A 16ft high iron giant, acrobats, ballet dancers, musicians and even a floating art gallery will all be crowding into Birmingham to provide two weekends packed full of free entertainment.

The al fresco arts explosion begins this weekend with Summer in Southside, taking place around the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Attractions include The Iron Man drama from disabled performers and Motionhouse dance company holding audiences Captive.

That’s the warm up for a massive outdoor spectacular from September 6-8, to celebrate the opening of the new Library of Birmingham.

The city’s leading arts organisations have joined together for the first time to stage 4 Squares Weekender. Around 200 individual events involving 650 performers will take place in and around Victoria, Centenary, Chamberlain and Oozells Squares.

Organisers are hoping that up to 100,000 people, both locals and visitors, will pour into the city centre for the event – and are confident they will come, rain or shine.

Town Hall and Symphony Hall plus Birmingham Opera Company

It’s the first major enterprise from the Birmingham Arts Partnership of all the city’s leading cultural organisations, including Birmingham Royal Ballet, the CBSO, Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham Rep, Ikon Gallery, The Drum, MAC, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Town Hal and Symphony Hall, Sampad, Birmingham Opera Company, Ex Cathedra and DanceXchange.

Producing the event on behalf of BAP is the Hippodrome and its new creative programme director Paul Kaynes.

Last year he was the creative programmer for the West Midlands for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, putting on events like The Voyage, Wings of Desire and the extraordinary Mittwoch aus Licht opera using helicopters.

So he’s used to dealing with outdoor arts.

Paul Kaynes, creative programme director of Birmingham Hippodrome
Paul Kaynes, creative programme director of Birmingham Hippodrome
 

“They are definitely becoming more popular,” says Paul. “Last year showed what we can do in Birmingham – for the first time in a while, we saw our spaces used in imaginative ways and they looked great.

“We have some of the best public squares anywhere in the country and the arts really show them off. Because they are right in the city centre, people find their way to them in large numbers. There’s a huge appetite for this work.

“Look at all the people who turned out last year to follow the Olympic torch relay, even when it rained.

“Outdoor events are about communities coming together, but we’re also marketing them for visitors as they are worth travelling to.

“Theatre ticket prices can be a barrier, so it’s good to remove that for these free events. People are used to standing in these squares every day and if we put shows on, they are happy to give arts a go which they might avoid if they were inside a building.

“We are trying to use new and unusual spaces, such as the Ikon’s narrow boat, the two beautifully-landscaped terraces in the library and the new amphitheatre in Centenary Square which has amazing acoustics.

“We’re building a stage in Chamberlain Square but most of the events are happening on the ground. Centenary Square will be turned into a village square, to give that sense of being in a green space, for the Musical Picnic. There will be pop-up music and dance performances including ones by Birmingham saxophonist Soweto Kinch.”

As The World Tipped will kick off the 4 Squares Weekender on the Friday night and be repeated on Saturday in Victoria Square. It’s a large-scale show to rival The Voyage, performed by Wired Aerial Theatre and combining dramatic visuals on a 40ft high screen with aerial performances.

Paul says: “The best description I’ve heard of it is that it’s a large scale disaster movie in the sky.

“There’s an amazing moment when the horizontal stage turns into a vertical one and performers dance in the sky. It’s great fun but it also carries an important message about climate change.”

Ikon’s Slow Boat is a 72ft narrow boat moored at Brindleyplace which has been converted into a floating art gallery.

Also outside the Ikon, families can build a giant city from clay.

Birmingham Rep will provide impromptu surprise performances and food-inspired stories in its four converted caravans, while Ex Cathedra and Birmingham Opera Company will perform inside the library itself.

In Chamberlain Square, The Drum’s Simmer Down stage hosts reggae, ska, bhangra, sufi and hip hop from the likes of Musical Youth and Tippa Irie.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery present a day of film courtesy of the Flatpack Festival, while Birmingham Royal Ballet and DanceXchange take over the Town Hall.

As for this being the Birmingham Arts Partnership’s first event, Paul says: “Birmingham is very fortunate in having this range and quality of arts organisations – very few cities can match it, and this partnership is unique.

“We have all come together to show how strong and innovative we are, and to mark the opening of the Library of Birmingham, a very important moment of which the whole country will take note. It’s the largest cultural opening in the country this year and is likely to be for several years to come, given the current economic climate.

As The World Tipped performed by Wired Aerial Theatre
As The World Tipped performed by Wired Aerial Theatre
 

“At a time when libraries are under great pressure, Birmingham is doing something very bold and exciting by investing in the knowledge economy.”

NoFit State Circus are taking part in both the Summer in Southside and 4 Squares events. The contemporary group explode from their caravans for a series of circus taste workshops, performances and impromptu stunts.

Also at Summer in Southside this weekend, based in the Arcadian and closed-off streets around the Hippodrome, Rosa Parkin and the Chinese Jitterbug girls from Dans La Poche present a show set in a 1920s Shanghai tea house.

The Black Eagles are amazing acrobats originally from Tanzania, East Africa. The trio learned their skills on the streets of Dar-es-Salaam.

Upswing, performed by Red Shoes, uses a mixture of dance, Chinese pole and circus techniques to take the audience through a magical forest.

Captive by Motionhouse is emotional and highly-physical dance and aerial work from the Leamington Spa-based company. Four dancers are confined within a steel cage and fight for their survival.

But the most visually striking work at Summer in Southside comes from Graeae Theatre Company.

Several of the performers in the company – a mix of disabled, deaf and non-disabled actors and musicians – took part in last year’s Paralympics opening ceremony, performing Ian Dury’s Spasticus Autisticus.

Now they are telling the story of The Iron Man, based on Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel. Each performance lasts 35 minutes and will be staged at 1pm and 5.15pm on the Saturday and Sunday in the Hippodrome Dock, accessed via Inge Street.

The Iron Man’s unexpected arrival in a small community terrifies the residents, but he befriends a small boy and ends up defending everyone from a monster from outer space.

The imposing 16ft structure was created two years ago and is operated through an intricate network of wheelchair components.

Co-director Amit Sharma, who is mobility impaired, explains: “There’s a lot of resonance between the Iron Man and our company – the idea of him being different and people’s reactions to him. They are scared at first but come to accept him because of his differences.

“But we are creating work that’s accessible to all. Everyone can identify with the theme of being an outsider and feeling isolated.

“He was built by our designer, a puppeteer and a metalwork designer. He is operated by two people – a wheelchair user manoeuvres him using a wheelchair joystick, and a non-disabled performer at the top operates his head and arms.

“There are eight performers in all, including two who do British sign language as part of the show and an actor doing a live audio description, in character, so they can react to any little moments that don’t go to plan. It means we are accessible to people with hearing and sight loss.

“There’s a big reveal when we unveil the Iron Man and children can get scared. Some of the little ones are still wary of him by the end, but we invite people up to meet him afterwards and most want to shake his hand.

“The audience’s reaction is what’s thrilling. One of the great things about doing a free outdoor show is that anyone can come. We capture audiences that are not usual theatre audiences, and the Iron Man appeals to all generations.

“We’re very excited about bringing him to Birmingham. We’ve performed at the Rep before but never outside.

“Rain is not a problem for us. We’ve been rained on before and audiences have stayed with us, unless it’s really bucketing down. People just put umbrellas up.

“That’s a testament to the story and the fact the performers are slogging their guts out to bring it to life.

“And it’s the British mentality to carry on, whatever the weather!”