World United By Dance (Billingham, Carmen Avalos, 2016)

Enfolded within a spiral ramp in Billingham town centre, ‘World United by Dance’ is a sculpture by Mexican artist Carmen Avalos, and was commissioned to celebrate 50 years of Billingham International Folklore Festival of World Dance.

Councillor Bob Cook with artist Carmen Avalos and dancers at the sculpture’s unveiling (courtesy of Bob Cook)

Cast in bronze, the work was unveiled on 17th August 2016 by Avalos and Billingham Councillor Bob Cook, who said that the sculpture, “beautifully depicts over fifty years of world dance coming to Billingham,”

He added: “Being a boy growing up in Billingham the Folklore Festival was a big part of my childhood, as I remember the whole community coming together to welcome and enjoy the wonderful dancers, costumes and music. The town is lucky to have a festival that enables us to attract performers from all over the world for an annual exchange of different cultural customs.”

I was fortunate enough to interview internationally-renowned sculptor Carmen Avalos (by email and via interpreter Rodrigo Labarthe Álvarez) in October 2022. Here’s a transcript:

Billingham is a long way from Mexico, and isn’t the best-known place in the world (or even the UK). How did you get involved with the town?

Billingham might be far, far away from Mexico, yet it’s close to the heart.

I was part of the Ballet folcrórico (folklore ballet company) of Universidad de Guadalajara under the conduction of maestro Rafael Zamarripa. Thanks to him, I had the opportunity of travelling with the ballet company to lovely Billingham. Our company was invited by Olga and Joe Maloney to take part in the International Folklore Festival. Thanks to that, I visited the town several times.

Ballet Folclórico de la Universidad de Guadalajara

A few years later, I was invited by Olga to organise an art exhibition of paintings in the town, while also participating with the folklore ballet. During that visit I set up a painting exhibition, from where the installation Netotiloz was born, with music composed by the filmmaker Jessica Smith.

Jessica invited the Teesside Dance School to see my exhibition, looking for inspiration in order to dance to the emotions that my paintings were producing in them. It was wonderful and later on the same installation was taken to several museums in Mexico, with huge success. The following year, I was invited by Olga Maloney – an extraordinary human being – to create a sculpture project on the subject of world dance. I gladly accepted and decided to take on that huge challenge.

Photos by Danielle Cutler

What was the inspiration behind the sculpture? What is your process when creating a work like this?

The inspiration came from Olga Maloney’s proposition of creating a sculpture representing all the countries in the world coming together through dance. At that moment, my imagination began to fly and I started to visualise how could I make a sculpture symbolising all the world cultures united by the act of dancing. When she offered me such a huge challenge, I wasn’t sure about accepting it, but at the same time, it was so exciting.

As a dancer and sculptor, my mind was full of images of everything we could do in such a project. Particularly in our traditional dances, a very important element is the movement of the skirt, so we could try to reproduce that in the sculpture. It was such a big responsibility since we would not be able to involve all the world’s dancers, so I looked for inspiration on the Sufi Dance or Dance of the Universe, which is a dance of the souls looking for unity among all human beings. At that time, I decided the sculpture would be called: World United by Dance

Avalos in Edinburgh with the sculpture in clay

Where was the work manufactured? Who was involved?

I worked on the draft and the scale model of the sculpture in my workshop in Mexico for about three months. Then, it was sent to Billingham, but I received the sad news that the model had arrived broken in several parts. I had to spend quite a few days working on reproducing it. When the proposed sculpture was approved, it was sent to be cast in bronze in the facilities of Bolt foundry.

How was your experience of working in the North East? How long were you here? Any abiding memories?

It was amazing. It was really cold, but it was great. I keep unforgettable memories.

World United by Dance can still be seen in Billingham centre, very close to Edward Bainbridge Copnall’s wonderful Family Group.

‘World United by Dance’ was funded by Arts Council England and Stockton Council with additional support by private sponsors including St Modwen, Billingham Town Council, Billingham Community News, WM Fortune & Son and Croft Coach Travel.

Thank you to Carmen Avalos, Robert Cook, Olga Maloney, Danielle Cutler and translator Rodrigo Labarthe Álvarez for their help with this article.

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