Newcastle is aiming to be a city of dance in 2020, having just earned the accolade of hosting British Dance Edition in that year.
In the world of contemporary dance, British Dance Edition (BDE from now on) is a hugely important showcase for the talents of home-based dancers and choreographers.
Primarily a trade event, where hundreds of theatre programmers from Britain and overseas survey the latest talent and decide who to work with in the coming years, it is also an opportunity to put dance – and the host city – in the spotlight.
Anthony Baker, artistic director and chief executive of Dance City, can attest to the fact that what he calls “a major international event and the marketplace for British dance” is coveted by the bidders.
“We were up against a lot of other dance organisations and you have to sell yourselves and your city hard,” he says.
“It is as much about selling your city as your vision.”
He was helped in his bid, he reckons, by the support of other arts organisations and Newcastle City Council, whose leader, Nick Forbes, visited Dance City for a photo call following the announcement of the city’s success.
British Dance Edition 2014 took place recently in Scotland, going north of the border for the first time. In 2016 it will go to Cardiff, in 2018 to Bournemouth and Poole and in 2020 to Newcastle and Gateshead, but with Newcastle-based Dance City in the driving seat.
The North East has done well out of this bidding process in the past, having hosted BDE in 1998 and again in 2000 when Janet Archer was running Dance City.
Anthony Baker, a worthy successor, is keen to make the most of an event whose capture he calls “a real coup for the region”.
He envisages a Tyneside saturated with dance over a four-day period, saying: “We’re extremely excited about the opportunities this brings for us to really shout about dance in the North East.
“Dance City is perfectly placed to host an event of this kind. We are expert at programming professional dance, with over 30 shows a year in our theatre and a purpose-built dance-house which will act as the main hub site.
“BDE will throw a spotlight on dance in our region and we want to use this as an opportunity to bring excellent dance experiences to as many people as possible.”
Anthony foresees dance having a very high profile for a month or two in the build-up to the event as well as during it.
“The performances will be open to the public and so everyone will get a chance to see new work that won’t have been seen widely before.
“I am hoping there will be performances across the city, not just at Dance City but in shopping centres, schools, libraries and other venues. There might even be dance at the airport but we’re still talking to them about that.”
If 2020 seems a long way off, it seems quite close when Anthony explains that he has also set this as his personal deadline for opening a new dance conservatoire (a dedicated dance training school aimed at the very best) in the North East.
Dance City offers various educational opportunities, including contemporary dance training for talented youngsters aged 10 to 16 through its CAT (Centre for Advanced Training) scheme, which is financially supported by the Department for Education.
More than 100 young people from across the North East, all chosen for their talent and potential, benefit from this at any one time.
There are also BTec and degree opportunities, but Anthony believes the retention of the best young dancers, along with the chance to attract others from outside the North East, would be enhanced by the development of a conservatoire.
“The closest one of these at the moment is in Leeds,” he says.
“If people want to train in dance to that more advanced level they’ve got to leave the North East. I find that really troubling.
“We have got to be able to retain the amazing talent that we have in the North East.”
Anthony admits that at the moment there’s “no great agenda to build conservatoires” but he hopes a case can be made for this project.
“It would secure a long-term future for dance in the North East. While Dance City is the first building block towards that, having a conservatoire would secure dance in the region and also widen the understanding of dance.
“It would attract more dancers to come here and to stay here and it would benefit everybody by helping to make the region seem like a better, more interesting place to live, work and even raise a family.
“There are economic benefits because it will help to generate employment.”
As persuasive as he is passionate, Anthony adds: “The benefit of dance as an artform is that health and wellbeing are embedded in it. It can help people to lead healthier, more active lives, and that doesn’t just mean young people.
“We have projects aimed at people of all ages, from youngsters right through to people aged 70 or older.”
A conservatoire, he explains, would raise the bar for dance in the North East.
“It means you can offer more one-to-one training so it brings a lot of kudos to a region.
“We are already talking to partner institutions about this. We would need a partner to do it with us because we’re not an organisation that can offer degrees.”
As for its location, Anthony says he would like somewhere quite close to Dance City so most of the management and administration could be done from there.
Anthony says Dance City – a £7.6m building which opened in January 2006 – is operating at full capacity so couldn’t accommodate a conservatoire. He estimates that a new building, with studios and changing rooms, could be built for £6m.
Ironically, the old Dance City building, just a stone’s throw away from its replacement and owned by the city council, is on the market for £500,000. But Anthony says while the site would be ideal, the building as it stands is unsuitable.
He has his eye on another site not far away and clearly is not prepared to let go of the idea until all avenues have been explored. British Dance Edition 2020 stands as a useful target.
For some years there has been a sense that dance is on the rise across the region. Dance City has links with educational institutions including Northumbria University and Gateshead College and there are new young dance companies getting established.
Two North East companies, Robby Graham’s Southpaw Dance Company and Roberta Jean’s Mysteryskin, were represented at British Dance Edition 2014 and last year saw new work by choreographers Vivien Wood, Nicole Vivien Watson and Dora Frankel.
Liv Lorent, founder of balletLORENT, received the MBE a few days ago. Her acclaimed dance production of Rapunzel return to Sadler’s Wells in London next month, a fine advertisement for North East talent.
Looking ahead, Matthew Bourne’s celebrated company, New Adventures, will present a dance production of Lord of the Flies at Newcastle Theatre Royal in November featuring professional dancers and boys from across the North East.
Meanwhile Rambert, the main attraction all this week at the Theatre Royal, has among its cast of first rate international dancers young Adam Park, from Newcastle, who is a former beneficiary of the CAT scheme at Dance City.
He went from Newcastle to study at Rambert’s London-based conservatoire. If Anthony Baker turns his dream into reality, the option to stay and study at home will be a real one for those following in his nimble footsteps.
Whatever happens, British Dance Edition 2020 will happen. And Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes reckons it’s brilliant news.
After the photo shoot at Dance City, he said: “Having the vision and the ambition to stage major international events like this, even in tough financial times, shows we’ve got every confidence in the future of arts and culture in Newcastle as a driver of our economy and social change.”
He added: “I come here a lot. I’ve been to see some really interesting dance at Dance City and one of the things that this event will do is bring dance to a much wider audience in the North East.
“It will also help people to appreciate the amazing facilities that we have here.
“It is absolutely essential that we put Newcastle on the map as a major international centre for dance and enable people from this region to feel this is a place where they can stay to learn and prosper rather than having to move away.”
Carol Bell, head of culture and major events at NewcastleGateshead Initiative, said: “It’s a real testament to the work of Dance City and the strength of the cultural offer in NewcastleGateshead that the organisers of British Dance Edition have chosen to bring the event to the destination in 2020.
“We’ll be working closely with Dance City to maximise the opportunities hosting an event of this scale can bring.”