For the child in all of us

There’s a difference between talking to children and talking with children. The latter involves getting on the child’s level—whether literally kneeling down to see eye-to-eye, or letting him or her drive the conversation.

This insight is a cornerstone of the 2017 Breckenridge International Festival of Arts (BIFA), which returns for a third year August 11-20. Many of the diverse visual and performing arts experiences to be featured are family-centered and interactive—in other words, art that is less about sitting and watching, and more about participating first-hand.

‘Ants’ by Polylot Theatre
No performance encapsulates this better than “Ants,” an interactive theater experience from Australia’s Polyglot Theatre, which will perform four times daily in Blue River Plaza, free of charge, August 10-14.

The show opens when three giant ants emerge in the plaza, busy on a task reorganizing a large pile of breadcrumbs. Instead of engaging with children, the ants leave them to figure out how to take part. Eventually children start picking up on what needs to be done, handing breadcrumbs to the ants or helping them put breadcrumbs in line. There are no words in the show, just clicks, buzzes, and whirrs.

“Children end up clicking at the ants,” said the troupe’s artistic director, Sue Giles, who develops her concepts by observing child’s play. “Sometimes the ants will crouch, and all the children will crouch and wait and rub their antennas together. It becomes quite magical, and really, really strange,” she said. “Sometimes it just looks like choreography.”

As the performance progresses, children start laying breadcrumbs down in new lines and the ants follow suit, resulting in patterns crisscrossing public space. “The ants become less important than the shapes that are created,” Giles said, explaining how “children change the landscape in a way that subverts the adult desire line,” a term used to describe the path grown-ups tend to walk from point A to point B. “The potential for the children to really take control and become the bosses of the landscape they create is very real,” she said.

In part, “Ants” is about “realizing the independence and capability of small children,” Giles explained. “I think offering children an open idea is one of the best things you can do.”

Because the show is free and accessible in public space, it attracts people who might not normally attend the theater or experience contemporary art. “People have greater access to new ideas and new ways of seeing things,” Giles said, “and I think that’s very healthy for us all.”

‘Los Trompos’by Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena
Whereas “Ants” is performance art, “Los Trompos” by Mexican designers Hector Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena is a sculptural representation of five large-scale spinning tops, to be exhibited in the Breckenridge Arts District starting August 7 for BIFA and running through October 22. Although children are often told “don’t touch” when it comes to art, such is not the case with “Los Trompos.” Instead, the artwork aims to inspire interaction by inviting passersby to climb on and in the sculptures, or join together to set them in motion.

“They were not conceived as beautiful objects, but as playful tools that generate links between individuals,” said Cadena, explaining how the work “seeks connections between individuals through laughter, joy, playfulness, beauty, and collaboration.” Children, in particular, “go crazy with them,” he said, as the pieces “become amazing, huge toys.” Past installations have seen adults, too, relaxing in their shade to socialize or read a book.

“Los Trompos belong to a new expression of contemporary Latin American design, a mirror that reflects the present and speaks about a continent without borders,” Cadena said. Constructed of colorful, woven cords, they pay homage to traditional Mexican weavers while “creating innovative expressions that speak of tradition but engage with modernity and contemporary issues.”

“We come from a country of rich artisanal tradition and craftsmanship,” he said. “We as contemporary Mexican designers are in a constant search to celebrate that heritage with humbleness and respect, but also with an adventurous spirit. Innovation happens there, in those moments when irreverent expressions speak about past, present, and future.”

“Hector and I have a very playful spirit and come from a culture that enjoys laughter,” he added, speaking to the whimsical nature of the piece, which appeals to children and adults alike. “Our work has always that signature of searching for smiles; we love happy and  positive individuals—and with that in mind, we always aim to construct happy communities.”

‘Monuments’ by Craig Walsh
The temporary, visual installation “Monuments” will rove town for the duration of BIFA, lighting up area trees nightly with projections of three local subjects—historian Maureen Nicholls, age 75; biking enthusiast Jeff Wescott, age 55; and dancer Zoe Gallup, age 12. Created by Australian artist Craig Walsh, the work uses minimal-motion video to create the appearance of large, topiary-like sculptures in which the portraits of local subjects have been carved.

