Assis Carreiro dancing to a new tune

The imposing presence of the Jerwood DanceHouse, part of the tallest building in Ipswich, is a fitting testimony to the drive and determination of Assis Carreiro, the outgoing artistic director of DanceEast.

When you initially meet Assis, the first thing you notice is the ready smile and her slight stature – but you underestimate this woman at your peril. Assis is a woman who can move mountains, as the �9 million DanceHouse, opened in the grip of a worldwide recession, proves.

Born in the Azores and raised in Canada, Assis arrived in Suffolk in January, 2000, and quickly transformed the scope and the ambition of DanceEast. She turned what had been Suffolk Dance, a countywide organisation, into a national dance resource with international contacts.

Prior to her appointment at DanceEast she had been the founder of DanceXchange in Birmingham and had been dance programmer at DasTAT in Germany for William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt.

Assis is a dynamic individual. From her very early days she wanted to put DanceEast at the heart of the nation’s dance agenda.

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Under Assis’s astute and watchful eye DanceEast plays host to international companies like Rafael Bonachela’s Sydney Dance Company and performers like Sylvie Guillem as part of the annual Snape Dances programme, has a thriving company of associate artists like Heather Eddington, Darren Ellis and Cameron McMillan, while working closely with established international stars like Wayne McGregor and Akrim Khan.

DanceEast also plays host to the world’s leading choreographers and ballet company managers with their annual Rural Retreats – dance symposium.

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Now, after 13 years encouraging DanceEast and Suffolk to punch above its weight, Assis is looking for fresh challenges.

Speaking after her final board meeting in November, she said it was time to move on. “It’s tempting to stay. It’s very tempting. I didn’t know Suffolk at all before I came here and now I love it – so much so I am keeping my house here.

“I felt that if I didn’t do something now, then this would be it. I would stay here, and although there are still many challenges ahead, my initial goal was to get the DanceHouse built and get it open and running, and that’s what I have done.”

Assis is leaving the Ipswich Waterfront to become the new artistic director of The Royal Ballet of Flanders.

The company is currently without a director, so she is starting with a blank slate – something she finds very appealing.

Although she is hitting the ground running in Antwerp, she is leaving her successor at DanceEast, Brendan Keaney, who is moving to Suffolk from Greenwich Dance, with a calmer hand-over process.

Since September she has been dividing her time between Ipswich and Antwerp, putting the DanceHouse in order for Brendan to inherit while simultaneously putting together an entire performance programme for her company in Belgium.

“I think we have a fantastic building with the DanceHouse and now it is right for someone else to take it on. When the opportunity to move to The Royal Ballet of Flanders came along it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

“It’s a dream job and you only live once. It’s a bit mad. I’ve turned my family’s life upside down but it’s going back to ballet, which I love, and it’s exciting to be involved in the issues and challenges of that world.”

More immediate challenges have been persuading her 11-year-old son, Sebastian, that moving to Europe is a fantastically exciting idea.

“Antwerp is a similar-sized city to Ipswich. It’s not too far away. We’ve been looking at schools and he’s fairly okay with it. He’s at an age where they are very adaptable. Although everyone speaks English, I’m sure we’ll be learning some Dutch. They speak French in Brussels but Dutch in Flanders.

“My husband, who is being a saint, and I have had long discussions about this (move) and we’re keeping the house, we’re renting it out, so it’s not goodbye. We’ll be back.”

She added that she hopes to strengthen ties between DanceEast and The Royal Ballet of Flanders – aiming to boost the international profile of the Suffolk company still further.

Like Britain, the arts in Europe is also facing tough times. In Belgium there is no Arts Council grant to reduce ticket prices or top up funding levels, but what there is instead is a thriving culture of corporate sponsorship.

“Also, the ballet is one of the crown jewels of Flanders – they regard it as a wonderful institution – so it has secure funding for three or four years. But, the board appointments are political, so that’s a little bit scary and to be honest the ballet probably hasn’t ever been funded to the level that it should be, so I am seeking a meeting with the minister to discuss this and we’ll see how it goes.

“The taxes are very high over there but ticket prices aren’t. So it’s a different approach and they have a real pride in showing off their cultural assets.”

She aims to boost the programme and bring in more money through the box office and from touring.

She is also hoping to introduce the concept of arts philanthropy to the Belgian business community. “At present, there isn’t a great philanthropic culture because of the high taxes, it’s mostly government funding, but I think there is potential for more sponsorship.

