Lords of the Dance

17 Aug

A Birmingham duo who were crowned Lords of the Dance at a competition in June have revealed their joy at winning in front of their home crowd.

Steadiflux performing at the Barclays Live event

Nathan Marsh, 18, from Bartley and Jordan Breakspear, 19, from Harborne emerged as eventual winners in the Barclays Live, Birmingham Heat after wowing a panel of celebrity judges.

The boys, known collectively as Steadiflux, received a cheque for £1000 as well as VIP tickets to see one of their judges and Stricly Come Dancing star, Brendan Cole perform live.

The pair, who are both students, are now hoping to continue their good fortune and dance their way to more widespread recognition.

“Birmingham has a really good dance scene so it feels like a huge achievement to come first place. It was also great performing because we had an amazing response from the crowd,” they said.

Adding, “We’re always trying to become better dancers so we’ll continue training and choreographing, which also means we’ll have material to enter for more competitions and events.”

Other talents on show at the event included UK hiphop heavyweights Smash Broz and Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalists Mini-Mezzos.

Judge Brendan Cole said of the talented twosome: “Congratulations to Steadiflux for winning the Barclays Live Birmingham heat. They are a very innovative dance duo and worthy winners – I wish them all the best for the future.”

You can watch the full competition winning performance here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hT168Z2v0nE

The competition has also hit London and Bristol in recent weeks, to find out more visit the facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/barclayslive

SmashBroz take to the floor

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Photography in Birmingham: a review of three exhibitions

11 Aug

By Kieran Connell

There are a number of interesting photography exhibitions on show in the city at the moment.  Although the type of photographs being shown at the exhibitions differ greatly, they each in their own way raise certain important questions about photography as a genre and the ways in which it can be exhibited in cities such as Birmingham.

A major exhibition currently on is a retrospective of the work of photo-journalist Steve McCurry at the Museum & Art Gallery’s Waterhall.  Having started taking photographs seriously in the mid-1970s, McCurry is best known for the breathtaking scenes he photographs in war-zones such as Cambodia, the Philippines and Afghanistan.

Copyright: Steve McCurry

As a travel photographer, McCurry’s aim is to show things his western audiences will never have seen before.  This can be landscapes, as with his photograph of a religious shrine in Cambodia, or people, as with the world famous portrait of the ‘Afghan girl’ with the strikingly beautiful eyes.  Wherever these photographs are displayed, whether on the walls of art galleries or on the pages of National Geographic, where McCurry features regularly, they are always accompanied by labels informing us exactly what is going on, and most importantly, where.  For McCurry, this is the point of his work.  Wherever he is, there are things, moments that must be ‘captured’ and shown, before they disappear.  ‘This is what drives the photographer’, he writes.  ‘The gnawing sense that “this is it”’.

This idea that photography is a means of capturing moments is taken to extremes in the work of Harold E. Edgerton, currently being exhibited by the Ikon and Birmingham Central Library in a disused shop in the Pallasades.  The exhibition is part of the Ikon’s 1970s season looking back at some of the art it displayed in the period, and is situated nearby to a premises the Ikon once occupied during the ‘70s.

Copyright: Harold Edgerton

Whilst McCurry aimed to capture spectacular moments in exotic places, Edgerton focuses his attention on capturing the more mundane scenes we all see every day, but in ways we have never seen before.  Edgerton was a scientist by trade, and in the 1930s he invented a photographic process that could project a flash 120 times a second, thus enabling moments such as the kicking of a rugby ball, or the drop of milk into a bowl, to be captured in miniscule detail.  The photographs are so accurate, to a thousandth of a second, such largely familiar scenes are made to appear strange and, in a way diametrically opposed to McCurry’s photography, even exotic.

