When David Nixon first arrived in Leeds, the city didn’t make much of an impression on the Canadian. While Harvey Nics had already opened its doors, and the makeover which would symbolise its economic renaissance had begun, the city was still struggling to compete with the likes of Manchester.
He might have turned and run. But while the city centre itself didn’t hold much of an allure, Nixon hadn’t come for the shopping. He had been encouraged to apply for the recently vacated role of artistic director of Northern Ballet and his interview was his first glimpse of the city that he now calls home.
“It’s easy to forget how much Leeds has changed in that decade and a half,” he says. “Now Leeds is a thriving metropolitan city, but back then it was still lacking in confidence. Even the station, which was in the middle of a renovation, was a pretty hideous place.”
The then premises of Northern Ballet weren’t much to write home about either. Stuck out in the northern suburbs and housed in a former school, the paint was peeling, the lino was always ice cold, even in summer, and the most distinct aroma was the smell of chips wafting through the car park.
“It definitely wasn’t plush, but while the roof leaked and the heating barely worked, most dancers are used to those kind of conditions,” remembers Nixon, who is now in his 15th year as artistic director. “Before coming to Leeds I’d worked at Sadler’s Wells in London and their rehearsal space wasn’t much better. Besides you don’t work in this business if you like comfort.
“I’ll admit I didn’t know a huge amount about Northern Ballet before I was approached about the artistic director’s position. However, I had been dancing in England when Christopher Gable was artistic director. He was known in the dance world as someone unafraid to push boundaries, controversial even, so they were on my radar even before I had seen any of their work.”
Nixon’s own career began at the National Ballet of Canada where he progressed rapidly through the ranks to become a principal dancer. While those lead roles would win him a clutch of awards, from early on he also began creating his own choreography and before arriving in Leeds he had been first ballet master at the Deutsche Oper Ballet as well as various guest artist spells at Birmingham Royal Ballet, Komische Oper in Berlin and Sydney City Ballet.
It was that breadth of experience – together with the fresh eyes of an outsider – that has seen Nixon take Northern Ballet to the next level. While they will perform classics like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, taking its lead from Nixon the company has become known for its narrative productions, from Beauty and the Beast to The Three Musketeers which tell well-known stories through classical dance.
“That has worked against us in some ways,” he says. “If each season you have a programme based around the ballet canon, critics have an easy yardstick by which to judge your work against because they will have seen that production a dozen or more times. It’s a bit like the gymnastic judges at the Olympics – they are looking for certain steps, certain things which will put a tick in the box.
“However, if they come to see 1984 it may be interesting and exciting, but they don’t have anything to compare it to. I’m not complaining, but I do think that because we are different historically we didn’t get the national attention that we perhaps deserved.”
That all changed, however, in 2010 when under Nixon’s direction the company relocated to brand new imposing premises next to the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Now bang in the centre of the city and with facilities that befitted a company of both national and international importance, he suddenly found himself fielding calls from those who had previously given Northern Ballet only a second glance.
“It was a little crazy,” he says. “We moved in the September and were exactly the same company that we had been in the August, but overnight the wider dance community seemed to view us differently. In some ways, that was a little frustrating, but we had to make the most of it – and I think we have. I guess the fact that we had this amazing new building with its own performance space showed that someone, somewhere thought we were an organisation worth investing in.”
While Northern Ballet’s national profile might have been raised with the move, Nixon is not the kind of artistic director whose head is easily turned. He soaked up the plaudits and welcomed the increased coverage, but he knew that if the company was to remain successful it had to look after the audience on its doorstep.
“I’ve always been very clear that while we go out on tour Yorkshire is our home audience and we need to make them feel special,” he says. “ It’s something that Opera North has done well, but historically we perhaps didn’t. Every time we unveil a new season, I want people in Leeds, Sheffield, Harrogate and York to think: ‘Ah yes, this is something for us.”
Last season, which coincided with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, that commitment resulted in a new production of Jane Eyre, which premiered at Doncaster Cast.
“I know there were some people who doubted that ballet could find an audience in Doncaster, but we did,” says Nixon. “I think that says lot about the importance of staging work which really speaks to people rather than going for the safe option. Jane Eyre was pretty much a sell-out and when tickets are hard to get, that creates a real appetite for what you do next.”
Following the same them, this season will see a production of Wuthering Heights and a revival of Nixon’s own Beauty and the Beast while the company will also become the first in Britain to bring Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Les Ballet de Monte Carlos’ Romeo and Juliet to the UK.
“I think I am a pretty good organiser,” says Nixon. “I may not be so good at many other things, but that’s one thing I can do and people always seem to be quiet impressed with what we can do in the time we have available.”
Nixon is leading rehearsals for Beauty and the Beast, but for Northern Ballet’s next world premiere he will hand over the reins to one of the company’s alumni. Former principal dancer Kenneth Tindall is already working on Casanova, which will open in Leeds next March before touring throughout April and May.
“It’s just lovely that former dancers still want to work with us and at the moment we do seem to have some real strength in depth. We now boast six principal couples when the norm is three to four and that’s is something which is down to hard work rather than luck. It’s about nurturing talent.”
While the various performances over the last 15 years have given Nixon a lifetime of memorable highlights, one of his proudest achievements has been establishing the Northern Ballet Academy where his wife Yoko Ichini is ballet mistress.
“When I was growing up in Canada, if you wanted to be a dancer then you had no option but to leave home at an incredibly young age. It was the same in this country, if you wanted to dance, you had to go to London. Partly that was about snobbery – if you wanted the best, the feeling was you could only get it in the capital, but those facilities simply didn’t exist elsewhere. That’s not true any more and it’s because of places like the academy. I think we offer something unique and our students graduate and go on to all the major ballet schools.”
Looking to the future, Nixon says he is increasingly aware of how even the smallest projects can have a ripple effect. Earlier this year, the company created a series of short dance pieces which were performed in Harrogate’s Mercer Gallery alongside an exhibition of dance images by photographer Tom Wood and tickets again outstripped demand. Knowing the affection with which the county holds the company may also explain Nixon’s disappointment that it won’t be one of the main highlights of the Hull UK City of Culture programme,
“I did submit a brief to the City of Culture team which I thought was pretty special. Northern Ballet has been loyal to Hull, we have continued touring there when a lot of other companies haven’t and I thought we could have had a real part to play in the programme, but it got turned down. That was disappointing.”
Should Leeds be successful in its planned bid to be the European City of Culture in 2023, Northern Ballet, along with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Opera North and the city’s dozens of other arts organisations, will find themselves centre stage. However, for now, Nixon is just enjoying life.
“I’ve never been the kind of person to hanker after the next job and I am happy where I am. Whatever happens with the bid, Leeds is already a city of culture. We’ve got galleries, museums, theatres, dance and opera companies, but what we need to do is let people know the wealth of the talent we have in Leeds. It is a city transformed since I arrived all those years ago. I love the city centre and the Trinity Leeds development and I love the fact that in a few minutes I can be out of the bustle, surrounded by trees. I like the fact that people in cafes and bus stops will happily strike up a conversation and I love that this is now my home.”