OverWorlds and UnderWorlds – Review

Guest Blogger Karen Griffiths had first dibs at Overworlds and Underworlds in Leeds this weekend, and even managed to come face to face with her heroes. Gasp.

Having long been a fan of the strange worlds of the Quay brothers’ stop motion animation films it was with a great deal of excitement (but also a bit of puzzlement) that I heard they had been asked to mastermind Leeds’ Cultural Olympiad project in 2012. I was at a loss to understand how their tiny, nightmareish worlds of dancing iron filings and eyeless china dolls could be translated into a city-scale performance. The build up to the event has been excruciating with tiny drips of information appearing through social media channels, film clips of young choristers being rehearsed but only the faintest of music being heard, photos of shipwrecks bursting out of pavements and enigmatic references to floods. For someone who likes to plan out their trips to town in some detail I truly felt all at sea.

Thus it was with some trepidation that I made my way to Leeds on Friday evening. I knew that the Dark Arches under Leeds Station with its underground river and brick lined tunnels had been one of the major inspirations for the Quay brothers at the outset of the project and it was here I headed first, plunging headlong into the Underworld as it turned out. The first impression is pretty overwhelming with a cacophony of sound bursting from the darkness that envelopes you. But gradually your eyes get attuned to the projected lights and you can then begin to tentatively feel your way around. Each alcove has a new wonder to explore and I don’t want to spoil the excitement of discovery for weekend visitors by describing every last detail so here are just a few of my personal highlights:

The dancers covered in luminous warpaint like pixilated sprites in a ghostly computer programme, later on returning in white flowing costumes dancing with fleshless floating corpses-like partners – the first of many ghostly apparitions.

The dark angels who seem to have stepped out of the film ‘Constantine’ with their black wings and gothic costumes, carrying suitcases as if they had been evicted from whatever dark corner they normally dwelt in.

The mummified objects in glass cases, one like a hand but with dried up insects heads for fingernails, another a dried, curled up hosta leaf with the empty body of a spiky caterpillar frozen on it.

The silent film of a floating silvery moon over a restless sea.

The coffin shaped light box with its unsettling miniature post apocalyptic landscapes of towering rocks and sinking pylons

Women in evening dresses apparently drowning to the sound of bells.

And throughout there was the sound, recorded and real, of water, rushing, foaming, bubbling and dripping. The river Styx come to life. This really was the centre piece of the whole event with wonderful projections and spotlights revealing distant views of the underground river and close-up details of the arches no-one will have seen before. Make sure you penetrate right to the very heart of the arches because here you will see the climax which is a truly wonderful projection enhanced by specially commissioned music that really clutches at the heart. Before you lies a giant coloured Versailles or the underground water cisterns in a Moorish city or the catacombs under Rome. Marvelous. Eerie. Breathtaking.

I then staggered back out into the light past an apparently murderous game of musical chairs and a puppet water sprite and hurried through the rain (was that specially commissioned too?) up to Briggate and the glass-roofed Victorian splendour of the County Arcade.

quayThe contrast of this light, airy, colourful space – the Overworld – could not have been stronger. Having turned up on time I was treated to a performance by the children of the Opera North chorus who filed in over our heads in the galleried upper storey, dressed up in back cloaks with silver buttons like so many Spanish orphans. They completed the picture with a wonderful opening piece involving syncopated clapping which echoed around the glass ceilings brilliantly. They sang beautifully some very difficult music including some definite Carl Orff which suited the joyful strangeness of the whole evening. And lo and behold, as I left who should I see standing unrecognised among the appreciative audience but the Quay brothers themselves. I gushed like a schoolgirl, they smiled graciously, I ran away.

And after all that glass-covered ethereality, what should I bump into back on Briggate, but a brass band at full blast – brilliant. Away they marched under an arch, followed by a group of happy fans as if the Pied Piper of Hamlyn had come to life. I wandered on down Briggate only to be startled by the sound and then the apparent rematerialization of the same band on the opposite side of the street. A moment of blank confusion and then the first band hove into a view and the two bands had a brilliant confrontation in the middle of Briggate. A disorientating but ultimately fun-filled end to a superbly entertaining evening.

I can guarantee that there will be all this and so much more for the rest of the weekend – check out the www.overworldsandunderworlds.com website for more information including performance times in the County Arcade, but don’t expect there to be too much guidance, it’s up to you to open your minds and hearts to whatever comes your way over what will be a truly magical weekend in Leeds.


