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Freddie Opoku-Addaie - Dance Umbrella Interview

Dance Umbrella are once again celebrating movement and dance with their annual festival returning to London for 2023. 

Running since 1978, the festival ignites London and online with the next generation of trailblazing artists. The festival been an international home for dance across a global city, presenting more than 1,000 artists from 45 countries to over one million people. It has brought outstanding dance to more than 145 venues throughout London; from the high-profile stages of Sadler’s Wells, Southbank Centre and Barbican to local arts centres – and taking in the more unexpected locations of canal boats, ice rinks and carpark rooftops in between.

Since 2020, the festival has also given online audiences the chance to experience the festival through a curated programme including dance films and artist encounters.

Appointed in 2021, Dance Umbrella’s new Artistic Director/CEO Freddie Opoku-Addaie‘s vision for the festival builds on its 45-year track record of commissioning and producing excellent work. This new chapter introduces a programme that puts emerging and diverse talent at its heart, reflecting the global identity of our London home.
Dance Umbrella Festival 2023 takes place 6-31 October, across London and online.

In this syndicated interview artistic director/CEO Freddie discusses his career and the festival. 

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you became involved in dance?
East London born, of Ghanaian heritage, and partly raised in Ghana Kumasi from the ages of 4-10 before returning to East London. At secondary school, I had a brilliant drama teacher who made the performing arts more relatable and sparked my initial interest. I eventually decided to study performing arts at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVic), where I also had incredible teachers. The college partnered on projects with East London Dance, where I had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of national and international based choreographers. I then trained at London Contemporary Dance School at The Place before becoming an apprentice for Company Wayne McGregor. Subsequently, I worked as a freelance performer with Candoco Dance Company, the late Rashpal Singh Bansal, Athina Vahlia, Clod Ensemble, Jorge Crecis and Hetain Patel amongst others. My work has been commissioned by the Barbican Centre, Southbank Centre and to date I’m the only twice Place Prize Finalist choreographer/performer.

Can you tell us a bit about your job as Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Dance Umbrella?
My role in a nutshell involves delivering captivating artistic content with the utmost creative and strategic means with our Executive Director to make this happen with the DU team.
I also think my role fundamentally is to widen the discourse of artists and to support those whose choreographic lens have not been in the conversation before and therefore to widen the canon of dance. At the heart of DU, we’re introducing new artists and motioning on the same level playing field under the umbrella of dance choreography.
Photo by Miguel Altunaga Jr.

Dance Umbrella is now in its 45th year. What is it about DU that continues to captivate audiences in London and beyond?
We're really looking to platform artists who are not on the radar of the establishment and audiences. Dance Umbrella is about celebrating and championing those who shift the canon of dance choreography. We bring an inquisitive approach to who else should be in the conversation.

We’re also working more widely across London than ever before. We're not just in zones one and two of the city. We extend to outer London boroughs too with an all year round creative learning programme. As a hybrid festival now, we have a global reach and international outlook.
How would you say the festival is evolving under your artistic directorship?
One definite aim is for dance, in its widest sense, to be represented. We’re shifting the movement canon beyond the Western canon and giving space and acknowledgement to a variety of styles. Within the establishment, we now see many artists drawing on movement styles outside of the Western movement canon, from capoeira and voguing to hip hop styles and traditional folk dances, yet they don’t necessarily give a nod to its origins. It’s important to acknowledge these styles in the same way we acknowledge the influence of the classical form on contemporary dance. We are opening space to that discourse while also introducing artists and working with partner venues knowing  that some of these will become the establishment staple in the future.
What is your approach to making programming choices?
My programming choices come from informed instincts. I have a very diverse background and appreciation of things that I've seen which informs my choices. I also have an understanding of where the nuances are within the distinct forms. Every year, the programming will change as we try to get a balance over the years and engage with the shifting dialogue. It’s also a constant conversation with our venue partners, and we try to give the artist an upscaling opportunity too. We are making an effort to shift the dialogue and widen the conversation around who the next wave of leaders are. It's not just about having one black voice, or one global majority voice, or one disabled artist. There are many voices and there are always nuances, so it's important to have that parity across the breadth of in-person, online and industry facing programming. This also informs the decision in the venue presenting partners we collaborate with.
Can you give us a whistle stop tour through the programme?
This year we open with the Change Tempo model, which we had at Brixton House last year, and this year we’re at The Place. We have a really wonderful artist, SU PinWen, with an interesting piece called Girls Notes which questions the stereotypes of non-conforming identities. Then the other part of the Change Tempo double is Alexandre Fandard’s Comme un symbole, which is a really beautiful piece that once again plays with how people are perceived and challenges representations. 

