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FEATURE: Leeds raises the bar on the 2023 bid for European Capital of Culture

ByNigel Stone, Alistair Brown and Rich Jevons

There’s a buzz about Leeds at the moment. The city previews its International Film Festival on the same night as Leeds Light Night and there’s a certain bid for 2023 at the back of a lot of minds right now; and therein lies a problem. A European Capital of Culture needs to have the stuff dripping from every rooftop, down to every paving stone, every single day and night. Squeezing the lot into place for a few hours gives us a golden glimpse of what is attainable when the city works together.

There are many gems to be found on Light Night; the only problem is, there is not enough time to explore the city and find them all. But Freedom Writers Group are out in force to solve this culture vulture’s dilemma. From 17th Century music in Mill Hill Unitarian Church, to a projection of our sun on a silken backdrop in Leeds Cathedral, there are moments of sublime humanity; where art, religion, science and culture meet by moonlight.

Meanwhile, just off the Headrow, the Leeds Love Arts Festival is exhibiting work by a number of artists. And out there, on the outskirts of the city, there’s a thriving cultural community, creating and collaborating. If you allow these creators to take over how the city of Leeds looks, sounds, smells, tastes and feels, then you might find yourself living in a European Capital of Culture.

There was a huge turnout for the 29th Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF) launch, and the crowds were greeted with the welcome news that the Festival Guide has reverted to its old, category-based format (last year’s experimentation with pure alphabetisation deemed a failure). The trailer reel that followed was varied and intriguing.

Festival-opener Brooklyn (adapted by Nick Hornby from the ‘Colm Tóibín’ novel) looks promising; however Tangerine, which tells the story of two L.A. trans sex workers out for revenge, provides the most striking two minutes. Single-take heist-movie Victoria and French love triangle flick All About Them also comes across as smart and energetic. Danish sanatorium-set weird-fest, Men And Chicken, raises the most laughs, but the LIFF organisers undying (undead?) love of zany comedy-horror means such films must always be approached with caution.

Quarry Hill looks like one of the most promising areas to explore, with popular events at Northern Ballet, and the Playhouse’s performance of The Looking Glass. The Leeds College of Music (LCM) jazz fusion trio is playing in the middle of a closed-off St. Peter’s Square, while round the corner to The Gallery at Munro House is a book launch for photographer Sara Teresa’s Wallflower. Teresa’s pictures start with a self-portrait, in which her body merges with patterned wallpaper – a response to feeling “frustrated and unseen”. The rest of the pictures are more celebratory, with subjects encouraged to be introspective and consider what makes their bodies (and themselves in general) unique. In keeping with this theme, visitors are asked to write advice to their younger selves on post-it notes and stick them to the wall. The exhibition is a powerful rejection of the gnawing self-criticism that is a side-effect of the depression and anxiety familiar to so many, and a life-affirming break from its vice-like grip.

The East Street Arts team are showing people around their new project: an Arts Hostel on Kirkgate, which will provide suitable accommodation for out-of-town artists and art lovers when they visit Leeds. The hostel, in the old Birds Yard building, is half finished but impressive, featuring a basement gallery space and several (as yet unfurnished) dorm and double rooms. Perhaps the most striking room is the second-floor dorm, which has a wonderful close-up view of the adjoining railway tracks. The rooms will eventually be decorated by artists and other associates of East Street Arts and this unique hostel aims to be open by early November.

Meanwhile at the Holy Trinity Church, Philip Watts’ Subculture combines a giant floor-projected image from a microscope with sounds derived from the movement within that image. The effect created is powerful and hallucinogenic, eliciting uneasy empathy for microscopic organisms.

Back at Quarry Hill is a trumpet trio of an unusual kind. One was standing in the middle of the street (St. Peter’s Square again), one in a doorway about 30 metres away, and another on a fifth-story balcony of the LCM. Their improvised, overlapping sound is something between free-jazz and a messed-up interpretation of the Last Post. It is unpredictable, sensual and compelling; in a way that few musical performances ever are, uniting the whole street in a kind of stunned reverie.

At the Carriageworks Theatre, the auditorium is full to brimming with an enthusiastic audience. They have come to see James Rosental’s choreographic debut Life Line (pictured). This is a short but visceral and intense piece that uses acrobatic aerial dance to reveal a ‘forbidden world’. The narrative quest is the very will to live, with only two trapeze ropes hanging for the seven female dancers to hold on to. The atmosphere is intensified by a smoke machine with the benefit of dramatically effective lighting. The musical score also adds to the immersive and innovatory dance action.

The performance is quite scary at times, with aerial twists and swings almost collision-bound. Great use is made of the two blonde-haired women as their golden locks catch the light as they dangle bat-like upside down with incredible stamina, poise and prowess, no mean physical feat. Ironically, given this is a Light Night performance, Rosental’s real interest is in the darkness and shadows and in these we find the work’s real depth of meaning. Frequently beautiful and breath-taking as well as being aesthetically assured and sensitive, this is a piece of great promise.

This emphasis on shadows and what is unseen is the driving force behind Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD) graduate Barnaby Booth’s How to Read a Dark Screen. The concept is simple, a single torch is the only source of light for most of the piece, and there are moments of total darkness. This emphasises the dancers’ movements which range from vibrant pulsing chaotic shakes to rather graceful balletic moments. The lighting really comes into its own when the light shines ‘through’ the performer, with laser-like strips of light seeming to emanate from them and cascading in subtle shifts and nuances across the stage.

There are also sequences when the torchlight follows the dancers more naturalistically as if to prove that Booth can choreograph in a more traditional way, as well as making innovative experiments. This powerful, haunting piece received a warm welcome from the Light Night audience, and quite a contrast to the brightly-lit marshmallow men in the nearby Millennium Square.

Image: Contributed

About The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East
The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.