippodrome Plus, the theatre’s continually expanding outdoor and outreach branch that also oversees things like Summer in Southside and the youth ambassador scheme. For Ikon, meanwhile, there was another motivation for getting involved: as the gallery prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, now is a great time to look back over some of the work it had displayed over the years.

Beginning in the Hippodrome’s own Qdos Lounge, Marjolyn Diikman’s Wandering Through the Future takes viewers on a journey through things to come as envisaged in the movies, with a series of film clips arranged chronologically according to their setting, from 2008 through to 802.701. This fun, playful exhibit prompts questions about the things we want and expect from the future.

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Meanwhile, in the foyer, Kelly Mark’s Hiccup #2 shows the Canadian artist sitting in the same position on the steps of the old Birmingham Library at the same time for five consecutive days. The fact that, each day, many of the same people pass her without noticing her performing the same actions calls attention to both the many things we ignore in our daily routines and the monotony of modern life, themes that crop up again in various other exhibits.

Scattered around the theatre are a series of clips entitled Happiness in Mitte, depicting stray cats drinking milk left out by the artist, Adel Abdessemed, in Berlin’s Mitte district. This proved popular among conscious attendees, though the small, inconspicuous screens are easy to miss if you’re not looking for them, leading to parallels being drawn between this and Hiccup #2.

In the Back-to-Backs, a very ‘meta’ piece called Video Times shows the artist, Kevin Atherton, watching television, staring back at viewers from the screen he appears on. The film is accompanied by a magazine containing scripted directions for his actions, printed in the style of a TV listings guide like the Radio Times. Created in 1984, this self-reflexive yet oddly cosy and domestic piece predates not only reality shows like Gogglebox and Big Brother, but also the culture of CCTV surveillance to which we’ve now become accustomed.

Upstairs, Heather and Ivan Morison invite viewers to enjoy the simple pleasures of an English country garden, while next door, a series of fascinating extracts from Cornelia Parker’s interview with Noam Chomsky demand a little more of our time. Santiago Serra’s Person Saying a Phrase deals with the issue of homelessness, another subject that emerges more than once in this exhibition.

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One of About Town‘s most eye-catching and instantly engaging pieces is Birmingham-born Grace Ndiritu’s The Nightingale, showing in Route 2 Havana Car Park opposite Southside’s Nightingale gay club. Her piece explores issues of identity and stereotyping with regards to race and gender, using the simple tool of a red, patterned scarf. By variously becoming, through a series of transformational movements, a headscarf, blindfold, hajib, burka, veil, bandanna, turban, gag and purdah, the scarf playfully references an assortment of different cultures, all present in the multicultural melting pot of the West Midlands.

The exhibition culminates in a sensory feast in Gallan Car Park, where a series of huge installations are displayed side-by-side, surrounding viewers with light and sound. Like Saying a Phrase, Roy Arden’s Citizen tackles the issue of homelessness, showing a young man in the centre of a traffic intersection as seen from a moving car. Like Hiccup #2Citizen also prompts reflection on the things we often fail to see.

Junebum Park’s 1 Parking and Oliver Beer’s Pay and Display are well-suited to the car park setting. The latter features some eerie choral work by Ex Cathedra and some slightly scary, emotionless performances from children: it’s certainly one to hold your attention, as long as you’re not put off by its creepiness! Meanwhile, Yang Zhenzhong’s Let’s Puff places viewers in between two screens, one showing a busy Shanghai Street, the other showing a woman blowing air in sharp bursts. As she exhales, the scene opposite shifts, and we find ourselves thrown into another part of the street.

The most instantly emotive and visceral of the exhibits, however, must be Gillian Wearing’s Broad Street. In this (at times uncomfortably) immersive piece, viewers find themselves ringed about with screens showing club-goers courting, arguing and otherwise interacting in central Birmingham, with lots of alcohol involved. Experiencing this in a dark, chilly car park has the effect of making us feel as though we’re really out at night on Broad Street. Troublingly voyeuristic though strangely fascinating, the installation is sure to inspire a variety of reactions depending on viewers’ own experiences of similar nights out.

