World class dance

As Rambert returns to Bradford with a triple bill, Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad speaks to choreographer Ben Duke.

TRIPLE BILL: World class dance coming to Bradford Alhambra from November 15 - 17,  including Ghost Dance.  Photograph © Jane Hobson.
TRIPLE BILL: World class dance coming to Bradford Alhambra from November 15 - 17, including Ghost Dance. Photograph © Jane Hobson.

When Leeds sent off its 80-page bid to become the European Capital of Culture, there was pomp, ceremony, partying and perhaps most telling of all - an awful lot of confidence.

Why wouldn’t there be? Nowhere else in the country has the provision of culture we enjoy in the city.

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We have an internationally touring opera company, the biggest outside of London, in Opera North.

We have the modern West Yorkshire Playhouse – about to get a massive refurbishment – literally down the road from the ornate Leeds Grand.

We have more underground, fringe-ey type work than you can see in a weekend at venues like Slung Low’s HUB and Chapel Allerton’s Seven Arts.

And then there’s dance.

There is no city outside of London that has the dance provision we enjoy in Leeds.

With the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, one of the world’s leading conservatoires, with Yorkshire Dance providing classes and performances of all levels, with the world recognised Phoenix Dance and with Northern Ballet the moniker of the UK’s second dance city is a well earned one. Which is why Leeds is so important to Bradford.

I know: a Bradfordian who works in Leeds saying such a thing might have in the past led to civil war, but there is a complex ecology at work when it comes to dance in Bradford.

Sometimes seen as Leeds’s poorer cousin, Bradford has a big say in the dance scene in Leeds and also owes it a great deal.

In Bradford there is less theatrical provision than in Leeds, that’s just a fact. The big theatre in Bradford is the Alhambra, a venue that has to tread a line between artistic endeavour and bums on seats. One of the ways it has committed to artistic endeavour, and something for which I have huge admiration of the team that runs the venue, is in dance.

It was a little over 15 years ago that Adam Renton, the man in charge of the Alhambra, made a commitment to bringing dance back to Bradford. It was a bold move, not least because it was a dance show that almost bankrupted the theatre a decade previous.

Renton held his line and these days Bradford has a serious reputation for bringing to its stage serious dance.

And where does the audience for that serious, often world class, dance come from? Well, all over the region, including Bradford, obviously, but a significant percentage from Leeds – not a huge surprise, given the pedigree of dance in the city. Complex ecology, see?

The latest piece of serious, world class dance to make it to the stage of the Alhambra is Rambert’s Ghost Dances.

London-based Rambert, one of the world’s leading contemporary dance companies, is returning to the city with a triple bill, including Ghost Dances, considered to be a contemporary masterpiece in modern dance history.

Originally created for Rambert in 1981, Ghost Dances is Christopher Bruce’s response to political oppression in South America and has returned to the company’s repertory for the first time in 13 years. Ghost Dances, set to Latin American folk music, depicts stories of love and compassion, as death – in the form of the iconic ‘ghost dancers’ – interrupts the daily lives of a series of ordinary people.

Also on the triple bill is the world premiere of Goat. Created by one of the most exciting new choreographers in British dance, Ben Duke, it is the first time he has created a piece of work for the company.

At the end of a long day of rehearsals, I speak to Duke.

“We’re getting there. I just want to get it on the stage now,” he says.

“It’s nervousness as much as just wanting to get it in front of an audience now. It’s more a sense of anticipation.”

Having trained with Rambert, this is the first time Duke has created a piece of work on the company of dancers and he is eager for Bradford audiences to share in the fruits of his labour.

Having studied for an English degree and trained as an actor, 
it is perhaps little surprise that Duke is driven to create his own work.

“As a dancer you are very physical, obviously, but as a choreographer you are far more in your head, particularly when you are creating a piece of work. There is a lot more involved in terms of using your brain and in decision making. This piece in particular looks at our emotional body and how we stay connected to our body emotionally.”

Goat is inspired by the music and spirit of the legendary Nina Simone and features a selection of her most-loved songs performed live on stage: which makes it sound somewhat theatrical.

“While I was training as an actor I became really interested in dance and in particular how these two forms, acting and dancing, looked from the outside to be similar but couldn’t be more different. Ultimately they are both forms which are used to tell stories, but I found it fascinating how you could strip away the dialogue, any of the words in dance and still be able to tell a story that an audience could understand.”

It’s a fascination that has continued into what is a burgeoning award winning career: In 2015 his one man show Paradise Lost (lies unopened besides me) toured the UK and won him a National Dance Award when it was performed at the Edinburgh Festival.

And now he’s coming to Bradford. I told you: Yorkshire, good for dance.


Christopher Bruce is one of Britain’s leading choreographers and is the last major choreographer to have been nurtured by Marie Rambert. Bruce is a former dancer and Artistic Director of Rambert (1992 – 2002), whose acclaimed work for the company includes Cruel Garden (1977), Swansong (1987) and Rooster (1991). He has created works for major companies around the world including English National Ballet, Houston Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater and The Royal Ballet.

Ghost Dances, Bradford Alhambra, Nov 15 to 17. Tickets 01274 432000.