  1. hi, i am part of this performance on briggate and the way you have explained it is brilliant. however i feel you missed out our performance by leeds met. we were dancing down briggate, the ladies in white and men in black trousers with gray shirts. our performance overlaped with rachels amazing solo in the arcade and then interacted with the beautifully presented brass band. our perofrmance was pretty central and from here people were lead down towards the dark arches. our main piece was staged right infront of the sculpture and large crowds gathered to watch us perform. afterwards we all took a walk down to the dark arches were we were all amazed by the level of performers. i personally was very inspired by what i watched and the people i spoke to last night. we will again be performing on briggate today and tomorrow. i hope you have chance to see our performance and incorporate it in the event as a whole.
    Many thanks,


    1. Matthew I totally agree, if there was one thing that made this hang together it was dance. It was also the thing, on Briggate that drew in the “non-art” audience, making this far more of an encounter for the people of Leeds. It was brilliant, and you should be very proud.

      Rachel Krische’s solo connected with the choir (clapping) and your work connected at the other end with the battling brass bands. The Dark Arches also had a lot of world class dance.

      Overall, my main criticism of this work has been the way that it hangs together curatorially and in terms of experience design. Your work connected the choir and the brass band in a really intelligent, highly skilled transdisciplinary way. Well done.

  2. It was great to see this sort of event in Leeds and great to see so many people really enjoying it. The biggest thing to come out of it though is a reminder of just how great the dark arches are and how we should showcase them more. These sort of events are perfect and although it is great to see something different it would be nice to see the arches hosting event with an even broader appeal. I am thinking something like each arch having a stage of the cross at Easter and around Christmas turning them into an arty advent calendar with more doors opening the closer to Christmas we got. Would be a big crowd pleaser and could become a nice annual feature unique to Leeds.

  3. The transformation of the dark arches were brilliant- my personal favourite ‘underworld’ being the light visualisation of County Arcade.

  4. I went to the Dark Arches on Sunday and to be honest the whole thing was a bit underwhelming. When I discovered it cost £500,000 I was gobsmacked. Bringing the Quay Brothers over maybe a coup amongst a tight knit group of “fans” but I reckon that money handed to arts students from the Leeds College of Art and/or Leeds Met and they’d have made a much more spectacular event possible at a fraction. Bet the brass bands didn’t see much of the half a million quid. Arts Council money as well (seems austerity is only for the poor)

  5. I visited the arches both days and, apart from the light visualisation of County Arcade Moniqa mentions, like John Mulder I was underwhelmed with underworld. A couple of bays were mildly entertaining for 5 mins. But I couldn’t see where the half a million quid went.

  6. Is it true that the dark arches are lit up and open to the public on Light Night? That was my favorite part of the whole celebrations, the arches, the water and the lighting… If so can’t wait for Leeds Light Night on 8 October.

  7. Leeds Cultural Olympiad celebrations 20 May (afternoon) – Highlights for me:

    Overworlds – the produce market on Briggate was amazing, bought some lovely bread and delicious fat olives (which I am now munching at home). Harry Potter extras hanging around were fun. For me the tree/boat looked very effective – in pictures. Up close it was more like a stage prop than a piece of art (or maybe I did not get it?).

    County Arcade – and whole Overworlds set up probably had more impact at night. Choir sweet, but could not see anything. County arcade setting succeeded as representative of everything rich and extravagant (was that the point?).

    Map was horrendous! Got lost.

    Underworlds – the dark arches …. what an incredible film set. WATER AND ARCHES GET MY VOTE FOR THE BEST OVERALL. 10/10 for capitalising on an existing location, and showing it off at its best. Did the brothers do any filming down there I wonder? – a wasted opportunity if not.

    Sadly could not see Phoenix as the entrance was blocked – with people, because it was popular (of course – it is Phoenix!), and also because the entrance was too narrow. Another ‘show’ had the right idea as stage was raised so those of us outside could also see.

    For me the awesome setting was bound to overpower everything that was going on inside it. We needed a camera to zoom in for close ups.

    It will all look brilliant in the photos!!

    Hope all the performers, lighting and sound technicians etc. were paid LOTS of money!! Can’t see what ‘£1,2m’ (see Nick Ahad’s article for spending info) was spent on?? Maybe the ACE evaluation will give details.

    Wondered down to Woolgather Arts prize to take in a bit of art and cast my vote.

    An enjoyable afternoon in Leeds.

Comments are closed.