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About Town is showing across Southside until Sunday 16th November, from 4-10pm. For more information, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

All images by Mark Rhodes except still from Grace Ndiritu’s The Nightingale.

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Requiem: Ex Cathedra and Cas Public in Concert Dansé

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It may well be my Catholic upbringing, but to me, fast-paced, energetic and often noisy dancing doesn’t quite seem a natural fit for a solemn religious requiem. While watching Concert Dansé at Symphony Hall last night, I can’t deny that there was a part of me that felt like the show itself answered choreographer and DanceXchange director David Massingham’s question (discussed in the programme) as to why there haven’t been more dance productions set to organ music.

Criticisms aside, however, Concert Dansé was nothing short of spectacular. Though I’m still not convinced they weren’t mismatched, the show combined what were by far the most incredible dancing and some of the most beautiful singing that I have ever had the privilege of experiencing.

After organist Alexander Mason and cellist Andrew Skidmore opened the production with a gentle, instrumental prayer by Camille Saint-Saëns, mezzo soprano Martha McLorinan led the singing with a breathtaking solo rendition of Jules Massenet’s Pie Jesu. The full Ex Cathedra choir then took to the stage for an uplifting performance of Aaron Copland’s In The Beginning. Described by conductor and Ex Cathedra founder Jeffrey Skidmore as “one of the great choral works of the 20th century”, In the Beginning was delivered with perfect clarity, while sparse yet powerful lighting evoked the initial darkness and creation of light detailed in the lyrics.

It was not until after the interval that Cas Public emerged onto the dramatically lit stage, to dance alongside Duruflés Requiem, magnificently sung by Ex Cathedra and accompanied by organ and cello. From the outset, the dancers’ outfits seemed strangely out of place in the context of a Mass of remembrance for the dead, and once the movement began, the strangeness of the combination was only confirmed. Though the performers’ skill was quite astounding, blending the skill and discipline of traditional ballet with the speed and energy of more contemporary styles, it largely failed to match the gravity and emotional resonance of the sung Requiem.

The highlights of the performance were guest appearances from ballet dancers Karla Doorbar and Max Maslen, as well as acclaimed Kathak and Bharatnatyam dancer Aakash Odedra, all of whose movements were much quieter and more restrained than Cas Public’s. Odedra’s fluid, graceful motion in particular seemed to respond directly to the music, reflecting its tone and momentousness rather than simply following its rhythms. Sadly though, his turn onstage was but brief.

Despite my reservations, this was a fascinating show, and one I felt was pitched well for the International Dance Festival: although dance is generally a little out of my comfort zone as far as art forms go, I was truly blown away by some of the performers in this production, which were definitely enough to persuade me to see more.

International Dance Festival Birmingham – Get Ready for a Month of Dance Shows!

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From now until Sunday 25th May, a series of exciting dance events will be taking place in venues across the city as part of this year’s International Dance Festival Birmingham.

Jointly produced by the Birmingham Hippodrome and DanceXchange, the IDFB ranks among the world’s biggest dance festivals, and aims to showcase a diverse array of talent in styles and settings ranging from ballet to urban fusion, traditional Maori to circus skills, pop-up street performances to seated theatre shows. Whether you’re a die-hard dance fan or simply interested in finding out more, you’re almost guaranteed to find something to catch your interest on this year’s jam-packed schedule!

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Having already kicked off with a collection of short works by the Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Crescent Theatre, the programme of events continues this evening with the Midlands Youth Dance Festival, organised by Dance4 in collaboration with DanceXchange.

On Tuesday, I’ll be attending Sideways Rain, a contemporary dance performance by Genevan company Alias and the first of several shows taking place at the Hippodrome over the next few weeks (watch this space for my review). Other shows coming up at the Hippodrome include Kidd Pivot’s Tempest Replica, Sylvie Guillem’s 6000 Miles Away, New Adventures’ The Lord of the Flies, Sadler’s Wells’s Breakin’ Convention and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s M¡longa. The theatre’s Patrick Centre will also be taken over at different points during the festival by Murmur & Inked, a double bill from the highly sought-after Aakash Odedra Company; the world premiere of Company Decalage’s Match & Halfway to the Other Side; Aerites’s witty, hip-hop fusion piece Planites; and Protein’s Border Tales, a satirical blend of dance, dialogue and live music.

