Batley people (and a pie and pea shop) inspire international theatre company

“It’s definitely been a learning curve for me,” says Kimberley as I photograph her in the Market Square. “I’ve had some fantastic opportunities.”

“And why do you do it?” I ask, juggling my camera and tape recorder. “What’s the idea behind Batley Festival?

“It’s an opportunity for the town to celebrate, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s one day for the whole community to come together and have a fantastic time.”

CS_160716_003-Edit-2Apparently the annual festival – on Saturday 10th September – is now in its fifth year and Kimberley has been volunteering pretty much from the start, first as Secretary of the festival committee and this year as Chair. She’s expecting last year’s audience of over 5,000 to be easily surpassed this time round.

For the past three years Creative Scene has become more and more involved. “Their support has allowed me to go and visit other festivals around the country,” explains Kimberley, “to see how others do it and decide what would suit us here.”

Last year’s Festival featured two shows Kimberley had seen at the Greenwich and Docklands Festival and brought back to Batley. During the afternoon a dozen or so bee hives populated with ‘robotic bees’ and tended by ‘beekeepers’ enthralled both kids and adults. In the evening Walk the Plank’s Spellbound performance, featuring puppetry and pyrotechnics, did just that.

“This year is even better. Creative Scene has encouraged us to commission our own show about Batley.”

“From scratch?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says excitedly. “From scratch. Which is why the Periplum duo are here today.”

Following a successful collaboration at The Edinburgh Festival director Claire Raftery and writer Damian Wright set up Periplum to make site-specific outdoor theatre. Their acclaimed shows have travelled the world but it 451 – a performance about books being burnt at Greenwich and Docklands Festival that caught Kimberley’s attention. “It was quite a dark but spectacular show,” she recalls, “and featured lots of firemen, which will always be a hit with me!”

As we arrive in the art gallery above Batley Library Claire and Damian are deep in conversation with amateur filmmaker Simon Roadnight. He’s answered the call-out for video footage they might use for the Batley Festival.

CS_160716_010-EditA couple of years ago Simon made Pride of Place that was premiered at the Frontier Club. “I was fed up with people always doing Batley down,” he says, “because I think it’s got lots of potential. That’s why I made the film.”

“What would you say is the town’s biggest asset?” asks Damian.

“The heart of the people,” replies Simon without hesitation. “They’re warm, honest, friendly and hard-working. There’s no airs and graces about Batley folk.”

For nearly an hour Claire and Damien mine a rich seam of raw material featuring stories of goths, the shoddy trade, Batley’s variety show legacy and Charlie’s pie and pea shop.

CS_160716_023-Edit“We love researching projects, whether they are contemporary or historical,” Damien tells me when we later take a break in the sunshine. “It’s good to get to know a place from a new perspective and work out what makes it unique.”

“And why is Periplum different from other theatre companies?” I ask.

“We make large-scale work outside and we put the audience in the centre so they experience it from all around,” says Damian.

“And have you got an idea already of what you’ll do for the Festival?”

“When we applied for the commission we had a loose framework in mind,” Claire explains, being careful not to give too much away. “I can say we’ve been working with local musicians and poets and that the film footage we’re given will be re-worked into a silent film.”

“That might include some goths?” I suggest.

“It might, and even some girls’ rugby players,” says Damian cryptically.

Whoops and hollers for local performers at folk festival

It’s the big night at Cleckheaton Town Hall. Over the last few weeks on this blog I’ve been following the rehearsals of local singers and dancers who are now about to perform at a folk festival for the very first time.

CS_020716_002-EditWorking with band members from Cleckheaton Folk Festival headliners The Demon Barbers, the community groups have already warmed up this afternoon with some workshops.

“There’s been a mixture of clog and rapper sword dancing, hip hop and street dance,” Creative Scene producer Vicky tells me. “Anyone could join in and that proved popular. Then a full rehearsal which got any nerves out of the way.”

While waiting for their slot I catch up with members of Batley Community Choir who have joined forces today with the Festival Choir, assembled especially for tonight.

“We came together really well,” says Clare. “It sounded great.”

“And how about the young people?” The choir will have seen co-performers from TimeStep School of Dance for the first time this afternoon. “They were brilliant,” says Clare, “really confident.”