Many of Walsh’s works, exhibited worldwide, challenge traditional conceptions of public monuments and the selective history they represent in civic space. For each new work, he collaborates with the host community to select the subjects. “The concept stimulates the community to think about others in the community who make contributions that are not necessarily so visible,” Walsh said. “That’s as important as the outcome.”

The subjects for the Breckenridge installation were selected “because of their unique connection to the themes of history, athleticism, and creativity—all of which are integral to the fabric of our community,” said Robb Woulfe, creator and chief curator of BIFA. “By including Zoe, who represents the young, creative voices in our community, we aim to make connections with local children and to honor the next generation of artists, thought leaders, and change-makers.” The piece is co-presented by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, which will offer an outdoor lecture on “local legends” who have shaped Breckenridge.

“The work itself looks at a different range of people to be immortalized as monuments than we would expect from a traditional monument,” said Walsh. “I like idea that I can make monuments to everyday people.”

Because it is mobile, “Monuments” reaches both traditional and “incidental” audiences who stumble upon it, and each site affords new interpretations based on the interplay between the work and the location’s significance to the community. The Breckenridge installation will be the artist’s U.S. premiere.

‘Driftwood’ by Casus Circus
Contemporary circus returns to BIFA with the U.S. premiere of ‘Driftwood,” a show by the Australian company Casus Circus. This collective of friends and family is known worldwide for its “delicately human” performances that explore the real personalities of the acrobats.

“Yes there are some amazing circus skills that celebrate the possibilities of the human body,” said Natano Fa’anana, the group’s creative producer and co-founder. “But the essence of ‘the person’ is what excites us as storytellers, and this is woven throughout the choreography.”

In “Driftwood,” that includes Jesse and Lachy’s relationship as husband and husband, though same-sex marriage is illegal in Australia. “This approach to art is important because we are telling a story,” he said, “and we need to believe it from the heart, first and foremost, in order for our audience to believe it themselves.”

The wordless story is told through “acro scenes that have the audience deathly silent out of fear of distraction,” with “humor, clowning, silence, moments borrowed from yesteryear circus days, borrowed from yesteryear Samoa, people flying from one to another, to someone displaying stunning feats of strength and grace over our heads on aerial apparatus,” he said.

“We have massive respect and love for traditional circus,” Fa’anana noted, joking that in his troupe’s take, the acrobats are the animals. “If you come see our show, always feel free to approach us afterwards,” he said. “Casus animals don’t bite.”

‘Birdmen,’Charlie Chaplin + live music
The Dutch performance troupe Close-Act Theatre will be back by popular demand to animate Blue River Plaza with new open-air acts, performed twice daily August 15-19. ‘Birdmen’ features giant, illuminated, pterodactyl-like creatures, and the 19th century marching band ‘PerQ’ is bound to inspire strange processions of performers and guests alike.

The popular Trail Mix series returns too, featuring environmental installations and pop-up music performances along area trails for the duration of the festival. There will be a film screening of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” accompanied by live orchestra in partnership with the Breckenridge Music Festival August 12, and a new series called Acoustic Flow featuring free outdoor classes in yoga, meditation, and healing arts accompanied by live music on the banks of the Blue River.

Other live music includes an August 11 performance by Itchy-O, Denver’s 32-piece, percussion-centered electronic performance band, at Tiger Dredge lot; and singer Rhiannon Giddens, known for her Grammy-winning work as a member of the African-American folk interpreters, Carolina Chocolate Drops, at the Riverwalk Center August 17.

Creative play
The 10-day Breckenridge International Festival of Arts reminds us that art need not be separate from us; instead of observing from afar, we are invited to interact with the performers, artworks, and one another. It’s captivating to see how children, in particular, connect on their own terms with one another and their landscape; and from there it’s not so big a leap to our own inner child, when we open our hands and hearts to creative play each August at BIFA.

Breckenridge International Festival of Arts //
Polyglot Theatre //
Los Trompos //
Craig Walsh //
Casus Circus //

Photos credits: ‘Monuments’ photos by Courtney Pedersen and Chris Phutully; ‘Los Trompos’ by Braden Camp, Jonathan Hillyer, and Abel Klainbaum; ‘Driftwood’ courtesy of Casus Circus; ‘Ants’ courtesy of Polyglot Theatre; ‘Birdmen’ courtesy of Close-Act Theatre; Itchy-O courtesy of Itchy-O; and Tree-o courtesy of Russick Smith.