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Elsewhere, Symphony Hall will play host to the world premiere of Concert Dansé, a unique collaboration between Birmingham’s Ex Cathedra choir and Québécois dance troupe Cas Public, while at the Birmingham REP, you’ll be able to catch some spectacular circus skills in Séquence 8 from Les 7 Doits De La Main. The IDFB will even be extending its reach beyond Birmingham’s borders to Coventry’s Warwick Arts Centre with Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre‘s sharply contrasting Petrushka and The Rite of Spring shows.

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If you don’t have much cash to splash this month, though, you needn’t miss out on the festivities: there will also be plenty of free outdoor shows taking place at Village Green, Cannon Hill Park and throughout the city centre. These include Corey Baker Dance‘s mobile, audience-led Headphones (follow @IDFB #headphones on Twitter to find out the exact locations on the day, and send in your dance styles and music genres choices); traditional Maori Haka demonstrations; Denada Dance Theatre’s “duel of seduction”, Young Man!; Candoco Dance Company’s Tennesee Williams-inspired duet, Studies For C; and various freestyle and urban shows from professional and community groups. Work by students from Birmingham City University’s School of Architecture will also be displayed in an exhibition at Millennium Point titled “All of Birmingham is a Stage” .

For more information on times and locations, and to book tickets for indoor shows, visit the IDFB website.

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4 Squares Weekender – Birmingham Celebrates Art and Culture

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There are honestly few sights I’ve seen more cheering than the enormous crowds that turned out for the 4 Squares arts festival in Birmingham last weekend. Even if the crazy-long queues for the library meant that I couldn’t get into the building to take a look around myself (don’t worry, I’ll be back), I couldn’t help but feel thrilled to see so many people getting so excited about a library – and more generally, across the city centre, to see so many people actively engaging with the arts. I’ve since been told that an estimated 95,000 people were there this weekend, with well over half of those having made a special journey for the event. It’s not a surprise at all. As Christopher Barron, Chief Executive of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, said:

“4 Squares Weekender proved, as if it were needed, the appetite of Birmingham audiences for high quality, spectacular and accessible cultural experiences.”

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Just as exciting as the size and scale of this event, though, was its scope. With almost every major arts organisation in the city offering some kind of contribution, it’s little wonder that it attracted crowds every bit as diverse as its performances. The wonderful thing about putting everything together in one place, of course, is that people were encouraged to step out of their comfort zones and try out something new. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a range of arts and audiences manage to be so wholly integrated. Where else but here could you see old men and women, toddlers and teenagers of all races enjoying outdoor opera side-by-side and equally as much? Where else would you find adult men actively volunteering to participate in a ballet demonstration? Where else could you see the disparate stories of a rich-man turned homeless and a bulimic young woman effortlessly combined into a single fairy tale, told straight to the faces of a tiny audience packed into a caravan, decorated simultaneously as both a food bank and an allotment?

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Without wittering on any further, then, I’ll give you a quick breakdown of the things that I managed to see – though I’m afraid there was plenty that I didn’t. Obviously I’m hinting here that I’d like the chance to see the rest again – come on, Birmingham!

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Friday night was the official festival launch and, having arrived a little early for the press reception in advance of the show, I headed up to Victoria Square to take a look at the huge crane and moveable stage that would form part of the evening’s performance of As the World Tipped. Arriving there, I unexpectedly came across performance that had already started: a brilliant little group called Trio Damba, made up of three members of Birmingham band, The Destroyers, with Louis Robinson at the helm. According to the programme, their musical style is an unusual blend of “genres as diverse as Klezma, Hot Club, Tango, Country and Western and Fraggle Rock”. Later that weekend, I was to see them again with support from additional musicians.

