The Russians who brought dancing joy to the Tees Valley

The Russian dance ensemble Radost at the 1988 Billingham International Folklore Festival.
The Russian dance ensemble Radost at the 1988 Billingham International Folklore Festival.

It was perhaps the only place on the planet where an event had links to the Dalai Lama, a Maori tribe, and a Basque group.

This was the Billingham International Folklore Festival, and it is now more than 50-years-old.

A nostalgic look back at the Folklore Festival.

A nostalgic look back at the Folklore Festival.

With this year’s event getting under way on Saturday, we thought we would take a Memory Lane look at the event in years gone by.

In 1988, there was a fantastically varied mix of international talent on show.

For the first time, both New Zealand and Tibet sent acts to Tees Valley. In fact, it was believed to have been the first time any Tibetan dance troupe had performed anywhere in the UK.

The 20-strong troupe was the only surviving one of its country’s folklore heritage. Its patron was his Holiness The Dalai Lama, and our Hartlepool Mail report at the time urged readers to “look out for some impressive masks here.”

It was the first time the town welcomed any New Zealand company, and the Tibetan group performed for the first time in the UK

Hartlepool Mail reporter, 1988

Also on their way to the North East were the New Zealand Maori cultural group. It was made up of members of the First Battalion Royal Infantry Regiment.

Our Mail report at the time said: “Its programme features the fearsome haka or war dances once used to terrify the enemy but now reserved mainly for rugby matches.”

It was a truly spectacular line-up and also included dancers from Russia and Bulgaria who “caused a stir” by turning up early for the festival – and then put their time to good use by entertaining shoppers with performances through the Teesside area.

The unexpected visit of the Radost (meaning joy) troupe from Brest in Russia, and the Natcho Ivanov dancers from Bulgaria, came about by chance.

Both had been expected to appear at another festival in Sidmouth in Devon.

But a procedural problem meant they both had time on their hands and headed further north, leading to the festival chairman Coun Mrs Maureen Taylor saying at the time: “We were taken by surprise somewhat.

“This year we are presenting a good mixed line-up of excellent groups from all over the world.”

Other countries which were represented that year included Greece, Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia, and Mexico whose dancers were described as “exuberant”.

Home-grown talent included the wonderfully named Cat Nab Clog Dancers, the Cashel Ceili Band, An Oige na h’Eireann and the McElvogue School of Irish Dancing.

This year’s festival starts on Saturday, August 13, at 2.30pm, with the opening ceremony featuring all of the international dancers involved at the open air arena.

Later on Saturday, at 5.30pm at the Billingham Forum swimming pool, there will be a synchronised performance by the Balbir Singh Dance Company.

After that, events are planned each day until the farewell gala concert on Saturday, August 20, at 2.30pm at the open air arena.

For more details, visit www.billinghamfestival.co.uk/billinghamfestival/billfest/