The final exhibition of photography currently on in the city exhibits the work of New York publican Sheldon Nadelman.  For ten years during the 1970s and ‘80s Nadelman ran the Terminal Bar in Manhattan, a place renowned for being the hang-out of choice for people on the fringes of mainstream society – pimps, drag queens, down and outs.  Throughout these years Nadelman set about creating a remarkable photographic record: he photographed his clients as they sat, drank and smoked in his bar.

Copyright: Sheldon Nadelman

A selection of the more than 2,500 images Nadelman took are currently on display at Trove, the old science museum on Newhall Street.  They are not obviously scenes from a bar but rather are close ups of faces, portraits of the people that made the Terminal the bar it was.   At Trove, essentially an empty warehouse, the photographs are pinned to boards and so from a distance, they appear as a sea of unknown faces.  There are no labels accompanying the images, and it would be difficult to determine that they were taken in a bar at all.  However without any form of mediation, the emphasis in these images is solely on the people, and as you get up close to them and study these nameless faces that they have their most powerful effect.  You begin to see recurring faces in the selection, and often speculate on each person’s story, their lives and relationships with each other.  Although these are people you have of course never met, the stories you construct for them makes them seem somehow familiar – these are not strangers but friends staring contently – and sometimes drunkenly – back at you.

Copyright: Steve McCurry

These exhibitions each provide insights into the various ways photography has and continues to be used as a way of recording aspects of the human condition.  It is almost treated as a way of immortalising scenes or people for future generations.  If McCurry’s style is that of an adventure-photographer, seeking out pictures in far-off places, both Edgerton and Nadelman focus their lenses much closer to home, on the everyday or the mundane.  Both McCurry’s and Nadelman’s photographs also raise particularly vexed questions in relation to the ethics of photography – the relationship between the western eye and the ‘Other’, or of the uneven relationship between photographer and photographed.  Did the ‘Afghan girl’, or any of Nadelman’s drinkers for that matter, have any idea their images would be shown in galleries – of whatever kind – around the world?

This is the other crucial point that these three exhibitions each allude to.  The diversity of venues for each shows the advantages of thinking outside of the box when it comes to showcasing photography – or art of any kind – in a city like Birmingham.  McCurry’s exhibition has been heavily promoted across the city, and as a result has received excellent attendances. A venue such as Trove strips away some of the formalness of conventional art galleries and allows you to experience art in a less mediated way.  Finally, taking art out of the art gallery altogether and placing in it venues such as the shopping malls allows you to reach new audiences entirely.  In the current climate of cuts, and with the arts a prime target, these exhibitions provide a blueprint for the imaginative thinking required in Birmingham for it to move ahead.

The Steve McCurry retrospective is on at BMAG until the 17th of October; The Harold Edgerton exhibition is on until the 5th of September in the Pallasades Shopping Centre; the Sheldon Nadelman exhibition can be seen by appointment only at Trove (old science museum) – visit trove.org.uk for details

The final installment…InBirmingham in NYC

9 Aug

By James Bagan

It was the one part of our trip that I was looking forward to the most and it didn’t disappoint. Most of us have seen films like The Godfather or Taxi Driver and scenes in those films just make you wonder what New York has to offer – it’s intriguing and it is almost intimidating. I accept, those two films don’t paint the prettiest picture of New York but they’re the first that came to mind. I’m not much of a ‘movie buff’. Nevertheless, walking around Manhattan for the first time – it was a feeling that won’t escape me for a long time yet.

We’d just travelled from Queens where the night time was almost busier than the day – probably for the wrong reasons.  Plenty of people had told me beforehand “it’s exactly what you think it’s like” and it really rang true. Yellow cabs everywhere, thousands of people walking the streets, locals and tourists. The heat hit us straight away, very muggy, very humid, we’d walked head first into a heatwave. And then, right in front of us was the New York Times building.

I need to mention is the manner in which we arrived in New York. Unbelievable. We’d hired a car and had it for no more than 30 hours, with the final drop off point being in Manhattan, 11th Street.  That, without doubt, was the most difficult thing (practically speaking) I’ve ever done… but the feeling was incredible. Driving to and through New York, with my two best friends, listening to The Strokes and Oasis. What more could I want?

