The Northern School of Contemporary Dance - a Yorkshire success story

It’s a week since Leeds was plunged back into lockdown and it’s hard to find silver linings.
A performance by Northern School of Contemporary Dance resident company Verve  which recruits a new cohort of postgraduate dancers each year.A performance by Northern School of Contemporary Dance resident company Verve  which recruits a new cohort of postgraduate dancers each year.
A performance by Northern School of Contemporary Dance resident company Verve which recruits a new cohort of postgraduate dancers each year.

But with these profiles, I like to think I keep finding them. This week’s theatrical lockdown profile from the region is a definite ray of sunshine.

Yorkshire, as we know, is a cultural leader. Our plays transfer to the West End and travel internationally. Our artists shape the contemporary art world and our writers are read across the globe. And the dancers who train here are some of the most awe-inspiring you might hope to see.

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Akram Khan MBE is perhaps the most high profile dancer who trained at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, but the Leeds-based conservatoire has also given us Gary Clarke, Carlos Pons Guerra, who choreographs for and leads DeNada Dance Theatre and Sharon Watson, the woman who currently leads the school as CEO and principal.

CEO and principal Sharon Watson. (Picture: Benji Reid).CEO and principal Sharon Watson. (Picture: Benji Reid).
CEO and principal Sharon Watson. (Picture: Benji Reid).

Watson graduated from the Chapeltown leading dance school in 1997 and has gone on to become one of the UK arts world’s most inspirational leaders. The Northern School of Contemporary Dance, or NSCD, has a working theatre within it called the Riley Theatre where audiences can see beautiful dance works – it also means it qualifies for my profile series on the region’s theatres.

“We’re defined by being a theatre dedicated to dance. We attract and showcase some of the most exciting UK and international touring dance companies and provide a platform for fresh emerging talent to flourish,” says Watson.

The school was founded by Nadine Senior in 1985 and if the name of the dance educationalist rings a bell – she also discovered the dancers who founded Phoenix Dance, profiled in these pages back in July.

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Watson is only the fourth principal of NSCD since it was established and joined last year after a highly successful reign as the head of Phoenix Dance. As principal her role is to guide the young charges who come through the doors of NSCD dreaming of a career in the world of dance, but she also has a theatre at her disposal which, post-Covid she plans to use to great effect.

A 2018 NSCD production New Ground. (Picture: Jane Hobson).A 2018 NSCD production New Ground. (Picture: Jane Hobson).
A 2018 NSCD production New Ground. (Picture: Jane Hobson).

“Our theatre sits at the heart of the school in Chapeltown. From nine to five the stage doubles as a studio for students training for the profession. The space is alive, there’s a buzz and an energy you feel when you walk through the doors. It’s launched the careers of some of the most inspiring and innovative dance makers we have. We’re open to everyone from all walks of life and our programming aims to reflect this,” she says.

If you’ve never been to the theatre, and it is a little off the beaten track, despite being less than a couple of miles outside Leeds city centre, it is a highly recommended excursion. I’ve seen some beautiful pieces of dance theatre in the venue.

When Watson took over at NSCD, it was a great opportunity for her to lead the artists of the future, but the temptation of a theatre to run was definitely part of the appeal.

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She says: “I believe sometimes we are gifted with opportunity and with some imagination and creativity our theatre was presented to us as part of the next steps of who we are as a creative institution producing work. We realised very early on that we have the ability to showcase exceptional work from our home. We run a world class theatre in the heart of a community which speaks to and about the people we serve. It was never a question of ‘should we?’.

“Each year our resident company Verve premieres a selection of specially-commissioned works. The company recruits a new cohort of postgraduate dancers every year and their premiere is, without exception, outstanding and hotly anticipated.

“In 2017 we hosted a sold-out performance of YAMA by Scottish Dance Theatre –incredible costumes, and a unique set, with dancers emerging from a pit in the floor to perform hypnotic choreography by one of the foremost choreographers of our time – Belgo-French artist Damien Jalet.

"His work has toured extensively on an international scale and to bring it to Leeds just set the bar for what is possible to stage in the city in terms of dance. To this day people still say it’s one of the best things they’ve seen. We also hosted #DancePassion with the BBC here last year which showcased our ability to bring our theatre, our creativity, and our dancers to the wider world.”

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I’ve been writing about theatre for the Yorkshire Post since 2004 and I am still regularly amazed at just how well served we are as a region. Watson is right. It’s world class dance on our doorstep.

She can also see the wider picture and where NSCD fits into it. “We feed directly into the dance ecology in Leeds, and contribute to earning the city its title as an international centre for dance, bringing global voices to Leeds. Nationally speaking, we’re a key part of the touring circuit and infrastructure for independent UK dance companies. Our innovative programming aims to speak to our community and cultivate eclectic tastes, presenting a wide range of works spanning diverse styles and cultural forms.”

Running a conservatoire and a theatre venue means that Watson has her eye closely on the new strange situation we are all negotiating. She has hope for the future.

“I hope we’ll come out of this with a greater respect and appreciation for the local, the new and up-and-coming. The hierarchy which exists will be challenged and greater standards of equality placed on the work and the people.”

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Thank you

James Mitchinson

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