‘Our time has come’ - how can the rising popularity of dance help attract businesses to Ipswich?
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
As DanceEast celebrates its 10th anniversary, chief executive Brendan Keaney says the dance house has a role in boosting the region’s business community.
It seems that dance is everywhere at the moment with weekend prime time television slots taken up with shows such as The Greatest Dancer and Strictly Come Dancing.
For Brendan Keaney, the artistic director and chief executive of DanceEast in Ipswich, this move to prominence for dance has been a long time in the reckoning.
“Our time has come,” he said.
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Mr Keaney says there are numerous factors that have contributed to dance becoming increasingly relevant to mainstream society but key to its rise is the development of the screen.
“Whereas I used to listen to a Walkman, my children now look at a screen,” he continued.
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“From MTV to the iPad – its been an evolution and gradually it has changed from just being about the audio to being about the audio and the visual. If you have visual you’ve got to populate it with something – I don’t think TV is driving the growth of dance, it’s reflecting the growth of dance.”
Another key change is that more boys and men are involved in dance than they were a generation ago. This is not just down to “the Billy Elliott thing” says Keaney, but part of a broader societal shift where lines between traditional male and female roles are much more blurred.
At DanceEast contemporary dance is promoted because the majority of its funding comes from the Arts Council, which has a focus on the more artistic side of dance. But Mr Keaney believes even this form is gaining more fans even though it might take them several attempts to get into it.
He said: “I firmly believe that people self-censure at a very early age - the amount of people who say to me ‘I don’t like contemporary dance’ is quite extraordinary. What they mean is they saw a piece of contemporary dance at one point and didn’t understand it and so think they don’t like it.
“But you wouldn’t say you don’t like chocolates just because you accidentally picked the strawberry cream from a selection box, would you?”
He added: “So our job is to help people find the kind of dance they like. But we don’t want people to feel uncomfortable. It has to be accessible – we have to explain to people what they are watching and how to watch it.
“Most people who go to the theatre expect some kind of story but dance isn’t always like that - some of it is like watching a moving gallery but if people don’t know that it can put them off”
Formerly called Suffolk Dance, DanceEast as an organisation has been running in one guise or another for around 35 years. But this year the company celebrates 10 years operating from its prominent Jerwood DanceHouse location on Ipswich Waterfront.
And what a building it is – on entering one is struck by the design and generous space of the foyer. Later Keaney offers a tour of the building and the high quality of the facilities quickly becomes clear: the impressive space in the studios and theatre, the extent of the lighting and sound equipment.
“Moving here was a big statement,” continued Mr Keaney, who relocated from London to head up the operation around six years ago.
“Compared to most of the big cities, we have something that is quite extraordinary here in Ipswich. Even by London standards this would be considered excellent and we are one of only four UK dance houses listed in the European Dancehouse network.”
So, there is a lot to celebrate in this significant year. Planned events include a celebration of DanceEast’s work with older people, an open day, a number of high-profile premieres and a gala performance in September, sponsored by law firm Birketts, which will involve artists from prestigious companies such as the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet.
Strong cutural offering
As well as being a thriving business in its own right with a turnover of almost £2m and 42 staff, DanceEast works with around 48,000 people each year through its classes and workshops and attracts more than 15,000 people annually to performances, Keaney says DanceEast also has a cultural resonance, which helps to make Ipswich an attractive place for businesses to invest and set up.
He is a Suffolk Business Ambassador, a role that sees him promote Ipswich and the wider Suffolk area to businesses considering coming to the county, and has overseen DanceEast working with a number of prestigious businesses including Greene & Greene, Ensors, Birketts and Woodward Markwell.
“What makes a place attractive to be in? - it used to be the shopping and the high street but that’s changing,” he continued.
“A strong cultural offering almost regardless of whether people make use of it or not - is part of the image of an area. Culture can drive regeneration and it’s great to be able to say we have great cultural institutions like the Wolsey Theatre and DanceEast in the town.”
Mr Keaney added: “I’ve seen a huge change in the past six years – retail is having a terrible time and we have a responsibility to help build the town centre economy.
“Our job should be to try and draw people into town. I’m glad that Marks and Spencer is staying open to 7pm trying to build that twilight economy, so it gives people the option of coming into town later and then maybe going to a show or for something to eat afterwards.”