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Canary Wharf: Why Joe Powell-Main is the act to look out for at Dancing City

Weekend dance spectacle returns to the estate as part of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival

Joe Powell-Main will perform with the Royal Ballet at Dancing City
Joe Powell-Main will perform with the Royal Ballet at Dancing City

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Dancing City is back.

One of the regular pillars of the sublime Greenwich + Docklands International Festival (GDIF) will once again take over Canary Wharf for a whole weekend, filling the estate with free shows for all to enjoy. 

Running from 1pm to 6pm on both September 10 and 11, 2022, this year’s outing will see 12 separate companies and artists put on some 22 performances in eight locations. 

Consequently, its 2022 iteration offers the familiar opportunity to both explore the estate on a Saturday and Sunday, while catching some very high quality dance in the process.

While it’s worth aiming to see all of the shows – GDIF has a well deserved reputation for giving a platform to artists of the highest quality – there’s a real buzz around one of this year’s pieces.

Sleepwalker is a collaboration between disabled dancer Joe Powell-Main and the Royal Ballet in a story that has almost as many twists and turns as the choreography.

Born in mid-Wales, Joe began dancing aged five, auditioning for the Royal Ballet School’s junior associate programme, travelling to Birmingham to train every Saturday and going on to perform with the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

“From there, when I was about 10 years old, I auditioned for the Royal Ballet Lower School in Richmond and gained a place there,” said Joe.

“There were dancers competing for a place from all over the world and they only took a dozen girls and boys each year.

“I studied there for about three and a half years, and I was lucky to perform with the Royal Ballet in Nutcracker.”

But then disaster struck – a period of prolonged growth meant Joe developed problems in his left knee that led to surgery and further complications.

Then he was involved in a serious car accident that left him unable to use his left leg, meaning he had to leave the Royal Ballet School.

“That’s when I acquired my disability,” said Joe. “It was a very tough time. Since I was young, I’d poured my heart into dancing.

“My parents had supported me and taken me everywhere. I’d put all my eggs in one basket, and having the rug pulled from under me like that at 14 was not a nice thing.

“What was difficult for me as a child and as a teenager was that I had been very active.

“Then there I was, in a place where I was having difficulty with my physical mobility – it was difficult for me to see what I could do with my life.”

It took some time, but Joe found his way back to dance.

His mother spotted some classes for wheelchair users on a trip to see his ballet teacher sister perform and, although they were in Manchester, the family made things work. 

He spent a few years dancing Latin and ballroom, going on to win competitions before embarking on a performing arts course at college, initially in musical theatre before switching to dance with the encouragement of his teachers.

A degree in dance and performance at the Arden School Of Theatre in Manchester followed during which time he was making efforts to connect with ballet dancers with disabilities on social media.

These endeavours led him to connect with Ballet Cymru in Wales where he first attended a summer school, gained acceptance as an apprentice and joined the main company in 2020.

Joe and Isabel Lubach will perform Sleepwalker four times over two days
Joe and Isabel Lubach will perform Sleepwalker four times over two days

“Because of lockdown, it was a year of waiting, but in 2021 things started opening up and we did some performances of Giselle,” said Joe.

“Then someone reached out to me from the National Lottery to be a part of the ParalympicsGB Homecoming ceremony.

“They also made the decision that it would be cool to reach out to the Royal Ballet, given my connection with them previously and we did a performance last September at Wembley Arena.

“That’s how I became the first dancer in a wheelchair and on crutches to perform with the Royal Ballet and returned to that connection.

“I was asked if I would be interested in doing something for GDIF this year – another collaboration with a company – and luckily the Royal Ballet were really interested in keeping contact going between us and seeing what was possible.”

That has led to Sleepwalker, a piece directed by Royal Ballet principal dancer Alexander Campbell, which explores themes from George Balanchine’s ballet La Sonnambula.

“It’s something people haven’t seen before,” said Joe.

“We started the process of creating the 10-minute piece in March with some research and development. I think there’s a perception, especially with classical ballet that dancers make everything look easy but one of the beauties of this duet is that we’re not afraid of showing the work that’s going on

“I think the audience will have an expectation of what’s coming next, but they really won’t know. Also, because people will be all around us, everyone will view it slightly differently and that’s exciting as well.”

