Rise of dancers who stepped up to the challenge

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker!  Photo: Simon Annand
Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! Photo: Simon Annand
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The Yorkshire dance scene is in an unprecedented period of success. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad talked to some of the key players making the region a centre of dance excellence.

“This is the best place in the country to be working in dance.”

This was the bold statement that launched Yorkshire’s dance season in Bradford last week.

Antony Dunn, marketing and communications manager for Yorkshire Dance, didn’t mention London, but it was implicit that, yes, the capital remains the capital of dance. Outside of the M25, however, while Birmingham may lay claim to the title of second city of Dance, Yorkshire has plenty on its side when it claims its audiences are the best served in the country in terms of variety, volume and quality.

“There are arguments on both sides between Leeds and Birmingham for the second city of dance in the UK, but regionally there is nowhere stronger than Yorkshire,” says David Edmunds, director of Dep Arts, an independent production company based inside the Yorkshire Dance building.

Recently the Yorkshire Post highlighted the fact that Fringe theatre is going through a purple patch in the region. It would seem the same is true of dance theatre.

“Dance in Yorkshire is having a boom right now similar to non-mainstream theatre and the reasons are similar: more collaboration between venues, companies, more producers around, high quality work and an increased audience appetite for that type of work,” says Edmunds.

“It’s not happened overnight but has been building over the last three years and the results are really now making a dent which is why we have such an amazing season of work in the region this spring and it’s region wide, Hull, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield.”

He’s not wrong. Even a cursory glance reveals that dance fans not only are well catered for across Yorkshire – they’d be hard pushed to fit everything in.

From the populist stack ’em high audiences the Alhambra can expect for Stomp through Northern Ballet’s Madame Butterfly to the niche work presented in a loft studio space in Yorkshire Dance’s building for Friday Firsts, it’s trite to say there’s ‘something for everyone’ but if you are interested in dance, there will be something to satiate your hunger and if you’re not, there’ll be something to whet your appetite.

So why is this happening? As Edmunds says, there is a sense of the stars aligning at the right time and everything falling into place, but Yorkshire Dance artistic director Wieke Eringa thinks it is the result of a gradual coming together of factors.

She says: “We don’t have a single venue concentrating just on dance – we have lots of middle-size to smaller venues doing that and then we have all the theatres who are regularly staging little bits of dance in their programmes.

“That had been going on for years, but then three years ago Yorkshire Dance printed a brochure that brought everything together in one place, so audiences knew where to go to find what was happening in dance in the region.”

It may sound like an insignificant thing, but having a single brochure that dance fans could pick up and immediately find the shows that might appeal to them was a key thing to the current success of the form. Previously, the audience for dance would scour through various brochures to find the nuggets of work that would appeal to them. A single brochure bringing everything together meant they had a single point where they could go – but it was also a tool to draw other people in who might be theatre-goers but would otherwise have missed the dance work if it was simply hidden in a theatre’s regular brochure.

Eringa says there are other elements that have created this critical mass the region is currently experiencing.

“I really do think we are the best place outside of London for dance,” she says.

“One of the key reasons is the fact that Northern School of Contemporary Dance is here. There isn’t another conservatoire of that standard anywhere else outside of London. Having the dancers of that quality, from all over the world, here in Yorkshire provides a critical mass. It means there are dancers in the region, there are dancers that have trained here and gone on to companies around the world but remain connected to Yorkshire and there are people engaged with dance here.

“It all adds to an ecology of dance in the region.”

The other key part, says Eringa, is played by people like Adam Renton, the manager of Bradford Theatres.

It was telling that the dance launch happened in Bradford, in Renton’s Alhambra Studio. It reaffirmed the fact that this dance explosion is not Leeds-centric, but Yorkshire wide. No mug, Renton realises the audience for contemporary dance is limited in Bradford. He began programming it seven years ago tentatively, but with a firm commitment.

Even if the audiences were not there initially he took a Field of Dreams approach (if you build it, they will come).

Eringa says: “There are people in theatres all over Yorkshire like Adam who have taken the bold decision to keep programming dance and hope to find the audience.”

So, on the one end of the scale you have An evening of dance with Strictly Come Dancing professional Katya Virshilas at St George’s Hall and at the other you have Juncture, a four-week programme of experimental dance at Yorkshire Dance, curated by Charlotte Vincent.

In between you have Rosie Kay, Balbir Singh and Joss Arnott, all produced by Dep Arts, there is Verve, the graduate programme of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and Phoenix Dance Theatre. Northern Ballet has begun using its small studio theatre in its new building to its potential and continues to tour work around the world from its new base in Leeds.

It all adds up to a critical mass and inexorable rise of dance theatre in Yorkshire. The arguments with Birmingham may continue, but if we keep heading in this direction, Yorkshire will soon pull off the killer move in the battle of the dance.

Highlights and hidden gems

Juncture: A whole season of shows at Yorkshire Dance, all experimental in nature. March 8-30. www.juncturedance.com.

Rosie Kay Dance Company: Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre, Northern Ballet, April 27.

The Demon Barber Roadshow: Harrogate Theatre, Mar 1. Doncaster Civic, Mar 6.

Verve 12: Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Riley Theatre, Feb 24, 25. Bradford Studio, Apr 25, 26.

Phoenix Dance Theatre: Reflected, York Theatre Royal, Mar 20, 21.

Details at www.yorkshiredance.com