If you were involved in last Easter’s Great North Passion, an ambitious collaboration between South Tyneside and Sunderland arts initiative The Cultural Spring and the BBC, you might have asked yourself the question: how do you follow that?
The answer is contained in a single word: Rush.
It’s a different beast to the Great North Passion, in which shipping containers were transformed by artist-led communities into the Biblical ‘stations of the cross’, but it promises to be equally memorable.
The public will see a dynamic, dance-driven performance in a dramatic location – in front of the old engine shed of the St Hilda Colliery, South Shields.
But this will only be the climax of a six-month project which has had people in areas of Sunderland and South Shields up on their feet and dancing.
The Cultural Spring was set up with Arts Council money to increase artistic engagement in areas previously ill served.
Already the bar has been set pretty high, as Cultural Spring project director Rebecca Ball acknowledges.
“After The Great North Passion we wanted to make sure there was always a big, spectacular performance event around the Easter weekend so people would come to expect it.
“We wanted something that would involve local people but also attract people to the area.
“If you can do this regularly, an expectation grows in people’s minds that stuff happens here.”
A call-out for ideas attracted half a dozen potential projects but the one that got the nod was Rush, a collaboration between Event International and Southpaw Dance Company.
The free show, to be performed at 8.30pm on Easter Sunday, April 5, was inspired by the idea of protest and how positive, constructive things can come out of it.
Over coffee at the Customs House in South Shields, the Rush team gather to talk through the ideas behind this outdoor spectacular.
The old colliery engine shed, which will form the show’s backdrop, is a fine symbol of the lost mining industry and a reminder of the impassioned protests of 30 years ago during the year-long miners’ strike.
Also not far from here is Jarrow where the marchers set off for London to plead the case for more jobs between the two world wars.
But while all this is relevant, says Robby Graham, dancer, choreographer and director of Southpaw, the show also relates to the contemporary frustrations of the young in an area where coalmining and shipbuilding are gone but unemployment is still a fact of life.
Vividly Robby remembers the riots of 2011 which started in London and then rippled across urban England.
“I was very conscious of the media reaction because in my opinion there was a mass over-simplification of what was going on,” he says.
“I’m not condoning what happened but there was a lot of unemployment in some of those areas.
“What I’m saying is that things like this can be averted if there is engagement and people are given the means of expression.”
Robby comes from Omagh in Northern Ireland, a town whose name became a byword for the ‘Troubles’ when a car bomb went off there in 1998, killing 29 people.
He recalls Omagh as “a community of low opportunity” but he found an escape through break dancing, taking it up , aged 16, at about the same time as that bomb went off.
“When I started ‘breaking’, I started to learn a lot about self-motivation and discipline and respect,” he says. “I really do believe in the power of dance, and of art and culture, to give people the means to express themselves in a positive, non-violent way.”
In 2002 Robby came to study philosophy at Newcastle University and then persuaded some of his dance mates to follow him.
“When I left university with a philosophy degree the job offers weren’t pouring in but I was teaching dance so I stuck with that.” He set up hip hop outfit Bad Taste Cru.
Southpaw is his latest dance venture and with it he has travelled widely. He has also collaborated with Frank Wilson, managing director of Durham-based Event International and for years the force behind Stockton International Riverside Festival.
He and Robby worked on a show called Faust, which has toured widely. A new commission, Carousel, is to be premiered in May.
But before that comes Rush. “We are really excited about this show,” says Robby. “We think it’s going to be amazing.
“I’m really passionate about giving people an opportunity to learn dance and we have been working with lots of different community groups and organisations.
“We’re hoping that by taking part in this, people will have fun and gain in confidence.”
The 40-minute show, to climax in a colourful explosion of dance, will feature on-screen visuals and three entwined stories. Forty dance students from Sunderland College will also swell the numbers.
Ideas were solicited from the local participants and the team hope the piece will send people away feeling uplifted. Has it captured the local imagination?
Robby laughs and says the age of the dance volunteers is 16 plus. “Originally we put 16 to 60 but we had people in high dudgeon.”
The upper age limit was removed. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be involved. No tickets are required for Rush and an audience of 2,000 can be accommodated. Turn up, have a good time and dwell on the fact that there are constructive ways to make a point.