theartsdesk in Leeds: OverWorlds & UnderWorlds | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk in Leeds: OverWorlds & UnderWorlds
theartsdesk in Leeds: OverWorlds & UnderWorlds
Brass bands and a childrens' choir lead us into the darkness
It’s cold, grey and damp. Welcome to Leeds. The city centre has grown more homogenous, less distinctive since I arrived here in the 1980s, but there are still delights to be found.
There’s an art gallery with a very decent collection of 20th-century British art, adjoining the Henry Moore Sculpture Institute. At the other end of the city centre, on a site once occupied by an enormous utopian housing development, sits the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The building looks more like a large branch of Tesco than a theatre, but it’s thriving, and does attract a broad audience. The lovely old City Varieties has recently reopened after refurbishment - a gem of a music hall and a scruffy younger sibling to James Watson's glorious Grand Theatre. This is home to Opera North, and also contains the Howard Assembly Room, an exquisite performance space reopened in 2009 after years of inactivity. The 1960s and Seventies weren’t kind to the city centre; a motorway was driven through part of it and much of the redevelopment hasn’t worn well. But above the tacky shop fronts, Victorian architecture has survived. Several graceful shopping arcades are still functioning, some handsomely spruced up and still containing outlets selling trophies, wigs and sweets.
If you know where to look, there remain generous chunks of old, unreconstructed Leeds. And as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, filmmakers Stephen and Timothy Quay have been given a weekend residency. In their words, “Leeds is a city full of unusual places that resonate with our ideas.” They’ve been here before, producing a famous scratch and sniff production of Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges in the 1990s, and more recently an art installation to coincide with performances of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Northern Ballet, Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Phoenix Dance are among the organisations supporting the project. Entitled OverWorlds & UnderWorlds, it enables participants to follow a baggy trajectory downwards through the city, starting in bright light and finishing in the Stygian gloom of the Dark Arches beneath the railway station.
In the middle of Briggate, opposite Harvey Nichols, the pedestrianised precinct is shattered by what looks like a twisted tree trunk bearing a boat – ideal for ferrying the recently deceased to Hades. The safety barriers and piles of rubble add to the naturalism. And the Leeds shoppers don’t seem to bat an eyelid, despite a team of quaintly dressed folk traipsing down the hill carrying water in various containers. I try and ask them about their role in the weekend, but they’re all well drilled, refusing to step out of character. At the top of Briggate an impressively bearded gent dishes out the said water, again refusing to be caught off guard, appearing genuinely angry when I place my hand on his copper urn. “That’s bad juju – don’t touch!”
Adjacent is the County Arcade, where the Opera North Childrens’ Chorus make their solemn entrance along the galleries overlooking the upmarket boutiques. Not all the retailers are happy about this - the arcade is heaving, but no one’s here to shop. Justin Doyle’s young choir are astonishing, their voices bouncing off the marble stonework. We hear a brief, exuberant snatch of Carl Orff’s Schulmusik before new material composed by Gavin Bryars with texts by Blake Morrison. The new songs are terrific; bright, breezy, witty – the sound of life, the essence of the OverWorld.
As they finish, you can make out the sound of distant cornets. You emerge on Briggate to encounter two sets of brass players marching towards each other. Hailing from nearby Harrogate, they're playing different tunes simultanneously, so the noise is pure Charles Ives. The two bands repeatedly intersect, overlap, and you pity the poor Leeds folk who’ve nipped into Greggs for a sausage roll and suddenly find themselves in the path of ambulant trombonists. White-clad dancers surface abruptly, both bands play a brash tango and we’re in flashmob heaven. By now, hundreds of curious spectators have assembled; what’s more surprising are the significant minority of hard-nosed locals who push their way through with shopping bags, seemingly oblivious to the marvels taking place around them.
It’s time to enter the UnderWorld, so the crowd moves downhill and takes a right towards the station. Underneath the platforms, the River Aire meets the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The Dark Arches is a spectacular, spooky place; the rumble of the trains overhead complement the incessant roar of water. Listening carefully, you hear Bryars’s baleful brass music, and as you proceed into the depths you sense that this is really where the Quay Brothers’ hearts lie.
They’re easily identifiable, their beaming faces in stark opposition to the spooky ambience of their surroundings. The Orpheus installation has been reassembled in one arch; another contains flickering early film footage of traffic flowing over Leeds Bridge. There’s a gravely beautiful space containing the boat that we saw earlier, flickering lights implying moving water. Not everything succeeds; a dance routine in one chamber evokes David Lynch but rapidly veers into pretentiousness. You keep on walking, crossing the river in darkness. You pass an orchestra playing instruments made from scrap material and eventually arrive at the most arresting sight of all, a visually astonishing light show which magically transforms the brick arches into the shopping arcade where our journey began. Fast-flowing river water becomes a tiled floor. It’s simple, but jaw-droppingly effective.
For an event involving so many participants, OverWorlds & UnderWorlds coheres pretty well. And whatever carpers might say about a weekend which involves so much cost, so much disruption to the normal functioning of Leeds’s slick retail economy, isn’t it great to have a little wildness and chaos once in a while, to have a reason for visiting the city that doesn’t involve material consumption?
Watch part of OverWorlds & UnderWorlds
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