Wayne McGregor from Random Dance, Friday and Saturday at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast It’s almost half-a-century since an enterprising young Queen’s University student named Michael Emmerson decided that Belfast should have some form of annual cultural event.
And had the bold young impresario not succeeded in lobbying the university for a few quid, well, we might never have had almost fifty years of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
Now, there’s a thought!
In that time the festival has grown and developed quite a bit. The two or three anchor events of the past — visits from the Royal Shakespeare Company; Michael Palin’s canter around the Arts Theatre; the Guinness Spot — are now just happy memories. In their place is a programme featuring 100 events in 36 venues across the city.
That’s 100 events in two weeks, at least seven different events to choose from every day, people!
Those visiting this year include a singer who recently performed at a charity concert, and had to make an emergency dash to buy herself a pair of pants; another who’s booked a front seat at the rugby World Cup final in New Zealand; a veteran performer whose stage show includes a groovy go-go booth, and someone who sips gin from a teacup and saucer while wooing the folks.
There’ll be a full disclosure about the above in the Diary over the coming days, and we’ll have to wait and see whether they come up trumps in Belfast. But it’s rare for a festival to go by without something to chat about at the imaginary water-cooler where we all hang out.
In the past, box office draws like Hendrix, Olivier, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Connolly have pulled in the crowds. This year, the names in lights include Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Elvis Costello, Bianca Jagger and KT Tunstall.
Among the plays on offer will be hard-hitting drama Danny And The Deep Blue Sea.
There are performers from Cuba; Lithuania; Canada; Nicaragua; Germany; Poland; America; New Zealand; Denmark; Finland; Libya, France... you can get around the world in less than a quarter of the time it took Phileas Fogg, without ever having to leave the ground.
While there are many new faces appearing on stages around the city, one of the familiar sights at Festival — the thin, shadowy figure of Festival director Graeme Farrow standing in the wings — will be missing this year.
He’s swapped his Belfast office for one in Londonderry, where he’ll be responsible for planning events for the UK City of Culture celebrations in 2013. Graeme’s handed the festival reins over to Mark Prescott, who arrived here via Boris Johnson’s mayoral office in London, where he was head of cultural campaigns.
So this year’s programme will stand as Graeme’s legacy — and it’s not a bad farewell at all.
The 2011 Opening Concert tonight celebrates our relationship with the Americas. Conductor JoAnn Falletta conducts some American masterpieces — including Bernstein’s On The Town, Copland’s Mexican Dance and Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue — all performed by Joanna Mac Gregor.
And there may even be a touch of Gershwin in the closing concert, too, when Dame Kiri Te Kanawa takes the stage at the Ulster Hall alongside the Ulster Orchestra and Northern Ireland Opera.
There’s also plenty of dance-based works about, too — the highlight of which is a performance from Cuban superstar Carlos Acosta. He’s making his first visit to Ireland and his show is one of several must-see events coming up.
Over the next two weeks, Diary will be bringing you the very best of what’s on at Festival, as well as a flavour of what’s going on behind the scenes — which are the hottest tickets in town, and where the performers go to unwind after their shows.
Tickets for the Belfast Festival are available from www.belfastfestival.com or tel: 028 9097 1197