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ARTSFEST: ArtsFest rises to the occasion; With sound, colour and dance to enjoy, Stefan Kucharczyk joined the crowds to report on the 10th ArtsFest.

Byline: Stefan Kucharczyk

If, for the last fortnight you have somehow managed to avoid the event's omnipresent publicity machine, you might inconceivably be unaware that Birmingham's free annual cultural showcase Artsfest is 10 years old this year.

Offering a taste of the city's wide and impressive array of cultural talents, from the sublime to the strange, delightful to the curious, the festival has for a decade been a valuable cultural experience for children and adults alike.

Mindful of the festival's history of underwhelming performances and chaotic organisation which have caused many to question its relevance, I joined the thronging Saturday crowds keen to discover how Artsfest could rise to the occasion and prevent the big birthday party from being well and truly pooped.

As the heart of Birmingham basked in the late summer sun, in the streets, plazas and squares, I was not to be disappointed.

The vibrant verve of culture and fun was palpable, and with the CBSO on hand to give the event an explosive finale, this year's Artsfest was truly a blast.

For the first time, last night the CBSO teamed up with both the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Opera Company for a mesmerising Classical Fantasia concert in Centenary Square to celebrate the 10-year anniversary.

Outside, on a cosy stage in front of the Symphony Hall, to an audience of hundreds, the CBSO, conducted by energetic duo Pat Murphy and Mike Seal, provided the backdrop for the magical ballet performance.

To extracts from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, the company's dancers floated gracefully, like pieces of silver wrapping paper, wowing a rapt audience and revelling in their appreciation in addition to some humorous and well-intentioned wolf-whistling and heckling.

It might not be what they are used to in the country's rarefied ballet halls, but it was a wonderfully enchanting spectacle.

The operatic section of the Fantasia featured excerpts from Verdi's La Traviata, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers duet and Carmen; all were equally warming as the evening sun faded.

The event's final segment saw the CBSO perform a composite of emotive classical greats to commemorate National Veteran's Day hosted by Birmingham earlier this year.

As fireworks crackled and sparkled in the illuminated sky, William Walton's Spitfire Prelude and Fugue and Elgar's epic Land of Hope and Glory and Pomp and Circumstance pulsated around the square and gaining a deserved ovation from the crowd.

It was a fitting closing to a buzzing and immensely enjoyable Saturday programme.

But with the Saturday programme boasting a litany of colourful and varied elements - more than 400 performers in 32 venues over the weekend - where best to start?

One of the most innovative acts on display this year was dance trio CDJ (not CJD, mind) - a colourful dance performance on the Brind-leyplace fountain stage.

Mixing elements of dance, rap and dramatic theatre, this exciting Birmingham group weaved wit and dark humour to a brilliantly choreographed hip-hop routine, in one of the brightest epicentres of the ArtsFest programme.

Indeed, the most enjoyable aspect of this year's ArtFest was that organisers seemed to capture that previously elusive festival spirit.

Strolling from street to street, there was almost the feeling that many of the performances were seemingly impromptu.

Artists appeared to spring up from the pavement and vanish again before the assembled crowd melted away and you move on, enjoying an eclectic cultural taster session.

From the elegant Brazilian capoeira displays, to Japanese sword art, Gaelic folk, Punch and Judy on the beach, eyebrow raising belly dancing displays the streets seemed alive with sound, colour, dance and the chatter of happy crowds.

The endless string of hands-on arts and crafts activity centres for younger visitors was also definitely improved upon. Somewhat ironically, as I found out first hand, apparently 26 is too old for the Peter Pan's Neverland Lagoon hosted at the Mailbox, even for a writer who never grew up. No fair.

I was placated however, with the afternoon's showing of the city's budding rock and roll talent, featured at the impressive water-top Kerrang stage perched in the middle of the floozy's Jacuzzi in Victoria Square.

Enthusiastic Wufrunian pop-rock act Paper Tigers did well and Edgbaston's rising stars UXL impressed yet again.

A real eye opener, however, was Birmingham band Mr Deny who hammered out its stylish Fratellis-esque pop-rock with serious credibility. Performing their debut single, Goodnight, they certainly deserve closer examination.

Worth a mention is Birmingham's ironic poet and Weapon of Mass Depression, Melinda Deathgoth, reprising her appearance from last year's festival. Her acerbic verse on the horrors of disposable pop-culture was again a miserable delight.

So, 10 years on, is it all still worth it?

Despite lukewarm receptions in previous years, the popular enthusiasm for Artsfest is evident.

The quality of artistic experience on show is undeniable and the festival is not only a chance to promote Birmingham to the world - for visitors young and old, it is an important reminder of the artistic opportunities the city has to offer.

But while Artsfest might not yet be the Birmingham "Fringe", this excellent, vibrant spectacle is certainly now more deserving of the epithet "Festival".

CAPTION(S):

Singer Yaz Alexander, members of the Bai Ling Chinese Acrobatic Arts Company and Phil Hitchman, lead singer of the Computer Club Paul on stage at Victoria Square PH150907-Art 16
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 17, 2007
Words:881
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