How Leeds comes alive after dark

Last year's Light Night Leeds event, with the Leeds Festival Chorus on the Town Hall steps (below).
Last year's Light Night Leeds event, with the Leeds Festival Chorus on the Town Hall steps (below).
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Light Night Leeds, the annual event when the city comes alive after dark, is back. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad discovers something different about this year.

BACK in 2005, one of Yorkshire’s much-maligned cities, Bradford, suffered yet another blow.

Leeds Festival Chorus performing on the Town Hall steps last year

Leeds Festival Chorus performing on the Town Hall steps last year

Shortlisted for Capital of Culture, the city lost out on the title – but the rest of Yorkshire gained. As a sop to the cities that didn’t make the final cut, losing to Liverpool in the race to be named Capital of Culture for 2008, the Department for Culture Media and Sport granted money to the shortlisted cities, including Bradford.

The city shared the money among five other Yorkshire cities – York, Leeds, Hull and Sheffield – for a year-long celebration that culminated in a round-the-clock celebration called Light Night.

The event brought cities to life at night, all of them engaging artists to come up with work that would turn the city into an after-dark fun playground.

Some of the cities involved cottoned on quickly that this was a good thing, but it was York and Leeds that really embraced the idea.

Annually, since then, the two cities have staged their own Light Night, York bringing in artists often of international standing for a November event when the city is lit up, while Leeds tends to go 
for a more local flavour with artists based in and around the city staging more esoteric events.

When the unsuccessful Bradford bid happened, the art director on the project was Steve Manthorp, an artist and arts consultant. He was one of the people behind the idea of using the DCMS money to help create events across the county for the first Light Night.

With sweet circularity Manthorp is now the man in charge of this year’s Leeds Light Night, this year being the first time the event has had an artist-curator.

The person who previously ran Light Night, successfully, in Leeds for the past six years left earlier this year and in May, Manthorp was appointed to the role of curator for Light Night Leeds 2012. “When the call went out for a curator for the event, I applied and pitched an idea,” says Manthorp.

“The idea was very simple: Dead of Night. I wanted the artists involved to respond to the title however they wanted – either as a simple idea of it being an autumn event when the nights are dark, or even perhaps a metaphysical idea of darkness.

“I had never been to Light Night in Leeds as an artist, but I have been as a visitor and the thing that struck me about it was that it was the antithesis of a big event with big artists coming into the city with big ideas. It seemed much more homegrown and led by local artists – and it seemed that was what made people fiercely proud of the whole thing as a city event.

“My idea was that as curator I would present a theme and let those artists come up with their own notion of how to use that theme for their contribution.”

As ever, this year’s edition of Light Night has been funded by the local authority and as ever, the event is spread both around the city and around various different art forms.

The fact that there is a theme at all is perhaps the biggest change for 2012. Previously, the event has been disparate in geography and idea, with the previous programmer, according to Manthorp, taking a “come one, come all” approach. “It was almost, not exactly anarchic, but there was a real spirit of any artists interested in doing almost anything in the city on that night.

“I think that is why it has become such a success. People in the city love it dearly because it really does feel like it has emerged from within the city,” he says.

“My only criticism, as a visitor, was that it sometimes felt too disparate and so by saying to artists that there was a theme seemed like the best place to start to pull all the different strands together and will hopefully give it the feel of a coherent, almost festival atmosphere.”

Dead of Night could, Manthorp says, refer to the Ealing Studios 1945 horror film, and hopes that visitors will get into the spirit.

“We’re going to have a Zombie Aerobic Workout and I hope that visitors will get into the spirit and come along to Light Night dressed for the occasion,” he says.

“The thing that has always struck me is that, in a time when there are lots of cultural festivals – and a lot of them happen around autumn – this is one that is genuinely for everyone. I know that’s something that people always say about cultural events like this, but when I say it I mean that it’s for people who enjoy quite serious culture and art. It is a great event for families, but it’s an event that also really appeals to people who like quite serious art.”

With over 60 different events already lined up, happening around Leeds, it is also a moment when the whole city comes to life for an evening – and not just because of the city’s bar and club culture.

Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds Town Hall and the university are all invovled in the event, which also sees the city’s art galleries and museums opening its doors late for one night. This year’s curator says that when he first took up the post, he wondered if the disparate nature of the geography of Light Night was actually a weakness.

“It always struck me that because it happened in so many different parts of the city, that some places get sort of forgotten about. I was going to contain it to a triangle quite close to the city centre,” says Manthorp. “Fairly soon after that it became very clear that organisations like the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds Grand Theatre, Phoenix Dance and Yorkshire Dance really enjoy, and want to be a significant part of, Light Night.

“I took that on board and audiences can expect to experience a Light Night that is just as spread across the city as ever. Just with an added theme this year.”

So in the Dead of Night the city will come to life again.