Whilst there, our days were filled with walking, seeing the sights of New York. Whether it was The Statue of Liberty, The Dakota, Times Square (where we randomly bumped Man City coach Brian Kidd) Broadway, The Museum of Modern Art, Central Park, Ground Zero or 5th Ave, we saw and did as much as we could.  The evenings offered something different, ranging from friendly ‘local’ bars to places where being offered a white line, with the back drop of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, was customary. I declined.

It was a busy 4 days that we spent there – of course we wanted to see everything we could and do everything we wanted. In all honesty, another 4 days would have still probably not been enough to see Manhattan in all its glory. And then we’d still have Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx and Staten Island to conquer… we had our highs, and our lows (which 3 best friends don’t?) but what we did have was an incredible time together.

We saw all sides of New York life – from the highs of being able to walk Times Square marvelling at the ‘Big Apple’ that we were lucky enough to experience, to the lows of seeing how the poor suffer in one of the richest cities in the world. You begin to question how this could happen but you quickly realise that it’s just life. Unfortunately it happens everywhere.

New York, New York.

More Tales from the States…InBirmingham in Philly

5 Aug

Following our flight to New York and a few hours sleep we – in a brief homage to Jack Kerouac –  took a greyhound bus to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Before any initial research on the City our collective knowledge of Philadelphia extended little further than  ‘that was where the Fresh Prince lived before he moved to Bel Air.’ It took only a brief trawl through a few guides and information pages to realise that ‘Philly’ had a lot more to offer.

There is a comparison to be drawn to our own City here. Philadelphia at the last count had a population of over five million, and is steeped in history as the home of the US declaration of independence, also briefly serving as the country’s capital in the late 18th Century. Now I think it would be safe to say that without any research most of our counterparts from across the pond would struggle to come up with a fact about Birmingham, if they’d even heard of the place. Regardless of such and like Philly, our City remains one of the biggest and most historically important places in the country.

After dumping our bags our first port of call was to grab a bite to eat and it was never going to be a difficult decision, as one of the things the city is most famous for is it’s Philadelphia Cheesesteaks. So we grabbed two Cheesesteaks and a chicken Cheesesteak along with a round of local Pennsylvania beers. The meal was filling if unspectacular but served us well as we sat outside taking in the atmosphere of the city’s downtown. Having very briefly passed through Times Square on route to the bus station earlier that day, it was a remarkable change of pace. There was a laid back reminiscently European feel to the area and it seemed completely untainted (for want of a better word) by the overwhelming tourist culture we briefly witnessed hours previously.

As the evening progressed we showered and headed out to sample the downtown nightlife. After bar hopping briefly and fulfilling a lifelong dream of sitting on bar stools at an American bar while drinking local beers, we settled on a place close to where we were staying. As we wiled the night away we got chatting to people from the area who were extremely welcoming and happy to talk us through the cool places to hang out, the best places to get a cheesesteak and the numerous transatlantic differences (we call football soccer etc). Following last orders at around 2am we took a brief stroll to a bridge overlooking the Delaware river which dissects the city, before eventually hitting the hay.

The following morning after a much needed Berocca and a bagel spread with Philadelphia – when in Rome, (or should that be Philly?) – we wondered round the city. Eventually we ended up at the National Constitution Centre, a building dedicated the signing of the American constitution and the declaration of independence. We spent an hour or two wandering around an exhibition which cited similarities between America and Ancient Rome before watching a performance on the declaration of independence and formation of the constitution. The centre was on the whole and entertaining informative if a little over dramatised at times. Of particular interest was the fact that the city was the place where numerous events of significance the American Revolution actually took place.