While he acknowledges that his childhood classical training prior to acquiring his disability puts him in an unusual position, Joe hopes his performances and career will serve to inspire companies to embrace greater diversity in the dancers they work with and the programmes they develop, not least so more people can enjoy the benefits of performance.

“While rehearsing, outside of performing, I would classify myself as quite shy,” he said.

“I don’t know what happens but when the music comes on and I’m on stage I gain confidence from somewhere.

“I’m not sure where that comes from, but it’s very enjoyable.

“What’s most important to me is the sound of the music I’m performing to. 

“You can explore the choreography, but when it all comes together, that’s the most exciting thing.

“In front of an audience I’m not the world’s most confident public speaker, but when I’m dancing I can express things through movement – you don’t need words.

“Even if it’s a piece you know well it feels new every time you perform.

“It might be finding something different in the venue or in the movements and I find that really interesting.

“I’ve not been to Canary Wharf before but I’ve seen pictures and I think performing the piece outside will be a big change with people all around us.

“I hope that our audiences for Sleepwalker will have their perceptions of what a classical ballet dancer might look like challenged.

“I also hope they seek out opportunities to see more dancers like me.

“I hope companies will also be more willing to bring disability and classical ballet together – if we can keep an open dialogue, we can tackle anything.” 

  • Sleepwalker will be presented at 1.35pm and 3.55pm on both days of Dancing City at Canary Wharf’s Columbus Courtyard.

DELIVERING THE FESTIVAL

GDIF artistic director Bradley Hemmings
GDIF artistic director Bradley Hemmings

“As always, for Dancing City, we like to make a virtue of the stunning outdoor spaces, piazzas and waterfronts which characterise Canary Wharf,” said GDIF artistic director Bradley Hemmings.

“We’ll be down at Jubilee Plaza, Westferry Circus and Wren Landing, but we’re also trying to explore more spaces on the estate than we have in the past so there will be events at Crossrail Place and at Harbour Quay Gardens at Wood Wharf. 

“It’s an event where you can imagine you’re in a European city with all the squares and open spaces – that’s the spirit of it.

“We all know Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, with their wonderful street cultures and that’s what this part of the festival does for east London.

“This year we have a range of fantastic shows on offer including Migrare by Cia Maduixa, which is presented entirely on stilts as four migrant women fight for a new place to call home.

“Then there’s Four Seasons at Westferry Circus by James Wilton Dance with capoeira, acrobatics, martial arts and classical dance all set to music by Vivaldi.

“There’s new work from the hip hop company AndroidX + MHz called Crowd_Ctrl.

“This integrates movement with a projection screen behind, which will be like watching a choreographed graphic novel at Jubilee Plaza.

“That’s a London premiere. And there are so many other things besides.

“We’re so pleased to be supported by Canary Wharf to fill the estate with companies from the UK and overseas again for 2022.”

Read more: Greenwich+Docklands International Festival is back for 2022

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Greenwich: How GDIF is set to fill east and south-east London with performances

The 2022 edition of the Greenwich And Docklands International Festival runs from Aug 26-Sept 11

GDIF will feature Charon, a zoetrope-like installation

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“We’re opening this year with a truly amazing event – Spark – the creation of a Dutch artist called Daan Roosegaarde, it’s a complete reimagining of what an environmentally sustainable public celebration might look like,” said Bradley Hemmings, artistic director and founder of the Greenwich And Docklands International Festival (GDIF).

“He’s taken inspiration from fireflies to create this wondrous moment, that audiences will see lying on their backs on the grass in front of the Queen’s House.

“They will be surrounded by myriad moving sparks in the sky – something very beautiful and very much echoing the magic of the natural world.

Sat in Festival.org’s offices at the Old Royal Naval College, Bradley’s obvious enthusiasm for GDIF is undimmed as he looks ahead to overseeing its 27th iteration. 

Taking place across an ever-evolving spread of locations in east and south-east London from August 26 to September 11, 2022, it promises 18 days of free arts performances selected to astonish, amaze, delight, amuse and challenge those attending.

“As always, this year’s GDIF is going to be characterised by a whole range of extraordinary and spectacular events, as well as performances taking place at a more local level,” said Bradley.

“The last two years have been difficult for everyone – certainly in mapping out, understanding and planning how things might transpire.

“We were incredibly fortunate to be able to deliver two festivals with a strong sense of confidence, so we’re incredibly proud of that.

“This year we’re in different territory, with new challenges and new contexts. We’ve always been a free festival and that’s something people can make the most of as we’re in the middle of a cost of living crisis.

