In a world full of people, why not be a Hippo?

September 12, 2018

 My inbox pings and I look at the email from OUTDOOR ARTS UK.... “Fancy coming to Fira Tàrrega Street art festival in Spain? Apply now for bursaries...”


Fast forward a couple of months and I’m sat in what could be another world; the blazing heat of Tàrrega, a tiny town near Barcelona that seems to be transformed into a busy metropolis of art and theatricality for one week of the year.


I thought, having toured with Highly Sprung for the past 3 years, and having performed in countless festivals, that I was prepared for what was to entail.... I was wrong.


The artistic offer to audiences at Fira Tàrrega is vast; Circus, contemporary circus, dance, theatre, dance-theatre, walkabout performances, mask work, puppetry, instillations, aerial, acrobatic, music of more genres than I could mention, Tàrrega has them all, set within the crumbling walls alleyways and town streets that surely can’t carry the 20,000 people who visit the festival.


My first show is Painball, by a Catalonian company highlighting the current political issues and the question of freedom. Luckily I don’t need to know any Catalonian as their message is clear; and aggressive piece set around a caged piano. The musician, unlike any classical pianist you have seen, orchestrates the performance through her dance, Catalonian rap and the performances’ music with the help of loops, her exquisite playing, and a tennis ball bouncing next to a mic. As the sun sets in the church square in which I’m sat watching, I start to fall in love with this festival... it’s only day one, performance one!


The performances here are so varied, dotted across the town, it’s a military operation just organising which shows to get to see and making sure you’re there in time for a good seat; normally a 50cm square of concrete floor. The hustle and bustle of an audience full of anticipation here is really something to behold.... even the dogs are sat waiting for the magic to begin... (so many dogs as audience members it’s almost worth another blog in its own right.)



The next day dawns and it’s soon a barmy 28* on a Thursday afternoon and the heat is getting to me. In search of shade I stumble upon a tree lined square in the middle a crowd forms. Whether I know it or not I’m about to question if my drink has been spiked. Daft Punk echoes through the leaves and I’m drawn in to find 3 massive blue Hippos dancing (Zum Zum Teatre theater company). Immediately I remember Angus MacKechnie, Executive Director of Outdoor Arts UK, introduction: “Welcome to Tàrrega where most things are possible and probable”. I check the blurb in the program and I realise the show is set in a world where humans and animals live their lives alongside each other. The Hippos being those members of society who are fun loving, exuberant and welcoming to all.... and well, if anyone plays Daft Punk, I’m sold!


Over the next few days I try to watch as many shows as possible. Some of my highlights are:


Adhok’s Echappees Belles; 7 mature performers aged between 60-80 exiting Tàrrega’s old people’s home carrying their lunch on a tray. A great walkabout show about the way in which we treat our elderly and those whose experience we should surely be harnessing in such troubled times instead of locking them away.


Nuc’s Aigua a show all about the world’s mismanagement of water.... you know how we love a eco-political piece here at Sprung! Buckets hang from an aerial rig as they collect the water dripping from on high and the dystopia vibe hits you like a helium balloon on your senses. What happens next is a something to instil fear into even the hardiest of performers- a stilt walker makes his way through the tightly packed seated audience, he climbs the metal scaffold frame and walks along a scaffold bar- in stilts! My thoughts flash to UK insurance and those men in suits and clipboards all shaking their heads at me!


To try and convey the scale and range of the performances in Tàrrega feels too much in just one blog: Aliens emerging from asteroids, bouncing silver cubes, tours of a graveyard, mini houses full of stories for those will to look through the peephole, clowns, acrobats, men in wedding dresses, a lady being spun around by her hair and dancers with heads the size of filing cabinets flooding the streets with music and the slickest of choreography.


Being a ‘Brit abroad’ I wanted, as much as possible, to see the work of artists from around the world but at the same time support those great UK companies struggling through the heat as they perform.


Humanhood performing on a jet black floor, dressed in black as they spin, twist and turn in sun trap of a town church square. Company Chameleon lift and shift each other effortlessly, with their poignant pieces about mental health and masculinity and create an intimacy in the biggest and widest open space Tàrrega has to offer. Becki Parker from TIN Arts’ enchanting performance makes audiences fall in love with her as she communicates the issues she finds as an autistic artist in a complicated world alongside her Catalonian compatriot Vero Cendoya. Leaving Motionhouse and NoFit State Circus as the final UK troupe performing their smash hit show Block. A show that seems to grow both physically and metaphorically each time I see it as they flip, fly and fall from the ever increasing tower of blocks growing in the space.


As I watch all the performances I start to have an existential crisis; what makes us as humans gather in groups? Strangers to each other, many, like me, with no ability to communicate other than rudimentary sign language and a foreign sounding “Tank Oool” or a terrible “por favor”. People who will never again meet, so tightly packed together you can tell what the lady next to you has in her bag (the smelliest fish you can imagine and the heat wasn’t doing it any favours)... and I find myself asking; what makes us join together and watch others moving through the space? Is it for entertainment, enlightenment, escapism? Or is it, as it feels here in Tàrrega, something that, simply put, MUST happen!


All shows are greeted with respect, speakers are listened to, dancers have every move watched and deconstructed. The audience’s eyes not missing a beat. When a lull in the performance happens, they wait. When they are confused by the story and lose track, they wait. Very few members of the public leave out of respect and, what seems to be, admiration for those who have chosen to perform; those who have no other avenue in life other than to showcase their talent. When the performances finish the audience whoops, cheers and shouts of “Bravo” can only just be heard over the applause; they appreciate the work, the effort, the blood, sweat and tears that every artist who has ever made work, goes through. This moment of adulation is what it’s all been for; the moment when you realise why you don’t mind how hard life is as an artist…


…it the hits me; As artists we are those hippos, those members of society who are fun loving, exuberant and welcoming to all, those who brighten other people’s day.


So, fast forward, and it’s Wednesday morning. I’m sat in the Highly Sprung office in a very dreary, wet and windy Coventry. It’s 14* and I’m sat wondering how to sum up the 5 days I spent in the glorious sunshine of Tàrrega in a blog. Eventually it comes to me…


As artists we are seen as ‘different’, those often outside of conventional employment… But in a world full of people, why not be a Hippo!... we are, and we are so very proud of it!

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