“I can’t wait to see it all come together,” I say.

Since I photographed them rehearsing with Demon Barber vocalist Bryony Griffith the choir have sung at the commemoration event for Jo Cox in Batley Town Square. Their rendition of The Rose was originally performed on live TV the day after their MP’s death. Tomorrow they’ll record the song as a charity single in Batley Town Hall.

“It’s a busy time for us,” says Harold as I intercept him and fellow singer June. “This afternoon was brilliant. I really enjoyed it.”

“And with a full house tonight,” says June, gesturing towards the packed hall, “it’ll be even better.”

“We’re in good voice,” says Harold, enthusiastically.

The TimeStep dancers wait excitedly back stage. “Are you nervous?” I ask 15-year-old Taylor.

“A little,” she says.

“That’s good,” I say. “You’ll do well.”

CS_020716_041-EditWhat follows is a high-energy dance routine that fuses hip-hop with street dance. These young people – more familiar with ballet, tap and musical theatre – spectacularly make it their own. The audience loves it and the deafening applause, whoops and hollers puts big grins on the faces of the young performers.

CS_020716_105-EditAfter a group of sword dancers do some frightening moves with bendy metal swords Bryony introduces the joint choir she’s pulled together.

“This is our debut performance at a great big posh concert,” she says into the microphone. “It’s very exciting. We have two groups that have come together after only three weeks of rehearsals each.

“So we’re going to do some jolly English folk songs if that’s all right. Feel free to join in. The first one is Three Jolly Fisherman. It’s about fisherman bringing some fish home and their wives saying hurry up w’it!”

CS_020716_145-EditThe 20-strong choir belt out half a dozen verses as if they’ve been singing folk for years. To the delight of the participatory audience they follow it with three more equally accomplished songs.

CS_020716_158-EditCS_020716_212-EditIt is, of course, a great success. More whoops and hollers and more big grins. At the interval that follows I grab a word with TimeStep dancer Holly’s parents.

“Holly’s never danced on the stage before, ever,” says mum Hayley. “So it’s been a massive experience for her. And to dance in such a different style… it boosts their confidence, doesn’t it?”

“Have you to ever been to a folk festival before?”

“Never. But it’s been really interesting. I didn’t realise it was such a big thing.”

As well as pushing local performers outside of their comfort zones, Creative Scene and Cleckheaton Folk Festival are hoping their collaboration will spark new experiences for local people. So, the killer question:

“Would you consider coming to the folk festival again?”

“Yes, definitely,” says Hayley. “It’s good to hear different styles of music.”

“It was fantastic,” chips in Rebecca’s dad. “To fill a room like that with no instruments was absolutely fantastic.”

“I’ve taught them both in the same way so it should be perfect!”

I haven’t been at St John’s long before I realise this group of singers is very different.

“I sing on my own, in pubs or wherever,” says Carol, “mainly folk and some blues.”

“So this is straightforward for you?” I ask.

“Reasonably. But I’ve never sung in a choir before. Singing harmonies with other people is new. Normally I’ve only got myself to please.”

Tonight is the fourth and last rehearsal for this festival choir, brought together to perform with Batley Community Choir at this weekend’s folk festival. Whereas the Batley choir is well established but new to folk music, tonight’s singers barely know each other although, it seems, have some folk-singing experience.

The two choirs will combine this Saturday night with the festival headliners, The Demon Barbers and a handful of other West Yorkshire community groups who, with Creative Scene’s support, have been working towards a show-stopping extravaganza.

Barber’s vocalist, Bryony Griffith, has been rehearsing four songs with both groups. “These singers have responded to our call-out,” she explains to me. “Yes, most have some folk experience and some know the songs a little already.”

“So it’s been easier working with this lot?” I ask.

“The same really,” she says, “I go at the same sort of pace with each group.”

“And will both choirs come together seamlessly?”

“They should do,” she says with a big grin. “I’ve taught them both in the same way, and it’s the same songs, so it should be perfect!”

“And you’ve enjoyed it?”

“It’s been great. I love making other people sing. You get a lot out of singing. It makes you forget everything else. Especially at the minute.”

