Catalan artists to take centre stage at Edinburgh International Children’s Festival

With everything from a sensory journey into outer space for the under-twos to a dance performance about racism aimed at teenagers, this year’s Edinburgh International Children’s Festival is shaping up to be a major event for minors, writes Mark Fisher, and Catalan artists will be at the heart of it

Noel Jordan likes to build his programmes for the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival organically. Rather than start with a rigid framework, he selects the productions that have most impressed him and constructs each line-up from there. At a certain point, he will have to make sure the programme is catering to all ages groups, but it is the work that comes first.

That was the case this year when a mini-Catalan season suggested itself simply because the shows were so good. “My job is to hunt out these gems and bring them to Edinburgh,” he says. “What they’re very good at in Catalonia is the abstract and the poetic. They know how to speak to us as human beings.”

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The three shows from Catalonia epitomise the range of the festival itself. Univers by Engruna Teatre is a sensory journey into outer space for the under-twos. An-Ki by Cia Ortiga is a piece of small-scale puppetry for seven-to-ten year olds staged in a tent. And Black by Oulouy is a dance performance about racism, aimed at teenagers.

Univers PIC: Arian BoteyUnivers PIC: Arian Botey
Univers PIC: Arian Botey

“An-Ki took my breath away when I saw it in a town called Igualada,” says Jordan about the promenade production. “It explores the environmental crisis through puppetry and visual storytelling. It’s for an audience of about 30 and for that reason we invited the company to be here for the entire festival, performing three times a day.”

Born in the Ivory Coast and based in Barcelona, dancer Oulouy originally performed Black for adults but was persuaded by an enterprising programmer to try it in front of a younger audience. The themes hit home immediately. “I saw Black with a group of teenagers and it was spellbinding,” says Jordan. “This solo Black male performer explores racism through hip hop, krump and contemporary styles of dance, and you’re completely with him through the whole thing.”

Not that long ago, a show aimed at babies would have attracted headlines, but today, parents have come to expect such work as standard. Univers, which invites the youngest audience to engage with beautiful objects, sits in the programme alongside Be Kind, a display of acrobatics and juggling by Emilie Weisse Circustheater from the Netherlands, where the upper age limit is 18 months.

“I remember the first time I saw a work for babies which was maybe 2000 – not that long ago,” says Jordan. “Since then, it has gone in leaps and bounds. Now, you could do a festival just for zero-to-six. Our early-years programme sells out very quickly and I find, in form, it is the most experimental. I love that parents and nurseries are prepared to take a risk. Parents see it as playful, but they also want their children to have a cultural experience early in their life.”

Black by Oulouy PIC: FestivalHopBlack by Oulouy PIC: FestivalHop
Black by Oulouy PIC: FestivalHop

If theatre for babies has become established, circus for children is a relatively recent trend. “I see it as a new genre,” he says. “Be Kind is jam-packed with multiple circus skills, exploring the arc of a day and play within that day. It’s a stunning work.”

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Scotland’s own Superfan is spearheading this trend and was the first company Jordan saw bringing the big top to little audiences. The company’s latest show, So Far So Good, uses acrobatics to recreate the jeopardy of a walk across Scotland’s hills, precipices and rock formations. Aimed at three-to-six year-olds, it was created by co-directors Ellie Dubois and Kim Donohoe with children in the Cairngorms who know all about the risks of the great outdoors.

“It’s about what happens on a hike into the hills,” says Jordan, flagging up another circus show, By Trial And Error, a long-standing comedy hit from French company Le Cirque Content Por Peu. “It’s a very polished work.”

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After its run in Edinburgh, So Far So Good tours until June. Other shows from Scotland include Sho And The Demons Of The Deep, an eco-fable currently being toured by the National Theatre of Scotland; the return of The Yellow Canary, a true-life refugee tale by Tashi Gore for Glass Performance; and The Unexpected Gift by Barrowland Ballet, aimed at children with complex needs such as autism.

“The thing I have seen develop is theatre for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities,” says Jordan. “A festival should be the perfect environment to do that and, since 2016, we’ve made a commitment to do it each year. What I love is it has inspired local artists like Natasha Gilmore of Barrowland Ballet to adapt existing works for this specific sector.”

There are plenty more shows to look out for in the nine-day festival. They range from An Ant Called Amy by Ireland’s Julie Sharkey, about a workaholic insect who learns to slow down, to TRASHedy by Germany’s Performing Group, about consumerism, rubbish and the environment.

“Often shows about the environment can appear a little bit preachy and dull,” says Jordan. “But this year we have three works dealing with the environment and they’re all incredibly well done.”

Rooted in play and capitalising on an audience that has no preconceptions, children’s theatre is frequently the most imaginative work you can see. That, says Jordan, makes his festival an adventure. “Children’s theatre is a place of risk taking,” he says. “It’s very visual, not always feeling the need to spell things out and it’s not talking heads. You can come to the Children’s Festival and have such a range of experiences.”

Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, various venues, 25 May–2 June,



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