Taking off: Belfast Festival shows signs of a revival
A lack of continuity at the top has hurt the festival in recent years, but new man Richard Wakely has made a good start
In ‘Victor’, are these two beautiful people father and son? Is their relationship sweet and tender – or something else entirely?
Sol Picó performing ‘Memories d’una Puça’ at the Mac in Belfast. Photograph: Paul McErlane
It comes as something of a surprise, when walking along Hamilton Dock in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, to encounter a ploughed field, its furrows stretching into the distance in perfect parallel lines. On closer inspection, it seems as though the furrows subtly change colour at random intervals.
Surely, from the vantage point of the Titanic Belfast building’s top floor, all will be explained? Peering downwards, a couple of oddly shaped patches of purple, green and white emerge, which look a little like eyes. And they are. But it is only from the air that the full impact of Wish, Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada’s amazing land-art portrait of a child’s face, can be seen.
Images of this one-off creation by the festival’s Cuban-American artist-in- residence have been made available in online video footage and aerial photographs. Nevertheless, it seems a pity, given the input from local volunteers and community groups, that the reveal of this vast visual spectacle, comprising 30,000 pegs, 2,000 tonnes of sand and spread over 11 acres, is more accessible to passengers flying into Belfast City Airport than to the general public.
The unveiling of Wish signals the start of an event that used to be widely regarded as being second only to the Edinburgh Festival in scale and artistic significance. More recently, it seems to have lost its way. This year’s truncated, 10-day programme was put in place in a six-month period by new director Richard Wakely, a native of Belfast and a graduate of Queen’s University. A festival is only as good as the vision of its director and, in this case, continuity has not been the name of the game.
In the summer of 2011, after a successful five-year tenure, Graeme Farrow was appointed executive programmer for Derry UK City of Culture 2013. He was replaced by Mark Prescott, a former leading light in London lord mayor Boris Johnson’s cultural team. But a few short months later, Prescott hightailed it back to England, leaving Shan McAnena, curator of Queen’s University’s Naughton Gallery, to step in as acting director, responsible for pulling together last year’s landmark 50th event.
Now, the mantle has passed to the highly experienced Wakely, a former managing director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. And if his sincerely expressed enthusiasm and ambition for the job are anything to go by, he might just turn out to be the man who can reignite Belfast’s faltering love affair with its festival.
He has made a promising start. The keenly anticipated weekend of international dance has lived up to expectations, as expressed in a lively panel discussion, Europe Moves at The Mac, on Saturday afternoon.
What a thrill to see on stage later in the day the great dancer and choreographer Sol Picó, whose company, based in Barcelona, delivered an intense, visceral response to the economic chaos besetting Spain.