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The evening’s main event, As the World Tipped, was a little slow in starting. Sound effects announcing the beginning of the show were started up a good twenty minutes before anything actually happened, and there were other areas of the show that would have benefitted from some cutting down (the list of endangered species, for example, and the drawn-out ending). Yet the action and stunts were faultless and spectacular – this was definitely a way to get things started with a bang, and the crowds loved it.

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I started Saturday with a ceilidh. There are few ways I’d rather spend my Saturday afternoons, given the choice. I had one at my wedding recently, and I’m rather of the opinion that mass outdoor dances should be implemented as a regular thing in cities every weekend. The novelty would never wear off, and sedentary arty types like me would all be an awful lot fitter as a result. This was an unusual sort of ceilidh in that it was quite stripped back to ensure that the little ones could get the most out of it. The Burdock Ceilidh Band even invented their own new dance called War and Peace (the abridged version), which seemed to mainly involve pulling silly faces at the people in the line facing your own. Everyone who was there had great fun, 25708_swhether or not they joined in themselves. After this, I headed out towards the Town Hall to catch a brief ballet show, but with time to spare, I stopped off at the stage in Chamberlain Square to pick up some dance moves from the mac’s Move Me workshop.

Birmingham Royal Ballet Presents…, it transpired, was less a ballet performance and more an insight into the rehearsal process and how a ballet production is put together, run by Assistant Director Marion Tait, Ballerina Callie Roberts and Pianist Matthew Drury. Callie is currently preparing to play the wicked fairy Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, which will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 8-12th October. Members of the audience were asked to stand in for the King, Queen and Catalabutte, the master-of-ceremonies who forgets to invite Carabosse. It was really fascinating to get a glimpse into this process, to see that even the most 300accomplished of performers have lots to learn before they get up in front of an audience.

After this, I headed back to Centenary Square for the Secret Drama at 2pm, with enough time to catch a little of three different performances. At the Musical PicnicLouis Robinson and Friends finished off a set, while over towards the Paradise Forum, colourfully costumed dancers showed off their moves in the Hooray for Bollywood! show. Meanwhile, The Russians Are Coming…. took place in the new library’s open amphitheatre, featuring fantastic Birmingham Opera Company baritone Byron Jackson performing four songs involving personifications of Death, accompanied by Sergey Rybin on piano.

The Secret Drama was a wordless, energetic, five-minute show, announced by a gong right behind me, which almost made me jump out of my skin! The performance involved fire engine ladders, abseiling, a skateboard, a police car and a giant key. What was it about? Well, it wouldn’t be a secret if I told you now, would it?

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Following this, the CBSO Cello Ensemble assembled at the Musical Picnic stage to perform Notelets, a family-friendly show that got little ones joining in with familiar songs like “Twinkle Twinkle” and the theme tune from In the Night Garden. Simultaneously, Ex Cathedra entered the amphitheatre for a gorgeous rendition of a series of songs inspired by nature, rounded off with an a capella version of “Singin’ in the Rain” – fortunately not actually in the rain. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t find the promised CBSO Wind Ensemble, but there was more than enough to keep me occupied until I went off to queue up for my first Eat! experience.

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Eat! is a series of four intimate, 15-minute dramas, performed inside gutted and redecorated caravans to tiny audiences of 15. Each vignette is based on true stories gathered from interviews and online conversations with local people conducted in advance by the REP. Naturally, the caravans filled up quickly, so to be in with a chance of seeing any of the shows, one had to arrive a good quarter of an hour or so before the start. The first I saw remained my favourite of them all. This was the show I mention above, telling the stories of a fairy tale princess who lived with a wise old man (or an overweight teenager who lived with her grandfather), and a knight in shining armour who became bewitched by a magic potion (or a rich, smart-suited guy who became an alcoholic after being left by his wife).

800x600.fitdownSadly, this was the last thing I got chance to see on Saturday, but I’m told by the good authority that is the Twittersphere that Musical Youth were superb.

