As Yorkshire prepares to launch the Tour de France in July, Caroline Bishop reveals how the county’s arts community has organised a very British festival to celebrate this most French of sporting events
Blink and you’ll miss it. After all the anticipation of the Tour de France’s first visit to the UK since 2007, the peloton will flash past spectators in seconds as it travels through England from 5 to 7 July after the Grand Départ in Leeds.
But Yorkshire, which hosts the first two stages, isn’t going to let the event pass by that easily. For the first time in Le Tour’s history the world’s most famous road cycling race will be preceded by a 100-day arts festival aiming to build excitement and “grow the party,” says Henrietta Duckworth, the producer of Yorkshire Festival 2014.
“Le Tour has got a massive audience, but it does only take place in Yorkshire on two days,” continues Duckworth, formerly a producer at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Manchester International Festival. “It was the intention to extend that opportunity, to take the 100-day countdown that the Tour de France focuses on every year as a starting point so that we could build a big festival.”
Call it the Olympic effect. After the success of London 2012 and the Cultural Olympiad that surrounded it, there is now, according to Duckworth, “a very natural link in the UK for large-scale sporting events to be accompanied by opportunities for people to get further involved and have a celebration of those achievements.”
It’s natural, too, for sport to be celebrated in art. “There isn’t a huge gap between the world of sport and the world of art,” she says, drawing a comparison between the collaboration necessary for both creating an artistic project and riding in a peloton. “Sports people and arts people are really passionate about their work. It’s the same kind of dedication.”
The festival is also an opportunity to showcase the region’s creative talents with the world watching – no wonder the response from its arts community was enthusiastic. After an open call for projects to be part of the festival, Duckworth received 400 submissions from organisations in the county, which she and her team whittled down to 47.
“We were selecting projects on the basis of the strength of the idea and the response to the themes that we had set – the ideas of true grit, determination, hard work and endeavour that we felt were common between the Yorkshire psyche and the Tour de France,” says Duckworth.
Celebrating the bicycle, the great outdoors and the spirit of Yorkshire, the programme expresses the imagination, humour and creativity of local people. It includes The Sheffield Steel Peloton, a series of workshops where participants can create a steel bicycle by learning to smelt and shape locally extracted iron ore; a celebration of all things sheep in the village of Kettlewell; outdoor film screenings about the history of the bicycle; and The Grand Departs, an attempt by Calderdale cyclists to pull a grand (pun intended) piano up the six miles of England’s longest continuous road climb at Cragg Vale, while the piano is played by musicians. Meanwhile the route of Le Tour will be animated by ten woolly bikes crocheted by a local artist and volunteers using yarn from Yorkshire sheep, and giant living artworks will be created by sowing and cutting patterns into the South Pennines landscape.
Of course, French culture is not forgotten. Harewood House near Leeds, which welcomes Le Tour through its grounds on 5 July, is exhibiting its collection of 18th-century Sèvres porcelain, including pieces formerly owned by Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at Versailles, while a group of Yorkshire singers will perform a concert of French chansons.
Most events are free and public participation is key. “The offer of the festival is not just about attending some of the big outdoor spectaculars, it’s about getting creative yourself,” says Duckworth. “We are really keen for people to break out from their normal routines and have a go at something where there is every opportunity and no risk.”
One such opportunity is to be a cyclist in the Ghost Peloton, which sees Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre team up with NVA, a Scottish company that creates participatory artistic events like no other. Its recent project, Speed of Light, involved hundreds of runners wearing remote-controlled light suits producing beautiful patterns as they ran on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh after dark. Ghost Peloton translates that to two wheels by illuminating 50 volunteer riders who will cycle in a live choreographed performance, creating light patterns as they go.
“I fell in love with the Tour de France three or four years ago,” says Angus Farquhar, NVA’s creative director. “It’s just such a beautiful sport, for its ferocity and its physical demands. It creates something that is eternally graceful, so it was a nice challenge to imagine how we might adapt what we had done with runners to bicycles.”
In addition to the live performance, held in a former brewery in central Leeds in front of several thousand people in May, Ghost Peloton will produce a series of pre-recorded films to be displayed along the route of Le Tour as the competitors pass through Yorkshire on 5 and 6 July.
Like many projects in the programme, it is ambitious, inventive and slightly bonkers. What will the French think? “Les rosbifs sont fous!” jokes Farquhar.
“This is a way of adding extra value to the Tour de France experience which we really hope the organisers enjoy and appreciate,” says Duckworth, who would love to see the festival set a precedent for future Grands Départs.
However, while none of this would be happening without this innately French sporting event, Duckworth agrees there is something particularly British about a festival that allows people to crochet a bicycle and pull a piano up a hill. “It’s eclectic, it’s quirky, it’s fun and it’s not taking itself too seriously, which is what we do best in Britain.”
Yorkshire Festival 2014 takes place from 27 March to 6 July. The full programme is available at yorkshirefestival.co.uk. For details of the Tour de France’s three UK stages see letouryorkshire.com