Once the choir has settled into the 150-year-old pews Bryony warms them up with stretching, shaking, rubbing, hugging and deep breathing. All wonderfully photogenic.

CS_280616_012-Edit“Okay, let’s start with The Grey Goose and Gander,” she says, “we’ll sing the first verse and chorus together and then stop and remind ourselves of the harmony part.”

CS_280616_018-EditI take my camera and tripod out into the nave where a man I haven’t seen before is sitting, listening to the rehearsal. “Are you not singing?” I ask by way of introduction.

“No, no,” he says, “I’m the festival director.”

Brilliant. I exchange my camera for my tape recorder and, over the top of the choir’s rendition, grab the opportunity to ask Dave Minich how the collaboration between Creative Scene and the Cleckheaton Folk Festival came about.

“At last year’s festival Creative Scene asked if we could accommodate the Matthew’s Coffee House band which they’d put together in much the same way as this one. We welcomed that and it was great.”

Said the gentlemen to the ladies, well how do you do?

“And then, last October we spoke with Creative Scene about how they might get involved in a slightly bigger way. I knew the The Demon Barbers did workshop groups – I’d seen it work really well at other festivals – and Creative Scene were keen to get local groups involved in different art activities.”

CS_280616_043-Edit“So it was perfect fit? And you’re going to get an audience of friends and family who might be coming to their first ever folk festival.”

Well how do you do, my boys, by the light of the moon.

“One of the reasons for us to get involved is to increase our audience which I’m sure will happen. There will be people from the community choir who will never have sung a folk song before, but they’re embracing it.”

“They’re loving it,” I say.

“And the Timestep young people would never have dreamt of dancing to the type of music they’ll be dancing to. It’s going to be great.”

The Festive Choir and Batley Community Choir will join forces and perform together at Cleckheaton Folk Festival on Saturday, 2nd July. Tickets here.

Batley still sings

It’s been a rollercoaster couple of weeks for Batley Community Choir. Ten days ago they hosted their first-ever concert at Batley Town Hall and had invited their local MP to attend.

“Unfortunately she was double booked but instead sent us a bottle of parliamentary wine for the raffle,” says founder member Graeme Rayner ahead of tonight’s rehearsal.

“And then last Thursday happened. While we were all reeling, we got a message on Friday morning from the producers of Channel Four’s The Last Leg asking if we could get the choir down to London by 4pm to pay tribute to Jo Cox.”

“That’s a big ask,” I say as I help him set out the chairs.

“I suggested they come up here – Batley is Jo’s home town after all – and they could film us singing in the church, which they did. It was a strange day. We were still trying to process the dreadful news but also prepare for a performance on national TV. Very surreal.

“But we did it – we sang The Rose [hear it here] – and we’ve had nothing but positive feedback since. Now, three days later, we’re rehearsing again for Cleckheaton Folk Festival, trying to get a bit of normality back.”

Tonight is the second rehearsal with singer Bryony Griffith from The Demon Barbers, the hip-hop and folk band that the choir will perform with at Cleckheaton Town Hall on Saturday, 2nd July. The choir is just one of half a dozen community music and dance groups that will share the stage for a ‘curtain-raising crowd-pleaser’.

I ask regular choir leader Gary how it’s been going. “Bryony is fantastic,” he says, “she led last week’s rehearsal with a good deal of vim and vigour. We rehearsed at a pace we’re not used to… it was very quick. And, of course, it’s a different style of music.’

“So, you’re out of your comfort zone again?” It wasn’t that long ago I reported on the choir becoming opera singers.

“Yes. Perhaps not quite as much as opera… and at least for this we can stand still! The choir is enjoying singing with a normal voice – in their normal accent – which is different from the unity of vowels I encourage for choral singing. With folk that goes out of the window.”

“You sing with your own voice?”

“Absolutely,” says Gary. “And that’s how it should be.”

Bryony arrives and I grab a word as she distributes the sheet music: “We’re trying to get four songs ready for the festival,” she says, “and this choir will come together with another group of random people who are rehearsing on Tuesday nights. It’s a challenge for them all but these guys sounded brilliant last week.”