“It does put into sharp relief the power of a festival like GDIF – it is there for everyone, accessible, and we try to go the extra mile to make sure we attract people who might otherwise not attend the arts.

“For 2022, we’re going out to new sites, like Rathbone Market in Canning Town, Avery Hill Park in Greenwich as well as Thamesmead near Abbey Wood and Deptford, to bring performances to different areas.

“That’s one of the challenges of going outdoors, because for each site we have to create the theatre as there’s nothing on the ground.

“Of course there are venues we work at every year – Greenwich town centre for Greenwich Fair on August 27, for example, but actually discovering new sites and venues, as well as returning to places after a period away, is what keeps GDIF fresh and audiences awake and excited by what we’re doing.

GDIF founder and artistic director Bradley Hemmings

“For example, it’s great to be working with Tower Hamlets again  – we have a wonderful audio piece at Island Gardens called Final Farewell, that takes people on a journey through the streets and parks of the Isle Of Dogs.

“Then we also have a new production from Air Giants called Unfurl over in Bethnal Green Gardens, which features ingenious, soft robotic technology – people will walk in a garden of giant inflatables that come in a whole range of different colours and react to the public passing by.”

The problem when writing a preview piece about GDIF is the sheer depth and number of the performances it offers. 

With limited space, it’s hard to convey the often surprising blend of art, acrobatics, dance, circus, theatre and spectacle the festival offers – soaking the locations it touches in the unexpected to create memories that still echo many years after. 

In previous years I’ve watched an acrobat tussle with a huge robotic arm, seen a whole band swing on a giant chandelier suspended from a crane high above dancers in an imaginary ballroom and been charmed by two performers being silly with a stack of buckets.

Bradley is, understandably, at pains to select highlights given the embarrassment of riches on offer – a reflection perhaps of the fact that all the performances have the potential to be affecting in their different ways.

“We care deeply about all the events, although one of the things we’ve done is continue to work very closely with Flanders House in London and this year we’re focusing on Flemish circus,” he said. 

“There’s an amazing performance as part of GDIF 2022 called Follow Me, by a company called Be Flat, which will take people on a completely wondrous tour of a part of Thamesmead using acrobatics, Parkour and ingenious staging to draw the audience in. 

“They are incredibly skilled performers who will leave amazing images in people’s minds after it’s gone.”

The best thing to do, of course, is just see as many performances as possible and decide for yourself.

DIARY DATES

While there are far too many performances to list over the 18 days GDIF runs in east and south-east London, here are a few highlights that demand a place in the diary

Island Of Foam is set for Greenwich Peninsula
Island Of Foam is set for Greenwich Peninsula

Sept 3-4, 6pm, freeGreenwich Peninsula

Artist Stephanie Lüning will use mountains of rainbow-coloured foam to transform Greenwich Peninsula.

Bradley said: “This is a UK premiere, a very exciting, unpredictable event with a huge outpouring of foam as Stephanie controls the palette and how the colours behave.”

Charon will be at Limmo Peninsula

Sept 1-10, 8pm, freeLimmo Peninsula, Royal Docks

Originally created for the Burning Man festival, Peter Hudson’s kinetic installation is a 32ft-high zoetrope powered by volunteers.

Bradley said: “Audiences arrive at the artwork having gone on an immersive sound journey. This is an extraordinary piece sited right beside the River Lea with the figures appearing to move.”

Peaceophobia will take place in Stratford
Peaceophobia will take place in Stratford

Sept 7-10, times vary, £10 Here East, QEOP Multi-storey car park

This unapologetic response to rising Islamophobia uses verbatim speech from members of modified car clubs.

Bradley said: “This play by Zia Ahmed casts real people using their own words as they tell their stories, all while stripping down a car and putting it back together again.”

Discover Ukraine: Bits Destroyed will be at the Old Royal Naval College
Discover Ukraine: Bits Destroyed will be at the Old Royal Naval College

Aug 26-29, times vary, freeOld Royal Naval College

This work sees mosaics destroyed in the Russian invasion of Ukraine projected onto the buildings of the Old Royal Naval College.

Bradley said: “This is a project that really speaks to the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage since the February invasion, and shares with us this remarkable tradition of mosaic-making.”

Read more: Go for a dip in the dock in Canary Wharf

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
Subscribe To Wharf Life