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Bradley Hemmings: Outdoor arts have become the fabric of our lives

With this year's Greenwich and Docklands International Festival approaching, the festival's artistic director looks at the recent renaissance in outdoor work

Ignite! will be performing Sat 2 July at Royal Arsenal & Woolwich Town Centre

This year, Greenwich Docklands International Festival, (or GDIF as our audiences now know us) passes a landmark, as we're celebrating our 21st birthday.

We've seen massive transformations over those two decades, particularly in the way in which the appreciation of outdoor arts and the European style enjoyment of outdoor spaces has become part of the fabric of our lives. The festival has been very much part of this story.

The opening night of the very first GDIF back in 1996 blazed a trail for the soon to be completed DLR extension under the Thames, by presenting a cross river event in Cutty Sark Gardens and Island Gardens. In the following year, the last Commander of the Royal Naval College, the late and much missed, Jonathan Maughan, gave permission for us to open the gates at the RNC to an outdoor dance programme from Barcelona, which saw audiences amazed as they wandered into the stunning Queen Mary and King William courtyards which had been shut off to the public for three hundred years.

In our early days, an annual youth arts apprenticeship scheme called Gallery 37 took over Dial Arch Square in the Royal Arsenal offering 100 young people paid summer jobs in the arts. Then there was Take Me To The River, which took audiences by boat from the Painted Hall in Greenwich via Canary Wharf to the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre. And of course, who could forget the very first sighting of Compagnie Off's crimson giraffes, crossing the Green Bridge at Mile End Park or more recently, the experience of encountering Rara Woulib's cast of Haitian ghosts and musicians dancing across the Halfpenny Hatch across Deptford Creek?

In mijn hoofd (In My Head) Beeldend Danstheater Telder will be part of Dancing City in Canary Wharf
©Hans van den Bos

The wider story of outdoor arts over the last twenty years has certainly been a fascinating one, which owes much to artists and companies from even further back, who prepared the ground with their pioneering work. There was of course John Fox and the astonishing large scale work created by Welfare State; Hilary Westlake, who with Lumiere and Son, created innovative and thought provoking outdoor productions, sometimes with casts of hundreds; the unforgettable musical and environmental interventions created Bow Gamelan Ensemble, who I remember seeing unleash gallons of foam onto Three Mills Green one year; and then there was Moti Roti, who flew giant costumes over Paddington Basin as part of the LIFT festival back in the early 1990's.

The inspiration of these companies are very much still with us in 2016 and thanks to support from the Arts Council, there has been something of a renaissance in outdoor work in recent years. Whilst everyone relishes the quality and ambition of international companies (think feathers in Piccadilly Circus and an elephant in the mall), there's an ever increasing body of exciting British outdoor artists creating wonderful productions at various scales. Many companies are now achieving recognition and success; touring not only in the UK but internationally. Earlier this year, I saw Tilted Productions', eloquent and elegiac production of Belonging(s) at Brighton Festival, which used the simplest and most beautiful of scenic ideas (cardboard and vinyl) to devastating effect – the production has been co-produced and is also touring in France. Wired Aerial Theatre has also been one of the success stories of British outdoor theatre, with their production As the World Tipped which not only continues to tour successfully in this country, but has become hugely in demand across the world.

The Clash of Drums by Les Commandos Percu & Deabru Beltzak Royal Artillery Barracks, Woolwich Sat 2 July 2016 at 10pm
© Steven Green

But there are lots of artists and companies who deserve to be better known and one of the things that I most love about GDIF is our annual Greenwich Fair event, which this year takes place on 25 and 26 June. Here we present a wide range of small and medium scale shows across Greenwich Town Centre: it's a chance to really dive into a whole feast of the latest UK and international outdoor arts productions on a single weekend. Constructed as a festival within a festival, it brings together not only the companies who are appearing in the programme, but also a gathering of the wider outdoor arts world, who come along to network, pitch their ideas and enjoy a drink in the convivial setting or Royal Maritime Greenwich.

This year it will also be our 21st birthday party so why not come along and celebrate; not just the miracle of surviving for 21 years as a free outdoor festival but also to savour the very best of free outdoor theatre.

By Bradley Hemmings, artistic director of the GDIF

Greenwich and Docklands International Festival runs from 24 June to 2 July.

Click here for more information on the festival