Sunday kicked off with a journey to the East through musical storytelling from Michael Loader at the musical picnic stand, enjoyed by children and grown-ups alike. This was followed by Metropolitan Brass, a brass-five piece who played familiar, family-friendly tunes including the themes from The Simpsons, Harry Potter and The Pink Panther.

My second Eat! experience, also in Centenary Square, was much more lively and upbeat than the first. This caravan combined singing, beatboxing and heightened theatricals to run through a series of food-related snapshots, rather than one or two full stories. To fit with the show’s “theatre” theme, the inside was decorated in rich red and gold colours, with heavy curtains surrounded by an ornate arch. I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen to all these beautiful sets now that it’s all over – I hope that the company at least get to extend their tour.

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After this, I aimed for the Victoria Square Eat! show, but failed to make it on time, so I headed over to Oozells Square to check out Clayground Collective‘s giant clay city and the other Eat! show. Before I’d gone very far, however, I encountered a crowd in the middle of the ICC, surrounding a band which turned out to be the energetic and experimental Perhaps Contraption. The volume level in the corridor soon led to a collective decision to take the show outside, and I followed them out to listen to a couple of songs.

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Conscious of time however, I wasn’t able to stick around for too long if I wanted to catch the next caravan perfomance, so I pressed on, arriving with just enough time to listen to a rendition of Jessie J’s “Money” by the Occasional Brass Band just outside the square.

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The Clayground Collective activity was something beautiful to see, with hordes of children gathered round to unleash their creativity. The “war” themed Eat! production was beautiful too, but in a very different, much more poignant way. The show told a haunting wartime tale of suffering, starvation and survival against the odds, inside a caravan kitted-out with seats made of books and walls plastered with printed pages. “There are friends, and there is food,” the story began, “but food is your best friend.” This caravan, too, suggested one possible answer to the question of what would happen to the sets next – it would be lovely to see this bookish set as a permanent installation in or around the new library….

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Back in Centenary Square, the CBSO String Quartet were due to start at the same time – and in the same place, it turned out – as a repeat of the Birmingham Opera Company‘s performance from the day before.  Unable to find the string quartet, I caught a little of the CBSO Cello Ensemble and The Russians Are Coming… before settling down at the musical picnic to listen to Soweto Kinch‘s bizarre blend of jazz and hip hop. Soweto free-styled impressively, using words thrown at him by the audience to go with each of the letter in “music”. The “i” was for “intellectual”, and with all the wit and Latin words being rattled off here, it seemed apt enough. Soweto Kinch will be performing his show, The Legend of Mike Smith at the Birmingham REP from 12-28 September – I’m definitely going to try to catch it there!

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Before seeing the final Eat! production in Victoria Square, there was time at this point to enjoy some impressive circus skills displays from NoFit State, and some soul and motown classics from the Brothers of Soul and Divas of Soul in The Magic of Old Skool Classics.

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The final Eat! show followed a wedding theme, telling the story of a woman who “live[d] to eat“, and describing the food at her weddings to multiple husbands from around the world. Despite her larger-than-life cheeriness, however, there was a subtle, half-hidden sadness in the tale: our protagonist, we learn, is a recovered anorexic, with a secret sense of loss clouding her past.

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Last but not least was Tippa Irie, reggae legend taking over the Simmer Down stage outside the Town Hall. A troop of loyal supporters swarmed round for his set, willing to stick it out even when the heavens opened above them.

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4 Squares Weekender, I think, perfectly represented the West Midlands at it’s best, and perhaps for the first time, I felt truly proud to be a part of it. As Peter Knott, Director of Arts Council England, put it:

“4 Squares Weekender was an iconic opportunity for Birmingham to welcome visitors and locals alike, showing off the world class cultural offer in the City and heralding a new way of working which places the Library at the heart of this community.”

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Suddenly, it seems like a thoroughly exciting time to be in Birmingham and the surrounding area, and I join with Christopher Barron in hoping that “the launch of the new Library, the re-opening of The REP and 4 Squares Weekender are not the end of the story.”

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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