A quick ride on the subway later and we found ourselves on a coach full of supporters heading to watch the Philadelphia Union soccer team take on Toronto FC. For a group of avid football fans this was a particular highlight and it was interesting talking to local fans to find out that the team had only existed for a year yet was already attracting crowds of around 18,000 each week, a sign that the sport is on the rise in the states. The game itself was far from a classic but it was the atmosphere that was the actual intention of the visit and we soaked that up. A hot dog and a bag of crisps in hand we were taken aback when on entering the stadium the entire crowd were on their feet singing the national anthem – something i’d never experienced at a club football match before.

On the journey home in search of a Walmart we stumbled across something of a Bohemian haven in the area of South Street. After grabbing some bread and cheese, a cheap bottle of vodka and a bottle of root beer – in true travellers fashion – we decided that was where we’d spend our second night. This was a relatively relaxed night, in the knowledge that we were moving on to some as-yet unknown destination the following morning. We spent almost the entire evening sat at a bar chewing the fat, somewhat reminiscent of a Clint Eastwood movie. The next morning we headed out early on and grabbed an incredibly tasty salad before making the somewhat ill-conceived decision of taking a random waitress’s advice on where to spend our next night and heading to the train station.

Birmingham needs to lose its inferiority complex

28 Jul

The InBirmingham team arrived back in Birmingham with a bump this week after a short break in the USA.  First there was the confirmation that, as expected, Birmingham had lost out to Derry in its bid to become 2013 city of culture.  Then, on the day we arrived, there was the announcement from the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt that a number of quangos, including the widely respected UK Film Council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), would be abolished.  The announcement, which came without notice or consultation, is widely expected to pose a serious threat to the arts in Britain in their current form.

Yet our trip to the States had left us feeling inspired by the way in which arts and culture had been showcased in museums and galleries in the different cities we visited.  In different instances, with widely contrasting subject matter, each gallery we saw displayed both regional and international material in ways that stimulated their audiences without ever talking down to them, dealing with serious and often-complex issues without ever lecturing.

Unsurprisingly, the two most shining examples of this came from New York.  First, the city’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  Alongside exhibitions that presented new insights into the work of established greats like Picasso and Matisse, the gallery also showcased the work of a group of local architects who had been asked to submit designs for installations to go in the museum courtyard.

Helen Levitt, New York Street Photographer

There was also an encompassing retrospective on the way in which women have used photography as a medium to push its boundaries and challenge their position in society, including work by the renowned New York ‘street photographer’ Helen Levitt.

However arguably even more impressive was the city’s International Centre of Photography.  With space far more limited than at MoMA, there were just two exhibitions open.  The first dealt with the theme of the photographer’s perspective, in particular their perspective on the people around them.  The show was stolen by the Californian photographer Ed Templeton.

Ed Templeton - "Kids Kiss"

As well a gifted photographer, Templeton is also a professional skateboarder, and his work forms a uniquely intimate portrait of American youth in the 21st Century.  His photographs were displayed almost haphazardly across the wall, as if reflecting the nature of the lives Templeton is depicting.

‘Photography’ is taken in its broadest sense at the Centre, to mean all examples of visual imagery.  The largest exhibition currently on there – ‘For all the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights’, was a tour de force into the significance of the visual image to the civil rights movement in particular and American society in general.  The viewer was continually pulled one way and then another, seeing how on the one hand images were used to permeate racist stereotypes in advertising or by the Ku Klux Klan, and then on the other hand how photographs by people such as Robert Parks were able to draw attention to the black struggle and humanise it in the eyes of a deeply conservative society.  The footage of Malcolm X renouncing his previous surname live on American television provided a fitting end to a compelling exhibition.

