Categories: Arts & Culture

It’s a kid’s world

Roving performer Nikolai Smith

This year the Northern Alberta International Children’s Festival celebrates its 30th birthday and it’s become a cultural destination that is here to stay.

While many arts festivals launch with a lot of hoopla and then sputter within a few years, this festival has expanded and miraculously morphed into an efficient, well-oiled machine without losing the vital energy and spontaneity that fuelled its success.

It’s a special five-day outdoor event from May 31 to June 4 where adults create a fun bubble for children, and import artists from all over the world to share their culture, stories and myths.

This year there is a wide range of entertainment from African legends and a sci-fi escape to puppetry fantasy and b-boy dancing. Walking through the grounds are stiltwalkers, acrobats, clowns, comedians, singers and hoop artists.

“My first impression was that it was amazing,” says Nikolai Smith. Known to festival munchkins simply as Nikolai, he is a roving site artist that has entertained thousands of mesmerized children the past 17 years. This year he returns as Captain Garlic, Gwadi the Troll and a stiltwalker.

“It has this incredible atmosphere that is difficult for any other festival to duplicate. I’ve travelled all over the world — Europe and Asia. There are beautiful festivals but nothing quite like International Children’s Festival. Part of it is the volunteers and part of it is the location.”

Situated on the banks of the slow-moving Sturgeon River, it perfectly combines two diametrically opposite qualities — the tranquillity of nature with the explosive fun of a carnival.

Back in 1982, the festival was originally conceived as the Citadel Theatre’s baby. Admission for children was $3.50. Adults paid a dollar more.

But as an indoor festival, it suffered growing pains. Downtown Edmonton provided little room to geographically expand, and Robin Philips, then the artistic director, chose to allocate the theatre’s funding elsewhere.

Gail Barrington-Moss, St. Albert’s cultural services director, persuaded city council to bring the festival to St. Albert. The only proviso was that the festival had to be self-operating without taxpayer funds.

Moving the festival to St. Albert in 1995 with its huge green belt along the river was, in hindsight, a stroke of genius. Festival director Nancy Abrahamson, then volunteer co-ordinator, remembers many city employees took on an extra slice of work to get if off the ground.

“I had no idea what it would look like. No one did. Gail had a vision, but there was that bit of the unknown.”

The early years brought in artists such as Dr. I Wonder’s science circus and Black Umfolosi, a Zimbabwe song and dance troupe famous for their Gum Boot Dance. Site activities were free.

The outdoor stage came alive only on weekends with local amateur performers, and there was barely a handful of roving artists strolling along the river pathway. “But it created a sense of being a different world where childhood dreams come true,” Nikolai reminisces.

Today the river path is dotted with the Canadian Heritage Trail, a mix of 15 professional artists and local amateurs exploding across the outdoor stage.

Through the years, organizers have animated the festival in different ways says Abrahamson. They have always selected curriculum-based acts that range from the touchy, feel-good saccharin to more provocative, edgy works.

The $1.4-million festival, backed by sponsorship, government grants, ticket sales, donations and the city’s in-kind support, now attracts about 60,000 visitors from across Alberta.

“There’s lots we could pick from, but it has to be the right artist, someone who brings the best of what they do,” Abrahamson says.

She adds there is no parking on site and encourages everyone to hop on the free park and ride shuttle bus at St. Albert Centre that operates during festival hours.


Northern Alberta International Children’s Festival
May 31 to June 4
Downtown St. Albert
Tickets: $8.50 to $20. Call 780-459-1542 or purchase online at www.ticketmaster.ca
Check www.childfest.com for more info

Anna Borowiecki: Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.