Play in a new way at the Belfast Children's Festival 2021

Jenny Lee speaks to two artists who have created very different works for this year's Belfast Children's Festival: a children's dance piece aimed at exploring our natural world and a children's horror opera retelling the story of the Pied Piper

Eibhlin deBarra, director of Young at Art pictured with Maeve McGreevy and Michael McEvoy, Maiden Voyage Dance at the launch of Belfast Children's Festival 2021

WITH contemporary dance based on the theme of hope, a performance set in a post-pandemic future and an exhibition that explores the magic of everyday items found in the home, the line-up for the Belfast Children's Festival 2021 feels very much like art imitating life.

Taking place online over an extended period of March 5 to 14, the festival is packed with creative experiences for children and young people.

"We've learnt that we can still play in a new way. And this?year that is vital, as we believe arts and creativity is needed more now than ever before," says Young at Art Director, Eibhlin De Barra.

The festival programme will premiere a new horror opera for children from The Belfast Ensemble. Conor Mitchell's darkly comic opera The Musician retells a familiar story: who was the Pied Piper? And why did the rats all dance to his tune?

The cautionary tale explores themes of nature, nurture and just desserts.

"The moral of the story is about not judging people because of their actions," Conor explains.

"The word 'talent' seems so democratic; but the message of the show is that talent isn't always a gift and how you can use music for good or you can use music for bad."

So why choose the medium of a horror opera?

"I watched a lot of children's theatre that dealt in the realms of magic but they were all very beautiful. There was nothing out there that dealt with the more horrible side of life, and I wanted to find a fun way in which to navigate that."

A narrator and four members of The Belfast Ensemble guide viewers through the story, accompanied by a 16-piece orchestra made up of local musicians and original film material. Recorded live, Conor describes The Musician as "an event" and is keen that children who watch the show "get a very clear sense of how music is made".

"It's about opening their eyes and ears. They will see people playing violins and flutes and cellos and trombones.

"Musical instruments are these amazing and magical things that don't always just have to be playing beautiful music. In the hands of musicians they can make the most amazing sounds, such as the sound of rats from the bows scraping the backs of strings.

"I hope The Musician leaves children so fascinated that they want to run off and learn how to play the flute and make music themselves."

Elsewhere in the festival, younger audiences will delight in a double bill of quirky dance films aimed at inspiring imagination and movement. Insect Hands and Sunny Days, created by Rosie Heafford, winner of the Arts Foundation Children's Theatre Shortlist Award, were filmed outside to encourage children to explore the world beneath their feet.

Children's art and dance is vital for encouraging physical and mental wellbeing at any time, but even more so in the middle of a global pandemic.

"Hopefully these sensory dance explorations will brighten us up a bit and encourage us to explore the natural world," says Rosie.

She made the show for an online audience after realising "there was a real dearth of movement based art for little ones that didn't tell you specifically how to move".

The films have an accompanying activity pack to download which she hopes further inspires children to move – whether that be by "performing your own insect dance or having a bit of fun in your local park". Their responses can be shared on Second Hand Dance social media streams using #myinsectdance.

Other highlights include Maiden Voyage Dance's new production Turnabout, which features 80 young voices from Belfast Philharmonic Youth and Chamber Choirs and explores stories of hope, and White, a highly visual show for young children featuring men dressed as babies.

Festival favourites like the Book Clinic from Children's Books Ireland, Baby Rave and Dragtime Bedtime Stories with Cherrie OnTop have been specially adapted for online audiences.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren across Belfast tell their stories about lockdown and the pandemic in the My Place virtual exhibition.

:: Belfast Children's Festival performances will be hosted across a range of digital platforms including QFT Player and Zoom. For bookings and programme visit

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