On one level, of course, it may be arbitrary to compare the established art scene of New York with that of Birmingham.  A city the size of New York with such a reputation will always attract people happy to queue around the block and pay top dollar to see top art.  The relative level of investment in both scenes is another area of massive disparity.  Yet on another level, this is precisely the point.  If Birmingham is ever going to become a truly world class cultural city, it needs to start comparing itself with the very best.  There is an inferiority complex inherent to much of what the city does, something which this blog feels may have characterised the city’s bid to become capital of culture.  This needs to end now if Birmingham is ever to find its feet on the world stage.  The other issue relates to that of investment.  This is sadly not to do with the culture of the city but rather the culture of a new government ideologically committed to cuts no matter what the consequences.  By disbanding bodies such as the MLA, the government have made it all the more difficult for cities such as Birmingham to achieve their untapped potential.  Either way, both government and the city could do no better than look across the pond at New York City for inspiration.

InBirmingham is two months old!

13 Jul

In Birmingham turned two months old this month, so as a result we  have decided to take an entirely (un)deserved holiday in America.  But we won’t be abandoning our blogging while we’re away.  Over the next ten days we will be visiting three very different cities in the States: Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York.  We’ll be soaking up the atmosphere and cultural highlights and comparing what we find with what we know in Birmingham.

Although absolutely coincidental, the timing seems somehow appropriate.  If reports are to be believed, Birmingham is set to miss out on another capital of culture bid, this time to Derry in Northern Ireland.  If this is the case (the result is formally announced on Thursday the 15th July), the city could do with taking stock and learning lessons from other cities around the world.  As well as looking in on itself and celebrating what it already has, to compete on an international level Birmingham has to start engaging internationally.  We hope to contribute to this in a very small way (and also have a lot of fun in the process).

We’ll post our findings, along with some holiday snaps, here when we get back.  You can also follow us while we’re away on twitter @InBirmingham.

Happy trails!

Exclusive extract from local author John Dalton’s new book, Urban Nature Notebook

12 Jul

Below is an exclusive extract from Birmingham author John Dalton’s new book, Urban Nature Notebook.  Dalton is the author of two novels, The City Trap and The Concrete Sea, both published by Tindal Street Press (copies available to buy here).  His new book is a collection of short accounts of the author’s encounters with urban nature as he travels around the city.  Dalton is currently seeking a suitable publisher – anyone interested should email kieranconnell@fastmail.co.uk.

John Dalton © 2010.  All Rights Reserved.

A FATAL SKY

Saturday, hot and humid, high-pressure weather has been around a few days now, the sky pregnant with heavy, voluminous clouds.  The day before had seen thunder, lightning and torrential rain, but Saturday was better, the sun beamed down through the sultry air and the clouds seemed more distant.  Until the afternoon that is, when the humidity began to build again and the sky became overcast.  I thought I’d hoof it over to the allotments and pick my strawberries.  One day’s downpour they could take, but another and I worried they could start to rot or become victim to a slug invasion.  By the time I get up there on the site, the weather is beginning to turn bad.  There are rumbles of thunder, menacing cumulus clouds are towering in the east and I feel spits of rain.  I get to my strawberries and start to pick, conscious of the thunder and aware I’m crouching next to a tree.  My concern increases when I see a vicious stab of lightning from cloud to ground in the direction of Small Heath. The following thunder is distinctively loud.  I fill my punnets to the full and replace the netting, noticing the light has an eerie yellowness and realizing everyone else on the allotments has gone.  I rush home but, in the end, the storm does not come, no overhead cacophony or incessant downpour.  All that happened somewhere else, Small Heath in fact and it had terrible consequences.  There are reasons why you might be out in thundery weather.  I had one and so did the youth in Small Heath Park.  It was the weekend.  It was hot and sunny.  It was a time for a game of cricket.  Cricket was good, especially with world cup success for Pakistan.  No doubt the youth’s game had some of that, the magisterial posturing of Afridi, until heavy cloud settled overhead, thunder rumbled and the rain came lashing down.  Within the expanses of the park there would be little choice but to shelter under a tree.  And so, several miles away at the same time, I saw the fatal lightning flash, the one that struck the tree where six youth sheltered.  The shock was intense, the burns were bad, Mohammed Junaid Hussain, 17, took a direct hit and didn’t make it.