There’s much needed hilarity as The Demon Barbers vocalist gets everyone to make the sound of a horse ‘trump’ as part of their warm-up routine. And then, for the first part of the evening, she fine tunes We Are Three Jolly Fishermen, a quick-fire ditty they started last week.

CS_200616_018-EditCS_200616_014-Edit During the break, as juice is served from the hatch, I whizz round everyone asking the same question. And, apart from one soprano, a bass and an alto, it turns out this will be their first ever folk festival. And maybe it will be a first for their friends and family too, which is pretty much what Creative Scene is aiming to do here: extending people’s experience of the arts, in all its forms.

CS_200616_038-Edit CS_200616_047-EditDefinitely not ‘newbies’, David and Carol are both sporting festival wrist bands. They tell me they’ve been to Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival for the past two years and are going back again this year.

“How long have you had these on?” I say of the sad-looking wristbands.

“Since last August!” exclaims David. “We’re like kids!”

Batley Community Choir will be performing at Cleckheaton Folk Festival on Saturday, 2nd July. Tickets here.

The choir will release their rendition of The Rose as a charity single in July with proceeds to the Jo Cox fund. Follow the Facebook page for more details.

Street, tap and folk… with a sprinkling of morris

“The children have adored Ryan and his teaching,” Rachel tells me as she welcomes me to her TimeStep dance studio. “They’re definitely benefitting from it.”

This is choreographer’s Ryan’s fifth rehearsal with the young dancers, with only a couple to go before the big performance at the Cleckheaton Folk Festival with folk-and-hip-hop-fusion group The Demon Barbers.

Supported by Creative Scene, this is one of a series of workshops where West Yorkshire music and dance groups work towards a main stage collaboration with ‘The Barbers’. Soon I’ll be reporting from Batley Community Choir and from rehearsals of a second choir pulled together just for the festival.

“Creative Scene asked if we’d be interested,” recalls Rachel, “and I thought it’d be a great opportunity for the children to get involved in something they’re not used to.”

CS_110616_078-EditIn the studio the young people are working on individual moves that get incorporated into their routine. I interrupt one group and ask their names. Molly and Harriet are sisters then there’s Nieve and Milly. “And what’s your name?” I ask the last girl.

“Nieve,” she says.

“Nieve as well? That’s confusing. What style of dancing do you normally do?”

“I do gymnastics… musical theatre… ballet… senior theatre…” says Nieve.

“And what’s the best thing about all of this?” I ask, gesturing towards the other dancers.

“We get to learn different styles of dancing,” says Milly. Their energetic routine with The Demon Barbers apparently features street dance, tap and folk with a sprinkling of morris dancing for good measure.

“And have any of you been to the Cleckheaton Folk Festival before?” I ask.

“No,” they reply in unison.

“It’s going to be exciting doing this in front of so many people,” someone says.

timestep_montage-EditI let this group carry on with their pieces and put my tape recorder in front of the youngest group. “My name’s Nieve, and I’m nine,” says nine-year-old Nieve.

“Nieve? Everyone’s called Nieve here! What are you all enjoying the most?”

“It’s just fun,” says Joshua, “we get to do our own solos.”

“And we’ve learnt some new moves,” says 10-year-old Katie. She tips backwards.

“What’s that’s called?” I ask

“A back walkover,” she says, practically upside down.

Ryan has a lot to get through in just three hours every Saturday afternoon. “These young people haven’t danced together as a group before,” he tells me during a short, well-earned break. “They’re all from different classes so this is the first time they’ve been put together. But it brings them out of themselves a bit more. The younger dancers won’t feel so isolated on a big stage and they’ll have the older ones to look up to.”

CS_110616_125-EditCollaborating with a diverse range of local talent wherever they play has helped earn The Demon Barbers a BBC ‘Best Live Act’ accolade. The weekend before they’re at Cleckheaton Town Hall, Ryan and the band will be at ‘Glasto’ with a beatbox and hip hop routine with breakdancers.

“And are you happy with where you’re up to at this point in the rehearsals?”

“Yes,” says Ryan, “it’s a little bit stressful at times, but they’re all doing brilliantly.”

TimeStep School of Dance will be performing at Cleckheaton Folk Festival on Saturday, 2nd July. Tickets here.