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NNF12: Dinosaurs roar monster start to the festival

PUBLISHED: 09:22 11 May 2012

Dinosaur Petting Zoo

Dinosaur Petting Zoo

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This year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival gets under way with prehistoric beasts stalking the streets and the first chance in 65 million years to get close to some of the most amazing animals to walk the Earth. Scott Wright of the Dinosaur Petting Zoo speaks to KEIRON PIM.

Many millions of years ago during the Mesozoic era dinosaurs roamed all over the Earth — but if you ask anyone to name a few, the chances are that they’ll pick out ones that inhabited a particular corner of the planet.

Tyrannosaurus, Diplodocus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus all lived in what is now the western flank of the USA, a country whose cultural influence has led to its dinosaurs assuming pre-eminence in our view of prehistoric life. But almost every other part of the world has a wealth of ancient reptiles with a similar ability to impress and enthral: take Australia, for example.

Scott Wright enthuses about the dinosaurs that once inhabited his homeland: creatures such as the speedy and devastating hunter Australovenator, or the wide-eyed herbivore Leaellynasaura, which lived on the Australian landmass when it lay further south within the polar region, surviving in cold, dark conditions far from the arid or swampy habitats in which we usually imagine dinosaurs.

Scott feels strongly that with so many other curious and exciting dinosaurs to learn about, it is a shame to focus only on the famous ones — and he has come up with a novel way of bringing the lesser-known varieties to life. His background lies in puppetry rather palaeontology, and his Erth theatre company’s team of around 20 part-time staff have created a collection of lifelike puppets that form a highly interactive show.

The Dinosaur Petting Zoo has toured to around 2.5 million people worldwide and this week visits the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

Its appearances in Norwich tomorrow and Sunday, then next Tuesday and Wednesday — followed by visits to King’s Lynn and Swanton Morley next weekend — will be the first dates in the UK, offering Norfolk festival-goers a rare chance to get up close to some remarkably lifelike creations.

“It’s performed like a live animal presentation,” says Scott, “so the format is not dissimilar to what you might see at a zoo or wildlife park where a zookeeper would talk and introduce different animals. The difference is that our animals are all dinosaurs.

“Every dinosaur has an interactive element, whether that’s bringing people up out of the audience to help us look after them, or to explore different aspects of animal husbandry, or maybe letting the dinosaurs loose with the audience.”

So whereas the staff at many zoos might demonstrate feeding time for the lions, in this case you would be more likely to see feeding time for the Australovenator.

“This is a new dinosaur — well, not a new one, they’re all millions of years old, but it was only found about three years ago in Queensland,” Scott explains.

That dinosaur’s discovery in 2009 changed the perception of Australia as a source of dinosaur remains. For a long time palaeontologists despaired of discovering good fossils in Australian rocks; most were crumbling and incomplete, with rare exceptions including the squat, armoured ankylosaur Minmi, which also appears in the show.

Then along came a near-complete skeleton of Australovenator, its name meaning ‘southern hunter’. A lithe, pacey predator the size of a horse, this was a member of the theropods, the group of largely carnivorous dinosaurs that spanned from the giant Giganotosaurus to the minuscule Microraptor, and which contained the ancestors of modern birds.

Its discovery in the sediments of a 100 million-year-old billabong, along with a gigantic long-necked Titanosaur that also features in the Dinosaur Petting Zoo, immediately broadened experts’ understanding of Australia’s deep past.

For Scott and his colleagues, it also improved the likelihood of their discovering more amazing ancient creatures to replicate in puppet form. “We only finished building Australovenator about three weeks ago,” he says. “It’s had a couple of appearances in Australia but basically its world premiere is going to be at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

“We introduce the children to baby dinosaurs and teach them the correct way to let animals eat from your hands. It’s very cute and very endearing. As the show progresses the dinosaurs get bigger and more dangerous, and eventually we introduce this very hungry carnivore!”

The show lasts about 50 minutes. Its origins lie about a decade ago when Scott and his colleagues were given the money to make two model dinosaurs for the Melbourne Museum. “That was the beginning of us building full-bodied, customised dinosaur puppets that were done in consultation with a recognised palaeontologist, and from there it has grown.

“We then built dinosaurs for other museums, and then realised that they were all doing really well out of what we were making for them, so we decided to make something for ourselves.

“So we created this show called Dinosaur Petting Zoo which was in some ways a joke – we never intended to be what it’s become, which is now an international touring show applauded and admired by our peers for creating a work that’s really unique.”

The Dinosaur Petting Zoo is just one of a series of free festival events aimed at families this year, including a colourful kaleidoscope of weird and wacky events at The Garden Party in Chapelfield Gardens this weekend and concluding with the Festival Feast on May 26.

NNF artistic director William Galinsky said the free programme was an important because it united people of all ages and walks of life and encouraged more people to experience the arts.

He said: “The free programme is becoming incredibly important because a lot of it is involving public spaces and bringing people together.

“Some people will hunt out the free programme, while some people will find themselves in the middle of it while they are doing their shopping in the city centre.

“It is a wonderful way of bringing the festival to people who might not normally come and see a show at, for example, the Theatre Royal, the Spiegeltent or St Andrew’s Hall.”

He is particularly enthusiastic about Dinosaur Petting Zoo. “It is one of my favourites because the puppets are so lifelike and to scale, and I am really excited we are taking world-class free performances into the heart of communities. It is important to me that the festival reaches out to people.”

He added: “What I like about Dinosaur Petting Zoo, The Garden Party and all the other free festival events, is that they have the ability to bring people together regardless of age, social background or wealth. That is what the festival should be about — we should celebrate what people have in common.”

t Dinosaur Petting Zoo is at Chapelfield Gardens, May 12 and 13, 12pm and 3pm, and at Millennium Plain on May 15 and 16 at 4.30pm. All events are free and unticketed. For more information visit: www.nnfestival.org.uk

MONSTER START

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival will get off to a monstrous start tonight with Invasion, which promises the incongruous sight of huge mythical beasts stalking through the streets of Norwich.

Prehistoric birds will majestically fly overhead as a mythical world comes alive with all-enveloping experience, as animals move through the crowds and animal voices sound from every direction.

The beasts, coming from all sides, leave people confused: should they follow or flee? But chaos is avoided by a magical song that attracts the animals and restores calm, leaving the crowds to go with the flow as this unique and enthralling free event leads through the streets.

William Galinsky, festival artistic director, said the event would be a great way to start the festival. “The festival launch is a UK premiere of European street art company Close-Act. The show is called Invasion and it is a street spectacle that brings a variety of prehistoric creatures into the centre of Norwich. It is going to be a fantastic and slightly scary experience — make sure you bring the children along!”

Acclaimed Dutch street theatre company Close-Act is a professional company of stilt walkers, dancers, musicians, fire throwers and acrobats, who have been performing together on a regular basis since 1991.

They specialise in visually thrilling large scale productions and Invasion promises to be no different. The spectacle, which begins on Gentleman’s Walk tonight at 9.30pm, certainly promises to be a monstrously exciting start to NNF12.

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