Birmingham International Dance Festival (BIDF) returns this month with a packed digital programme of more than 70 events.

Postponed in June 2020 due to the pandemic, the 2021 festival features globally renowned artists including Akram Khan Company, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

This edition (3 to13 of June) of the programme will be followed by an autumn festival (21 September to 3 October) featuring a series of live events in Birmingham.

Postponing the biennial festival last spring was a heart-breaking decision but there was never any doubt it would be back as soon as practically possible, says festival curator and DanceXchange head of artistic programmes, Lucie Mirkova.

“We always thought of 2020 as a postponed festival and wanted to bring it back as soon as we could. It’s an important part of the cultural life of Birmingham and we felt the responsibility to play an active part of the cultural recovery in our city and our region. So very shortly after the end of the first lockdown last autumn we started to think about what the 2021 version might look like.”

Launched in 2008 and produced by DanceXchange, BIDF has grown to become one of the UK’s largest dance festivals, with artists from across the world coming to perform in the city’s venues and outdoor spaces. But for 2021, the team have had to create a festival of a different kind.

Responding to the fluid pandemic situation, the decision was made to separate the festival into two halves with the spring festival being solely online and viewable through a new digital platform BIDF TV, created in collaboration with ZOO Venues, which pioneered online presentations at last year’s Edinburgh Festival.

“June is when we usually hold the festival, so we wanted to do something at this time. Keeping this date in the cultural calendar was important to us but it felt too early to be planning the kind of outdoor works we usually hold,” says Lucie. “But we didn’t want to lose the live part of the festival, outdoor work and live engagement with our audiences is so important, which is why we are planning for a live programme in the autumn.

“Even before the pandemic, it was very clear to us that digital would become an integral part of the festival. And then, with lockdown, there was such an incredible outpouring of creativity in this medium that we saw a real opportunity to develop and invest in artists wanting to push their practice in this field of work while at the same time supporting the sector in its recovery.

“What this new work brings to the festival and the artists is incredible, as the online space means their work can be seen all over the world by as wide an audience as possible, which is such a positive development.”

In line with the aim of encouraging wider audiences, organisers have ensured that most of the digital events are free.

“We have some really exciting content and want to show it to the world,” says Lucie. “We want this to be a celebration available to the widest public possible because it’s really important for the recovery of the arts and giving the artists a place for their creativity.

“A lot of the artists like the idea of presenting their digital work without charge so that it can be seen as widely as possible. For example, when we spoke to Akram Khan Company about their show Chotto Xenos they were really keen to connect with the dance community and didn’t see a digital production as competition for their live work.”

Creating an online festival posed lots of new questions for the team who curate BIDF.

“We have thought a lot about, for example, what is the right length of the pieces for the digital space and how long they should stay available - we were asking ourselves, is it one-off, does it stay on demand, how long does it stay on demand?. We also had lots of discussions about giving the audience the space to explore the on-demand programme on their own and at their own pace alongside some livestreams which are at a set time and one special occasion.

“So BIDF offers a range of experiences for people to pick and choose. It’s not just about sitting and watching a screen for hours on end. For example, the children’s shows Sunny Days and Insect Hands have activities which you can do outdoors after you have watched it online.”

It has taken months of planning, including plenty of revisions along the way, but the festival organisers are looking forward to finally sharing the performances, workshops and discussions with audiences.

“Now that it has all come together and we can see the whole programme it’s very exciting,” says Lucie. “We’ve been creating BIDF now for many years but never before just for an online space so there has been a lot of learning for the whole team.

“But now is the perfect time. There is a real sense of re-opening and being excited about the arts again and about the very vibrant experience of a festival. It is about audiences being engaged in the arts and experiencing the great variety of films and stories by artists from all over the world. They can also participate in some of the engaging workshops. It’s about bringing the excitement back of us all being in the same space to see and do dance together.”

With so many shows to choose from, Lucie is hard-pressed to pick individual highlights but is keen for audiences to try different elements of the festival.

“I am particularly excited about the livestreams because that’s something we have never done before,” she says. “One of the artists we are presenting in this way is Jamaal Burkmar and his show Jukebox. It was supposed to be presented live so many times in the 2020 programme so, when we couldn’t do that, we worked with him to look at how this show could still be presented but through an online space, with a livestream from Birmingham to the world including Jamaal working with singer-songwriter Mahalia, who will be live with her band providing a live dialogue between the music and the choreography.”

As well as livestream shows, the team have also put together a series of pre-recorded dance films including Akram Khan Company’s Chotto Xenos and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s new short film The Burning Building by Javier De Frutos and the exciting new City of a Thousand Trades by choreographer Miguel Altunaga.

“It has been incredible working on the screendance part of the festival,” Lucie says. “We are working with many international artists who are bringing important stories and perspectives. We have been able to present artists from Canada, Mali, Australia, China and so many other countries and the mixture of these pieces being in dialogue in one space is so interesting.”

For one of their Screendance series, BIDF partnered with one of Birmingham’s leading film festivals Flatpack to curate two sets of dance short films, one being presented at Flatpack and one at BIDF. The programme includes work from artists around the globe with countries as diverse as Iran, France, Canada, the UK, Norway and China. BIDF has also supported this collaboration with a Screendance Award that will be announced shortly.  The festival also commissioned work closer to home with the Midlands Made New series featuring pieces by artists with connections to the Midlands including Brooke Milliner, Romy Ashmore-Hills, Tyrone Williams, Devon Nelson and Jason Guest with Fatt Butcher.

“This has been really special because we have been on the journey with the artists from the beginning,” says Lucie. “From them proposing then developing their ideas to being engaged with the production company and taking that forward has been an incredible journey.”

Some of the works featured in BIDF already existed as stage versions or concepts and the festival has worked with the artists to create new versions for online audiences.

“We explored how we could work with artists to present their existing portfolio of work for online spaces,” explains Lucie. “So with Akram Khan Company and Chotto Xenos, we originally wanted to present the show live but it was so difficult with not knowing when we will be able to return to the theatre, so instead we said all right, let’s make a film instead. This new commission is made especially for the screen, not a recording of a stage performance, and will be premiered on 11 June, promising to be a real highlight.

“And artists have been doing really clever and interesting things for the online space which we were keen to include such as Ann Van de Broek’s Memory Loss Inside. At the beginning of lockdown, she filmed her existing stage work, with the camera being the observer on the stage and the performers following it around.”

Now BIDF has pushed the frontiers in terms of its digital programming, Lucie believes the festival will continue to develop its online offer.

“I think digital will remain as an integral part and will be developed for future festivals,” she says. “It has so many advantages and opportunities that we will look to commission and programme artists for digital work in the future. But we also need to ensure we blend it with the hugely popular outdoors and indoors programme. Going forward we should be able to blend them both to ensure festivals which are accessible to as many people as possible.”

BIDF is produced by DanceXchange and supported by Arts Council England, Birmingham City Council and Dance Hub Birmingham. Click HERE for full programme details.

Interview by Diane Parkes