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Belfast Festival: Ten days of events that pushed the boundaries

By Grania McFadden

So that's it for another year. Belfast's 10-day long party has come to an end. Performers from more than 24 different countries have packed up and headed home. Festival staged more than 70 shows – many of them performed for the first time on this island.

We've been entertained, educated, informed and amused. We've heard stories from these shores and beyond. We've swayed and sung along to music from America, Portugal, Copenhagen and Brazil; watched performers from Belfast to Bosnia and heard talks about mathematics, resistance, torture and civil rights.

We've been to shows in a church and a monastery; climbed to the top of tall buildings to view an enormous artwork and gathered at the Titanic Quarter to discover the key to happiness. Some of us found it at the circus.

It was smaller than previous years – but the threads running through it all were carefully planned by festival director Richard Wakeley. Themes of identity; responsibility, politics and power were everywhere, from the Shankill community's celebration of its history to the experiences of Muslim women in Ireland, Guardian journalist Ian Cobain's talk on Britain's secret use of torture or Pending Vote's exploration of what happens when people really do have the power for change.

This year saw a welcome return of the Festival Music Club. Elmwood Hall hosted performers as diverse as blues legend Eric Bibb and Portuguese fado singer Carminho, American indie group Hem and Irish band Dervish.

Welcome, too, was the dance weekend at the MAC – dance is too often the artworld's poor relation here, and shows like Memories d'una Puca and Viktor entranced those longing for a more international flavour.

Festival secured a big hitter for the opening – fans of tenor Jose Carrera filled the Waterfront Hall. It finished on another high note – with Strauss' Swan Songs sung by soprano Katherine Broderick.

So how was the 51st Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's for you?

Some people felt there weren't enough populist events. Others noted the absence of comedy shows and household names. Still others wanted more local productions. But comedians come and go throughout the year and Belfast's jazz scene is buzzing. We can see our local performers at other times – although festival did reserve a slot for the best on offer.

Richard Wakeley and his team managed to come up with an interesting, varied programme that encouraged us to step out of our comfort zones; to look beyond the usual for something we might never see again. And to force us to ask questions about who we are, how we live and what we want.

That, for me, is what a good festival is all about.

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