Next we’ve got London Battle at Somerset House, curated by choreographer Jade Hackett, who is very renowned in the hip-hop scene across the UK. London Battle is an all-day event which sees a stellar gathering of dancers based or from the four corners of London go head-to-head across a diverse range of styles, and the crowd decides who wins. It speaks to the fabric of the community with  a nod to the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and also to the Olympics coming up next year in Paris, which will include breaking for the first time, signifying a widening of the offering of culture and of the art form. Battling culture at its heart for me is choreography and improvised scores that in dialogue with another artist and crowd vibes. Partnering with Somerset House in the iconic courtyard is a no-brainer, as the strong roots in the London scene took place just around the corner in Covent Garden .There’s no favouritism to East, North, South, West as we gather at Somerset House in the iconic courtyard, only metres from where the roots in the London scene pretty much started in Covent Garden.

Then we’ve got MOS by Ioanna Paraskevopoulou at the Barbican, which plays with films and uses everyday objects to evoke foley sound effects. It’s a beautiful piece of work that was one of the top picks from Aerowaves Dance Across Europe and we have its UK premier .

Next on the programme we have One Drop by award winning Cameroonian-Finnish artistic director and choreographer Sonya Lindfors at Battersea Arts Centre.The title of the work refers to two separate concepts - the one drop rule of the Race Separation Act, created in the United States in the early 1900s, according to which a single drop of “Black blood” made a person “Black” despite their appearance, and the style of drumming, prevalent in reggae music. This work interrogates the ghost of the western stage and relationships to capitalism, coloniality and modernity were all navigating everyday.

We've also got the mavericks that is BirdGang Ltd with Family (dys)Function at Stanley Arts, which is part of this year’s London Borough of Culture, This is Croydon. It's an intergenerational piece from the communities of Croydon that questions how technology plays or not in a relationship between different generations.

Then we come to the South African pantsula company Via Katlehong with their exciting double bill Via Injabulo at Sadler’s Wells. Choreographer Marco da Silva Ferreira deconstructs the movement style of pantsula in førm inførms and Amala Dianor plays with the tradition, and engagement of the dance form in Emphakathini.

DU’s family friendly Orbital Touring Network is now in its 10th year - can you tell us about this year’s show and why this touring model is important?
Emma Gladstone, previous Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Dance Umbrella,  initiated the orbital tour with a purpose to develop young dance audiences, and to take the work to the audience. Once again, we’re not just across zones 1 and 2, and we have continued to take work beyond central London. The Orbital piece this year is Skydiver by Xenia Aidonopoulou, a multi-sensory dance experience for families that will awaken all our imaginations. It has five dates across London, touring to Unicorn Theatre, Stanley Arts, The Place, Studio 3 Arts and Watermans Arts Centre. It’s important that we bring the visibility of international artists across London and have that parity of not only artists but venues too. 

Can you give us an overview of the Digital programme?
This is our third year presenting the Digital Pass which has enabled us to reach a wider national and international audience. For DU 2023, we have a few of the live artists also presenting digital work, such as Ioanna Paraskevopoulou and SU PinWen. We also have Trajal Harrell’s film O Medea, and he will additionally dissect his work, Dancer of the Year, for this year’s Choreographer’s Cut. The final film on this year’s programme is Vincenzo Lamagna & Danilo Moreli’s beautiful piece called KINGDOM. We also have Stopgap Dance Company presenting Dance Tapes, which are choreographic scores that completely enlighten our imagination of what choreography can look like by hearing it, so it’s accessible and audiences create the visuals themselves. 

Finally, we have Artist Encounters, a workshop for cultivating artistic practice, sharing knowledge and asking questions. We offer the digital content as pay-what-you-can, which is from as little as £5. It's great that we are able to offer such breadth of work at an affordable price in these challenging times, shifting the conversation of who gets to watch or invest in the artform across  live and digital platforms. We’ll also announce a couple of other works as part of of Digital Pass in September before we go live on the 6th October - stay tuned online with us.

What would you say to a first time DU attender about why the festival is unmissable?
It's a chance to connect with artists and be curious and experience an incredible breadth of work across venues in a global city and online. These are some of the most exciting artists at present and I'm pretty sure there's one artist in there that you wouldn't have heard of and a work that speaks to our multi shared sensibilities.

Anything else you’d like to say?
DU and partners are still able to present and produce about 50% of events from scratch in these challenging times especially for independents makers .Dance Umbrella works with and champions the tenacity of independent freelance artists and creatives which pretty much makes up the festival. #DUFest23 - a global city’s festival.

Dance Umbrella Festival 2023 takes place 6-31 October, across London and online. Visit for full line up and further information.

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