It's a new year and a new beginning for Eliot Smith as his fledgling dance company makes a move from Northumberland into premises in Blackfriars @ The Ouseburn.
Its move from its former base at Warkworth Memorial Hall means more studio space for rehearsals and classes and opportunities for growth and the 23-year-old dancer and choreographer is clearly excited for the future.
As his Eliot Smith Dance Company settles into the Blackfriars Hall in New Bridge Street, opposite the Tanner’s Arms at the edge of Newcastle’s Ouseburn, dance classes for adults and young people are being re-launched this week and Eliot is in the middle of making big plans, including for a gala performance of three of his works next month.
The move follows a lot of hard work including a recent fundraising appeal to support the work of the company which Eliot set up early last year.
That wasn’t a great success, he admits, but then his success to date has come despite a lack of financial help. It’s down to his own drive and passion for the contemporary dance style pioneered by the famous late American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. The company does not receive Arts Council funding (although it has applied for a small grant from Northumberland County Council) but that’s not Eliot’s style. If you have a passion to do new work, he insists a lack of money should not stop you: “that’s the excitement”.
At 16, Newcastle-born Eliot left for the capital to train at the London Contemporary Dance School, after being based at Newcastle’s Dance City on an advanced training programme for contemporary dance and ballet.
The next step when he graduated in 2012 was to attend the Martha Graham School in New York, having been advised to continue learning the Graham Technique by choreographer Robert Cohan who himself had trained there.
Martha Graham, whose influence on dance has been compared to that of Picasso on the visual arts, set up her dance company in 1926 and it’s now the oldest in America.
“Martha Graham invented the contemporary modern dance technique,” says Eliot.
“It’s about contraction and release of the body.” And it summed up everything he loved in dance.
“Because of my passion, he said you need to go to the Martha Graham School and you can learn the technique and bring it back to Britain.”
It’s a method that flourishes in America but has fallen out of favour over here, so is taught less and less. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Eliot successfully auditioned in New York and was offered a place. But the £20,000 fees he was expected to raise proved impossible.
“I managed to raise just over £6,000 and was then advised by a teacher at the school to come over and do a fast-track course which I just completed last year.”
And with this new knowledge he’s now teaching the Graham Technique at his dance school, which has six dancers: two local members and others from London, Spain and Italy.
A new dance piece After The Rite, partially devised while in New York, is inspired by Martha Graham’s renowned 1984 work The Rite of Spring.
It premiered in Newcastle at the Cathedral Church of St Mary’s in November and now has been picked for a performance at the Robin Howard Dance Theatre in London on January 15, as part of the 25th anniversary of Resolution!, an open season for short live dance works by emerging choreographers.
After The Rite will also form part of the three-part gala performance on February 8, which celebrates the company move. The rest of the programme will be made up of a second solo piece: an untitled improvisation work, and a revival of 2012 work Persecuted and Forgotten – first performed outside Westminster Cathedral – in which Eliot will be joined by local dancers Alisha Lyle and Hannah McGee.
It will take place in their new home which has, says Eliot, a similar kind of ethos to his company which seeks to be open to everyone and he hopes the new focus for the company will help spotlight the rest of the venue too: “It’s a privilege to be here.”
Blackfriars community hall is run by the St Vincent de Paul charity which tackles poverty and helps the disadvantaged.
Many people simply don’t realise the building is open, says Eliot, but it’s a hub of activity with arts and crafts upstairs and a cafe. The hall itself has a refurbished bar and sprung dance floor.
It’s built over the foundations of Hadrian’s Wall and next to it is the Catholic Church of St Dominic’s, home for more than 130 years to Dominican monks – or Blackfriars as they became known due to the black cloaks they wore over their white habits.
Apparently the colours are rumoured to be the origins of the Newcastle United stripes.
Eliot is planning a performance at St Dominic’s too for May 17.
Other plans for the year include a tour of Italy, arranged through their Italian dancer’s contacts.
It’s a busy time as the mirrors and barres are moved in and the company finds its feet: “We’re 90% there,” says Eliot. The Graham-based community dance classes run on Mondays for adults (aged from 17) with youth classes, for eight to 16-year-olds, taking place on Tuesdays.
“It’s exciting,” says Eliot who is similarly enthusiastic about creating new work, with performances all helping to satisfy that need for funds, and hopes to invite world-renowned artists and choreographers there in the future.
In the meantime, he says anyone interested is welcome to drop in at any time to the company’s new home.
“It’s a great facility and if people want to see what’s going on, they can just come in. I’m happy for them to come and watch rehearsals.”
The Gala Performance takes place at 7.30pm on February 8 and is open to all. Tickets will be available from the venue, by emailing email@example.com or on the door.