London's Barbican Centre has launched the expanded programme for the first BITE (Barbican International Theatre Event) festival of its post-RSC life. Celebrating its fifth anniversary, the annual event, normally lasting six months, will now be programmed year-round to fill the scheduling hole left by the Royal Shakespeare Company, who withdrew for good on 11 May 2002.

The BITE programme confirmed to date, booking up to the end of December 2002, boasts no fewer than 13 premieres - nine UK premieres, three European premieres and one world premiere from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company - from a diverse collection of companies hailing from around the globe, including Australia, South Africa, Thailand, China, Russia, Taiwan, the US and Europe as well as the UK. BITE:02 also marks a substantial development for the Barbican as a producer as well as a presenter of new work: the current schedule includes three co-commissions while another 11 joint projects are already underway for future seasons.

Despite the positive positioning, Barbican artistic director Graham Sheffield didn't miss the opportunity at yesterday's BITE launch to take a swipe at the RSC and its outgoing artistic director Adrian Noble. "I regret the departure of the RSC," Sheffield said. "I regret the manner of their going as well as the fact of their going. My principal regret is that those who should have been able to see could not see the potential of a genuine partnership between a great world arts centre and the world's leading repertory Shakespeare company. A potential powerhouse combination both financially and artistically - on two stages, remember, that were designed for the RSC and to RSC specification!"

Sheffield also poured scorn on the Arts Council on England (ACE), which funds the RSC, for its part in the "past year's sorry spectacle". ACE, he said, had "miserably failed to exercise either responsibility or common sense throughout the entire process."

Such obvious bad feeling with past partners apparently doesn't diminish Sheffield's enthusiasm for the new BITE programme, which, he noted, is "generously funded by money surrendered by the RSC" (the company is paying the Barbican an estimated £1.3 million over the next three years for terminating its lease five years early).

Slightly delayed because of essential maintenance work, the BITE:02 season will open in The Pit on 3 July 2002 with a performance of William Yang's Blood Links, while the main house Barbican Theatre will see its first night on 10 September 2002, with the world premiere of a new programme from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, one of the Barbican's co-commissions.

Other BITE programme highlights include: the UK premiere of Betty Nansen Theatre's Woyzeck, set to music and lyrics by rocker Tom Waits; Galileo Galilei, an opera by Philip Glass; The Threepenny Ring, a collaboration with the English National Opera; and extended London runs for Ridiculusmus Say Nothing (previously seen at the Battersea Arts Centre) and The Generating Company's Storm (seen at Circus Space last month).

BITE began in response to the RSC's partial withdrawal from the Barbican complex in 1997, when the company reduced its long-standing annual residency there to only the six winter months of the year. Now that the RSC is making good on a full - if controversial - departure from the Barbican in favour of one-off West End seasons, the Barbican has vowed to become the principal presenter of international theatre in the UK. To date, BITE has played host to nearly 70 companies from 23 countries.

- by Terri Paddock