Plans to bring the European Capital of Culture to Leeds in 2023 began in earnest this week. Neil Hudson met the woman who believes the city has everything to gain
Anyone who has witnessed the spellbindinig aura of Leeds Light Night cannot fail to have felt the warm glow of fascination and the tingle of wonder the annual cultural event - now in its tenth year - brings to the city.
Or perhaps we should talk about Classical Fantasia at Kirkstall Abbey, an equally enthralling, moving experience which sees the 12th Century ruins transformed into a luminous diorama.
Then, of course, there’s Leeds International Piano Competition, more music festivals than you can shake a glowstick at, an increasing number of beer and food festivals and new cultural offerings making use of Leeds Waterfront, not to mention those bastions of our artistic heritage: Leeds Grand Theatre, City Varieties, West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Northern Ballet, Phoenix Dance, the list goes on.
Taken together, this feast of imaginatively drawn entertainment is elevating, edifying and humanising, lifting us beyond the mundane, enriching our lives and fomenting aspirations among both the young and old. And yet even with this list, we have barely dipped a toe in the cultural waves beneath our feet. Strange then it seems, given all it has to offer - from street carnivals to heritage open days - that Leeds has not been recognised already for its contribution, its energy and sheer determination in this area.
But that could be about to change.
The stage is now well and truly set for something which could be as transformative as the build up to The Tour De France, if not more so, as Leeds gets serious about its bid for European Capital of Culture 2023. It might seem like a long way off but work on the bid - which will be made in 2017 - has already begun.
The woman leading that charge - and newly appointed chair of the steering group which will head the bid - couldn’t be more enthusiastic (and apparently undaunted) about the challenge.
When I meet Sharon Watson, artistic director for Phoenix Dance Theatre, in her office, ensconced inside the Northern Ballet building in that little cultural enclave opposite the bus station, she’s brimming with anticipation at the prospect of winning the bid.
“I absolutely love it. I’m enthused by it. What I think we have to do is to enthuse the rest of the city, Leeds should be more of a cultural destination. It’s about giving people the chance to see what’s going on. I think there will be new ideas along the way which will begin to germinate to help us show Leeds off.
“If it’s a festival it will be one of the most amazing you have ever seen. It could be even bigger and better than the run up to the Tour de France. It’s time for us to be bold and brave about what we put out there. We don’t know where this might take us.”
Seemingly unperturbed by the task ahead, Sharon is remarkably calm and it quickly becomes clear she’s not afraid of hard work - she may even relish it.
A mother of two - she describes her home life as a cross between “taxi and washer woman” - she first came to dance at the age of nine, a protege of Nadine Senior, who founded Phoenix Dance while teaching at Harehills Middle School.
Sharon took to dance like a duck to water and says she “always knew I wanted to be a director.”
“I was inspired to get into dance at the age of nine. Every child did it at school and it gave us so much. We did creative movement. What we didn’t realise was we were building a technique which allowed us to use creative expression.
“There’s a lot of evidence to show how assimilating movement you are co-ordinating your balance, working out rhythms, that’s also about gaining confidence, that lends itself into other classroom situations and that allows you to engage with tutor. Track it back, where does that come from? I think dance should be taught in every primary school.”
Sharon might very well be the perfect person to lead the charge. In 2010 she was named as one of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s Women to Watch, a list of 50 influential women working in arts and culture in the UK. As artistic director at Phoenix, she’s helped bolster the company’s national and international reputation.
She is a trustee of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, West Yorkshire Playhouse, and an artistic advisor for Central School of Ballet. In 2013, she was shortlisted on h.Club 100: list, a search for the most original and influential people in the UK creative and media industries, along with household names including Oscar winner Helen Mirren and musical icon David Bowie.
Acclaimed choreographer Matthew Bourne OBE was gushing about her appointment: “Sharon is a leading force, not only in dance, but within the wider ecology of the performing arts across the UK. During her tenure as artistic director at Phoenix Dance Theatre, Leeds has become a city known for its commitment to developing contemporary dance and critically taking work made in Leeds across the UK through Phoenix’s extensive national touring. Sharon is committed to supporting, mentoring and seeking out new talent and advocating for diversity in all its forms across the dance industry. As an individual arts sector leader, and as a leader of Phoenix, we have collaborated with Sharon on many projects that I am sure have been mutually beneficial for both our organisations. Sharon’s astute-eye, attention to detail and expertise make her a trusted friend and colleague.”
High praise indeed. As chair of the steering committee, she now has the job of scouring the city and, as she puts it “lifting the lid” on its cultural offering, then showcasing them to the world.
“We are the very beginning of this journey, I’m really honoured to be leading it, I’m not privileged in any shape or form. Anything I’ve had has been through hard work and taking opportunities, it was never a given that someone like me would end up in this position.”
So how did she feel being chair?
“I felt like it was my first day at school, it was like being a present, as much as I wanted to dive into that present, I have to open it very carefully. The journey is going to transform this city, I do not doubt we will be successful along the way.”
At the back of her office is a rather odd ornament - it’s a wooden chair standing about 10ft tall, it’s a stage prop salvaged from a previous production. Larger than life, it could almost be a symbol of her vision for the 2023 bid.
A report into the 2008 Liverpool City of Culture programme concluded visitor numbers were up 34 per cent, delivering an economic boost upwards of £750m. Could the same happen for Leeds?
Whatever happens with the bid, whether we win or lose, Leeds looks set to benefit from the landslide of events which will undoubtedly light up the city in the run-up. As Sharon deftly remarks: “It’s all about the journey.”