Dancing to music of time

This weekend Northern Ballet celebrates its 45th anniversary. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad catches up with the man in charge.

A scene from Northern Ballets Nutcracker. Picture: Bill Cooper
A scene from Northern Ballets Nutcracker. Picture: Bill Cooper

Walking through the Leeds Grand Theatre backstage area with David Nixon, I’m reminded of a previous interview. It must have been not far off a decade ago that I watched Nixon in the old building of Northern Ballet Theatre put his dancers through their paces. It was an odd experience.

Physically, Nixon wasn’t in the greatest shape: he was a dancer whose best days were behind him. The company, too, was a little careworn. And in the old school where they were based in North Leeds there were buckets to catch rain from the leaking roof and the windows rattled in the wind. .

A couple years later Nixon and Northern Ballet appeared to be in better shape. He’d been back to the gym and plans for a new building were coming to fruition. There was a genuine sense of optimism in the air.

Scenes from 45 years of Northern Ballet productions

Cut to last week and Nixon is leading me backstage as the premiere of Romeo and Juliet is being prepared out front. We take a seat in the Yorkshire Post bar and Nixon, wearing a skin-tight top, is in the best shape I have seen him for a decade. Is he back in the gym? “I’m not telling you my secrets,” he says.

Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. He looks in spectacularly rude health after 15 years in charge of a dance company. Mind you, Northern Ballet is also in rude health.

“The company is in a really good place, we have the facilities, the building is there,” says Nixon. “I don’t think we have ever danced as well and I mean that across the board from the senior to the more junior talent. We’ve won awards, we’re into our second sold out season in London with The Great Gatsby and we’re about to take a very different step for the company.”

Canadian born Nixon reels off the above like a shopping list. He should really stop to savour each accomplishment since he has worked like a Trojan over the last decade. Once at the end of a morning rehearsal he told the dancers who were feeling tired that if they weren’t in strong enough shape to cope they should get on an exercise bike during their lunch break. He meant it.

Giuliano Contadini and Dreda Blow in Kenneth Tindall's The Architect. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

“You can never be in as strong a place as you want. It almost feels as though you do one thing that’s good, then over here something else falls down. You are never on a constant incline. Our latest show hasn’t sold as I would have expected it to and it’s confusing to me. But at the same time we never would have predicted that Gatsby would have two sold out seasons in London.”

Tonight the company will celebrate its 45th anniversary with a Sapphire Gala, featuring Hull-born Xander Parish, currently dancing with the Mariinsky and dancers from The Royal Ballet, Hamburg Ballet and Phoenix Dance.

“When we did the 40th celebration, it was about looking at the history of the company and celebrating the past,” says Nixon. “The 45th – well, it feels like a midway event. We’re halfway between 40 and the really big number of 50 and it felt like we ought to celebrate today and tomorrow. In (tonight’s) gala there will be not reference to the past.”

So, what does that future hold?

Princess Diana visits the company

“The future? For me? I’m looking for a pool and somewhere warm,” he says only half-joking. “As far as the company, well, we’re actually sitting down together later this month to discuss that. I think there are a lot of questions around about where we go next. The Grand is a beautiful theatre, but it just doesn’t have the space that a production like Romeo and Juliet demands. So the question is how to grow without leaving the places that are important to us. Somehow it feels as though if you stick to the places you’ve always been, you are never going to be perceived as having a certain mark of quality.”

It is something Nixon has complained about previously. He feels like national critics in particular have rarely given Northern Ballet the attention it deserves.

“It’s true. I look at the company and the productions are of a really high standard, the dancers can compete with the best, but there is a certain residue from the olden days, things that perhaps people didn’t like about Northern Ballet that they just can’t let go off.”

Nixon knows that all he can do is keep making the work which he knows stands alongside any other national company.

Northern Balelt dancer Martha Leebolt in David Nixon's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo Emma Kauldhar

“The national critics sometimes criticise us and they haven’t seen us in years. The criticism is that the girls dance in big crinoline dresses and that is disappointing, when you realise they can’t have seen the company in a very long time.”

The next production won’t have a strip of crinoline anywhere near it – or if it does, it will be a very unusual re-imagining of an Orwellian nightmare.

After tonight’s gala, the attention will turn to a new ballet from Jonathan Watkins, the highly regarded Yorkshire-born dancer, who will create a work based on George Orwell’s 1984.

“It’s a very different step for the company, but I think it is a step forward,” says Nixon. “Because Gatsby has done so well in the face of what we might have expected and audiences are becoming more difficult to predict, it feels like we may as well take risks. This is a very risky piece to turn into a ballet, but I feel like we are the perfect company to take that risk. I had seen Jonathan’s production of Kes (produced at Sheffield Crucible last year) and I knew he had always wanted to do 1984. Initially I wasn’t sure the company was ready and I wasn’t sure how well it would sell to an audience, but when I saw Kes I saw immediately that Jonathan understands narrative. He has a very creative way of telling of stories, so I then felt very confident that he was going to be able to deliver this.”

Having seen Waktins’s Kes and the work Northern Ballet has created under Nixon over the past decade-and-a-half, they are a perfect fit. There is, as is the case for all arts organisations in Britain today, the question of funding. While some companies in the North did not fare well at the last funding rounds, Northern Ballet was seen to do alright. Nixon insists his is not a ‘rich company up on the hill’. His funding may have increased, but so has the company’s costs, not least those of running an enormous new building.

“Our funding is far under that going to other, similar companies – and we keep falling further behind every time we all get, say, two percent, it means we actually drop further back,” he says.

Scenes from 45 years of Northern Ballet productions

At which point I ask a question that finally fires up the laid-back Canadian. I point out that there are companies in the region that lost all their funding – how does he justify to them the funding that goes to Northern Ballet?

Incredulous, he asks: “The case to fund Northern Ballet?

“Well without us there would be a lot less dance offering in the UK. Where we perform are the places where other big companies might not necessarily go. We are able to offer the highest quality product with the resources we have.”

He starts to warm to his subject.

“We have a big audience, so there is a demand for what we do we get big audiences. We had 25,000 people see our Christmas show – that’s not a small number.

“We are a major player in the city of Leeds, which is culturally a very important city in England. Without our funding, without this company – we’d be down a ballet company which would enormously lessen the cultural offer in the North. It would leave a very big hole.”

Given his passion, the shape of the company and the very good shape he is in, I’d be willing to put a bet on him still running the place in another 45 years.