‘Rum deal’ helps charity spread its wings

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A week tomorrow will see the first major production of the Geraldine Connor Foundation. But what’s that got to do with the oldest rum in the world? Neil Hudson went to find out...

Amy Bere is telling me what sounds like a fairytale. It involves bottles of old rum found languishing in the cellars of a stately home, their link to the slave trade and how proceeds from their eventual sale are being used to fund a charity which promotes the ideals of West Indian ‘carnival’ culture.

It’s a turn of events she succinctly describes as “poetic.”

The bottles in question were discovered in November in the cellars at Harewood House, having been originally put there in the late 1700s and eventually forgotten about. The rum inside them was made from sugar grown on a slave plantation in the West Indies. Staggeringly, when its provenance was established, it turned out to be the oldest rum in the world and when 12 bottles were sent to auction, they raised a £66,000.

That money is now funding the Geraldine Connor Foundation, which will stage its first major show a week tomorrow.

The organisation is one of the city’s newest and it has to be said most ambitious charities. It is named after Geraldine Connor, who died in 2011 aged 59 and whose most famous work, Carnival Messiah - a radical re-interpretation of the classical Western version of Handell’s Messiah - was first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1999 and which was described at the time by the Yorkshire Post as “a tropical storm of energy”.

The eponymous charity was formed in 2013. Its summer gala will be staged at West Yorkshire Playhouse and will be two hours of what organisers describe as a ‘fusion of cultures.’

Some big names are attached to the performance, among them David Hamilton, founder of Phoenix Dance Company, London-based singer Nigel Wong and the New World Steel Orchestra but in amongst those used to treading the boards will be first-timers hoping to forge a new career.

But that’s not the only thing on Amy’s radar, she’s also planning several other shows, including a recital in the spring, a summer school in 2015 and a carnival-inspired interpretation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016 with the working title ‘Forest Dreaming.’

For someone as busy as she is she appears remarkably calm.

The former education manager at Opera North, who was a theatre producer and director before that, is just six weeks into her new role but is already looking to establish the organisation as a major player on the local and national arts scene.

“Geraldine’s opus was Carnival Messiah which took Handell’s Messiah and re-imagined it as carnival theatre which included calypso, steel bands and music from her Trinidad roots.

“We are interested in taking that and melding and fusing art to create a hybrid form in a way that will attract people to it both in terms of audience but participation. We’re interested in working with people aged 16-24 not just them being performers but marketing, producing, any of the backstage work.

“As an outsider, Carnival Messiah was not on my radar but to come into that family it’s useful because I get to articulate what Geraldine’s legacy is from a future perspective rather than one of remembrance. What we are trying to do is look at young people and how they might interpret it, it’s an interpretation for the next generation.”

Amy has a clear view of where the foundation needs to go - she wants to create an organisation which will foster young talent in communities not just in Leeds buy beyond.

“We want to broaden our reach. We want to look at people isolated in their own communities - we have more interest in widening our work rather than saying we just want to work with one group of people, because society is not like that. We want to work with everyone.

“There are various routes into the industry and Geraldine was always very good at identifying the talent in people, often even when they didn’t recognise it themselves. There is the traditional higher education route [into acting and stagecraft] but there’s also a non-traditional route, so in that way we hope to engage with many more people than if we had just gone into schools.”

The gala on September 13 will be a fusion of what has gone before, including an excerpt from Carnival Messiah and a tantalising taste of what’s to come. Two 50-minute segments will form a cosmopolitan arrangement of dance, music and recital.

However, it’s what’s to come in the next two years that really excites - next year will see several high profile events but the most provocative will be a reworking of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which they hope to perform on stage at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016, in an open air setting at Harewood House and possibly take the show on tour to London and even Trinidad.

Amy said: “We don’t know what it will look like yet but what we know it will include music from the West Indies - it will have that vibrant celebratory feeling a carnival has.

“We are looking to work with structural costumes, so there will be no set as such, but rather one [costume] which turns from one thing to another and surprises you.

“When we do something that includes community people, it can be very specific and just be about that community and not have a life outside of it - what we are interested in is creating a template that has a professional piece of work with opportunity for anyone who stages it to work with their community. Were not making something specific about community of Leeds, which would only ever be relevant in Leeds.”

The foundation has already forged a number of key partnerships, including one with Bradford-based social enterprise Aspire-i, which provides learning and employment opportunities and it is looking to work with schools and academies in the area.

It’s short-term future is, at least, secure, again thanks to that curious connection with the world’s oldest rum.

Amy added: “Its’ poetic how this stuff was created in the Caribbean and has sat just outside Leeds for 200 years and sold and the proceeds given to foundation to continue the legacy of West Indian artist.”

David Lascelles, the 8th Earl of Harewood, who worked with Geraldine Connor on Carnival Messiah and who is closely involved with the foundation, revealed the latest twist in rum saga.

“We sent 12 bottles to auction and they made £66,000, which we never expected. It was found to be the oldest rum in the world. Around December we will send another 12 for auction, again with the proceeds going to the foundation. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be involved, it has great ambitions. The idea was to keep some of the ideals Geraldine lived by and which Diane [Howse, the Countess of Harewood and chair of the foundation] and I share. It’s to do with the importance of the arts in everyone’s life and how it can make them feel better about themselves.”

In November last year during a routine stock take in the cellars at Harewood House, a stash of old bottles covered in black mould and cobwebs was discovered - the 70 bottles turned out to be rum and records were found which dated the ‘cane spirits’ to 1780, making them the oldest rum in the world.

In December 12 bottles generated £66,000, with most being bought in pairs by buyers from the Far East.

In December, another 12 bottles of the rarest of rums will be sent to Christie’s, London, with the proceeds again going to the Geraldine Connor Foundation.

FACTFILE

In November during a stock take in the cellars at Harewood House, a stash of old bottles covered in black mould and cobwebs was discovered - the 59 bottles turned out to be rum and records were found which dated the ‘cane spirits’ to 1780, making them the oldest rum in the world.

In December 12 bottles generated £66,000, with most being bought in pairs by buyers from the Far East.

In December, another 12 bottles will be auctioned, with proceeds again going to the Geraldine Connor Foundation.

Tickets for the September 13 show are now on sale from £5 via West Yorkshire Playhouse’s website or box office on 0113 213 7700.

For information on the foundation, email: info@gcfoundation.co.uk or see their facebook page.