Students at one of the region’s universities have been exploring outer space and its phenomena, including stars, meteors, the planets and, er, aliens.
You might guess from the latter that they are not studying astronomy. Rather, they are members of DUSC (the Dance University of Sunderland Company).
The company, which was formed 10 years ago, is embarking today on a tour of the region and beyond – not so much an orbit as a meander around professional performance venues and educational establishments.
It is an opportunity for the student dancers to show what they can do and for audience members to gain an insight into dance as a higher education option.
Overseeing DUSC as artistic directors are Sunderland University dance lecturers Rachel Emms-Hobbins and Sarah Riach.
Rachel, who is a founder of the company, explains: “We run it as a research project so we’re trying to introduce our dancers to working in a very professional way.
“We put together a dance tour and the students are assessed on performance and also on their particular role in the company.”
Each of the students is given a behind-the-scenes task relating to matters including marketing, risk assessment, directing and liaising with venues.
It is designed to be a tough introduction to the world of a professional performer.
“They might ring a school and be concerned that they don’t get a reply,” says Rachel. “But we explain that that is all part of being in a professional company.
“What we are trying to expose them to is an industry where you have to expect this sort of thing to happen and deal with it.”
Similarly, it has to be said, dealing with the media can be a frustrating experience. You can organise a media day, as the students did last week, and then find the news agenda has shifted so the expected coverage doesn’t materialise.
After 10 years, DUSC is often highlighted as a tried and tested introduction to the industry. According to Rachel, it has also become a feather in the university’s cap, attracting students to the dance course from across the UK and – this year – as far afield as Ireland, Poland and Cyprus.
“This year we have 40 dancers in the company which is the biggest it’s ever been. It’s actually a huge company so they all have to learn to collaborate and play to their different strengths and personalities.
“Whatever might happen, whatever personal conflicts might arise, they have to deal with things responsibly. They should take from this exercise a lot of transferable skills which will aid them when they graduate.”
Rachel says about 80% of the DUSC members are studying for a degree in dance but a few are doing combined studies or related subjects.
“The market research shows they’ll not get a job for life performing but a lot will go into freelance work in education or therapy. There are lots of opportunities within the dance industry – on cruiseships, in after-school dance clubs or even perhaps in a dance company.
“There are jobs if they look in the right places and are prepared to travel.”
Themes explored by previous DUSC troupes include the Olympics, social networking, architecture, games, nights out and relationships.
This year’s programme, with the theme of Space, is called Dimension 43. Choreographed by Rachel and Sarah, with the help of guest choreographer Patrick Ziza and input from the students, it is designed to show the full range of their dance skills.
One thing audiences might notice is the DUSC gender imbalance. The Billy Elliot effect, if ever there was such a thing, appears to have worn thin because only two of the 40 dancers are men.
“It always tends to be that way in dance,” says Rachel. “We had just three men last year so it is quite typical. But the men don’t seem to mind.”
The DUSC tour begins today with two performances at Abbey Hill School & Performing Arts College in Stoke-on-Trent. The company will give two performances on March 18 at the Customs House, South Shields, and then a third on April 1 as part of the annual Customs House dance festival, Pulse.