“The economic landscape has changed. I think we have to take the challenges as they come and just be responsible to the community. We have to engage with audiences, become part of the community, as we are here, and make businesses want to be a part of what we are about.” But, for the most part Assis’s world will be putting schedules together, seeking to expand their programme, extend their touring operation and introduce some of the companies that have worked well with DanceEast – performers like Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance.

She is also looking forward to working with the associated orchestra and the opera company, which will provide fresh challenges. “We have a 300-seat theatre which is not being used at the moment. I am really looking forward to programming that and getting out into the community.”

Proving that she is not turning her back on the county, Assis said that next year her new company will be performing at Snape as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, celebrating Benjamin Britten’s centenary.

“I’m thrilled to still be part of the festival. It was something I had planned while at DanceEast and instead of using freelancers we can use the Royal Ballet of Flanders.

“It’ll be great because Suffolk audiences will be able to see what we can do. They are amazing dancers.”

Although her mind is very much focused on the future, Assis is understandably proud of what she has achieved during her 13 years at DanceEast.

“I am hugely proud of the DanceHouse, but it’s not mine. I was only ever the custodian, but what a fantastic honour to be able to leave something for future generations to come. How great is that! Apart from the building, which has really helped put us on the map, I am hugely proud of establishing the National Centre for Choreography and I hope that carries on.”

The choreography project is a unique research and development lab for experienced choreographers to explore new areas, and allows them the opportunity to experiment with dancers and artists from a range of other disciplines.

“I am also very proud of the Rural Retreats because I conceived it and developed it. Where it goes now I’m not sure, but I hope I continue to have some form of relationship with it in the future.

“There have been many things that have been great. I have really enjoyed working with Michael Platt on his many projects with the Suffolk Youth Theatre, the village hall touring and bringing world-class dance not only into this building but also to Suffolk.”

Also, earlier this year, she secured funding for Come Dance With Me, an on-line dance series for The Space. The Space is a new, free, on-demand digital arts service developed by the Arts Council and the BBC.

“Also, I am passionate about developing young audiences and I am sad to be leaving just as Moko Dance, a three-year national strategic partnership to develop work for younger audiences, is just about to get going.”

She said it was the sheer variety of work that really has made people sit up and take notice, and say: “Hey, we are doing stuff that’s quite different.”

She said this was recognised by the Arts Council when it gave DanceEast National Portfolio Organisation status last year.

“I love the fact that we have developed a relationship with RoH2, the Royal Opera House outreach and touring work.

“It was fantastic that we held the world premiere of Pleasure’s Progress and God’s Garden by Arthur Pita, which I thought was really special, and I am also immensely proud of The Rough Cuts, where we get to see, shape and influence work in progress by world-class choreographers and dancers, which is also a way of introducing audiences to companies and work they may be unfamiliar with.”

She says that one of the questions she was asked at her interview for the job at DanceEast was: “What do you know about rural East Anglia? You’ve never lived in a rural community.”

“I believed then and I believe now that you are dealing with audiences and involving people, and the fact we live in a rural area hasn’t gotten in the way.

“We did the village hall tours, we did The Big Dance and we brought people into the DanceHouse, and the community has really bought into it. I think dance is really embedded in the community now, and that’s fantastic.

“Also, I hope we have contributed to the rebirth of Ipswich – I hope we are seen as one of the reasons that people come to the area, along with the New Wolsey, Waitrose, John Lewis, Patisserie Valerie – we are part of a new dawn for the town.”

She has always tried to programme a variety of work to appeal to a wide range of interests. “When anyone has come up to me and said that a particular performance wasn’t to their taste, I’d say: ‘Don’t worry; come back next week. We’ll have something different, and chances are you’ll like that.’”

Education has also always been at the heart of her work. “I think the work of the Academy is very important. It’s wonderful to create a new dance star, rather than wait for one to come to you. It is wonderful to nurture talent and help someone realise their potential.”

Before Assis moved to the UK in 1994 she had been Director of Education, Community Outreach and Publications for the National Ballet of Canada for 12 years, where she led the first education unit in a Canadian dance company.

Under her direction DanceEast was invited to become a Centre for Advanced Training (CAT) by the Department of Education as part of the Music and Dance Scheme. The DanceEast Academy is one of only nine centres in the country and currently trains over 80 young talented dancers.

“I love the fact that we are not just about performance; that we have enthusiastic people from all walks of life attending classes, workshops and using our facilities. It’s about getting involved. It’s about enjoying dance, as well as watching and being inspired by the professionals.”

Assis fully takes over her new role at the Royal Ballet of Flanders on January 1 and Brendan Keaney arrives at DanceEast in March.

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