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10 Brussels cultural events to start looking forward to in 2021
It's time to open your fresh-smelling 2021 diary and start filling it (perhaps in pencil, to be on the safe side).
Here, we pick 10 of our favourite tips for things to see and enjoy in Brussels over the coming months. Check each venue's website for the latest coronavirus rules and any short-notice changes.
As any person who was taken to the Museum of Natural Sciences when they were seven will probably attest, it was a visit they will never forget - the herd of dinosaurs in the 19th century glass and iron building creates indelible memories. That reaction is what the museum hopes to provoke with its new permanent exhibit called Living Planet. The "modern" building extensions are 70 years old so the Royal Institute has been renovating the interiors over the past few years, highlighting the natural light which pervades the buildings and extending the digital capabilities of the exhibitions to create an emotional bond between the visitor and the subject matter. Living Planet celebrates biodiversity. Going through some of the 37 million specimens in its reserves, the curators chose 850 to populate the new exhibit which underlines the interdependence between the different species before exploring both the natural and manmade disruptions that threaten worldwide biodiversity.
The Van Buuren Museum is a wonderful time capsule of artistic living during the between-wars period. The Van Buurens, a wealthy Dutch couple who settled in Brussels, assembled an exceptional art collection including a Bruegel. The house was built around the collection that spans centuries but has an emphasis on the best of the early 20th century Belgian painters who were active at the time the Van Buurens were creating their house and collection. The house is maintained exactly as it was when they lived in it and it’s an attractive environment - from what the museum staff tell us, a lot of visitors have the same reaction: they want to move in.
The Ixelles Museum has a splendid collection of Belgian art of the same periods but since its renovation will not be complete until 2023 its collection is not accessible. To mitigate this, the Ixelles Museum has created an “Outside the Walls” programme in which they are lending out portions of their collection to other institutions. One of the highlights of the Van Buurens' collection is The Children’s Table, a masterpiece by Gustave van De Woestyne. The Van Buurens had no children so the two museums are using the van De Woestyne painting and the childless history of the couple as a starting point to assemble a group of paintings from Ixelles with the subject matter being childhood, to be exposed at the Van Buuren from February to April. The show is entitled La Ribambelle, a French word which has as one of its meanings a bevy of children. Among the pieces to be lent are works by Léon Devos, Auguste Rodin, Kees Van Dongen and current artist Jan Fabre.
In the 1970s, Alice Van Buuren started a tradition of exhibiting monumental sculptures in the gardens, which include a picturesque garden and two rose gardens designed by Jules Buyssens, a labyrinth and a heart garden designed by René Pechère, and an orchard. Buyssens and Pechère were the preeminent Belgian landscape architects of the 20th century and their garden designs are the perfect settings for artistic works. Arman was a French-American painter, sculpture and plastic artist who is best known for his "accumulations", which are collections of common and identical objects which he arranged in polyester castings or within Plexiglas cases eventually welding them together. He was part of the Nouveaux Réalistes movement which included Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle and Christo. Starting in April, with the exhibition Arman, cherchez l’objet, the visitor will be invited to wander through the gardens and discover his sculptures.
Festival LEGS (23 March-4 April)
They don’t refine sugar any more in the 19th century La Raffinerie building close by the canal in Molenbeek, but when Charleroi Danse takes over the whole building for Festival LEGS you can expect a lot of sweet inspiration. Due to the pandemic, the festival couldn’t take place in 2020 so the 2021 is an expanded edition squeezing two years into one.
Festival LEGS (we have a double meaning here, in English legs are essential for dancing, but in French it’s the word for inheritance) trains a spotlight on projects that counter the common knowledge that dance is an ephemeral art that exists on constantly crumbling foundations. Rather, the festival insists that contemporary dance has a heritage (hence the use of the word legs) of worldwide proportions including many folkloric traditions and a rich array of urban dance styles that are passed on from generation to generation and that Brussels, now universally recognised as the global capital of dancers, is the perfect place to experience this astonishing variety. And, cherry on top, to make the festival as accessible as possible all tickets are €5.
D Festival (April)
The 10th season of D festival, the contemporary dance festival of Brussels may have been cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but the performances are not lost forever and will be presented in 2021, underscoring Pina Bausch’s cri de guerre: “Dance. Or we are lost!” Presented in various different venues around the city, the programme specialises in hybrid performances drawing from theatre, live music, performance art, even plastic arts and, of course, dance. Come without preconceptions for a singular opportunity to enjoy evenings of heterogeneous creations rooted in the rich creative stew that is Brussels.
Vauxhall (summer 2021)
Named after the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall in London, Brussels’ Vauxhall was opened as a drinking hall, concert hall and theatre behind the Théâtre Royal du Parc in 1781. The property of the City of Brussels since 1818, it went through a number of incarnations until being completely restored five years ago. The extensive trellis adorned outdoor space is truly spectacular and is perfect for a summer escape from routine. So it’s no surprise that Brussels puts on a summer-long schedule which includes but is not limited to puppet shows, outdoor movie screenings, dance workshops, concerts, and games. And it’s all free.
Organised by Théâtre Nova, without a doubt the most idiosyncratic movie theatre in Brussels with its extremely eclectic programming, its theatre that looks like it’s in a bombed out war zone and its very welcoming cellar bar, the PleinOPENair is an itinerant free summer outdoor film festival which chooses very unexpected locations all across the city to screen themed movies as well as put on concerts and neighbourhood walks. Some previous locations were under a motorway flyover and in a used car warehouse.
Forest Sounds Festival (28 August)
To close out the summer with a bang, the BRASS, the cultural centre for the borough of Forest, puts on an 11-hour festival of live music in Forest Park on the last Sunday in August. A free, festive, family friendly day of concerts, DJ sets, circus arts, workshops and an array of food choices, the vibe is always fun, relaxed and welcoming; low key but also energising. The great lawn of the park ringed by venerable trees is the perfect place for this kind of salute and slightly melancholic goodbye to summer.
Marni Jazz Festival (September)
After 17 years the Marni Jazz Festival is well-established as a major jazz moment in a city which has offered many high points of jazz performance over almost a century. Maybe it’s because the saxophone is a Belgian invention or because Django Reinhardt was Belgian, but Brussels has always been privileged with great jazz and enthusiastic audiences. And the Marni Jazz Festival fits right in with its highlighting each year of a different instrument be it guitar, accordion, cello, tuba, bass, piano, drums or trumpet, and its playbill of the best in Belgian and international musicians who are often encouraged to stretch the limits of the form.
Festival Alimenterre (early October)
The pandemic has put a spotlight on the problems of unbridled agricultural expansion into the shrinking wilds and given added relevance to the Festival Alimenterre which for over 10 years has been screening documentaries to highlight the nutritional and agricultural disorders such as environmental devastation and farmer exploitation that plague much of the world and to propose alternatives to meet these challenges both locally and globally. Famine affects one billion people worldwide and two thirds of them are farmers in the third world, a paradox that underlines the purely profit-minded political choices that have been made. Meanwhile farmers in the first world are confronting an epidemic of suicide. The festival brings together agricultural specialists, documentary makers, activist farmers and developers of concrete local initiatives.
PhotoBrussels Festival (from 19 November)
PhotoBrussels Festival is 20 photographers offering 200 photographs to illustrate a particular theme. So far the themes have been Landscape, Portrait, City and Still Life. The object is to create a platform on which the photos will spark discussions. In the year that the theme was City, the seemingly infinite ways of recording Brussels visually was striking. The amazing variety of views of Brussels was riveting and very thought-provoking. The exhibit is accompanied by lectures, workshops and guided tours to give some structure to the wide variety of reactions.