DanceHouse marks ten years on Ipswich Waterfront by inviting Royal Ballet to gala
- Credit: Archant
Ten years ago the Ipswich Waterfront gained an iconic building, the Jerwood DanceHouse. We teased out of artistic director Brendan Keaney the first details of the anniversary gala featuring the Royal Ballet
Time flies when you are having fun. It may seem like yesterday that the Jerwood DanceHouse first opened its doors on the Ipswich Waterfront as part of a massive regeneration programme but in reality ten years have passed.
Throughout the year DanceEast will be hosting a series of events to mark this milestone culminating in a spectacular gala performance in September which is still being finalised. When I meet up with artistic director Brendan Keaney for our state of the nation chat he is reluctant to be drawn on what the evening will include.
Contracts have yet to be signed and discussions are ongoing but what he will say is: “It will be an exceptional evening of dance bringing world-class artists and dance companies together to perform at the Jerwood DanceHouse. The evening will include contributions from Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor as well as home grown talents from the Centre for Advanced Training programme.”
That is as much as he can offer. Speaking to Brendan you can tell that he is immensely proud of this world-class arts facility. He arrived from Greenwich Dance in 2013 taking over from Assis Carreiro who had driven the £8.9 million fund-raising project to provide DanceEast with a new home and his job was to make sure the DanceHouse was fully integrated into the local community. During its life so far, the DanceHouse has presented 246 productions including 101 new commissions and hosted 39 premieres, during which time, its annual audience has tripled.
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It hosts a diverse selection of professional performances as well as a vast array of community classes and workshops.
We meet up in the DanceHouse cafe. Even though it is mid-morning, the place is buzzing. A mother and toddlers dance class has just turned out and everyone is enjoying a drink and a ‘well that was fun - see you next week’ chat.
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This is the happy atmosphere that Brendan has worked so hard to foster and he is clearly pleased that the place is so busy.
As we start our discussion Brendan is at pains to remind me what an extraordinary facility Ipswich has and how lucky we were get when we did.
“If you go round the country, as I do, you are constantly reminded of how special and how remarkable this building is. You will not find a specialist dance facility like this in many places, not even in the big cities. This is extraordinary. We are lucky with our arts provision in this part of the country but we mustn’t ever take it all for granted.
“When I look at the DanceHouse, it’s hard to believe that this is a ten year old building. It looks fresh, it look clean, it has a sense of vitality about it and that’s a testament to the original vision and John Lyall’s design.
“Assis did the heavy lifting before I got here. She got the place open, just in time, because two years later, it wouldn’t have happened. The financial crash would have whipped away the money used to regenerate this area.”
Brendan reaffirms that he was tempted away from the bright lights of London because Suffolk had a thriving cultural community and Ipswich was a town on the rise. Something he still believes, even though he admits the town still has its fair share of challenges. But, the cultural sector is in good heart and has more Arts Council supported producing companies than many big cities.
“The optimism I had when I arrived here six years ago remains. DanceEast is part of a thriving, much wider arts community and we are all talking to one another and cross-promoting one another and I can see that this building is much busier than it was when I first arrived here.”
For Brendan the growth and the development of the performance aspect of their work is particularly pleasing. “The fact we have gone from one night to two nights, sometimes three nights is extraordinary. It is unheard of outside London.”
He is also very proud of the fact that virtually all the leading British and European choreographers have, not only come through the DanceHouse doors, while on tour, but also have opted to develop new work and premiere it in Ipswich.
“The standard of artist who now wants to work with us is extraordinary – some of the best people in the world of dance are beating a path to our door, which is brilliant. We are forming relationships with the leading figures in dance and these are relationships which are being nourished and renewed over a long period of time. I’m starting to look at next year’s programme now and I am so excited by the people who are offering to make new work with us – I can’t say anything yet because nothing has been signed but they are world-class dancers. I am thrilled that we have world-class choreographers having residencies here. They are working with our students, they holding classes and workshops while they are making new work which is previewed and premiered here before going off to London and other venues around the world.”
But, it is not just the legends of the art form who are keen to work on the Ipswich Waterfront. Brendan is keen to encourage the next generation too and has offered associate artist status to emerging choreographers who are mentored at the DanceHouse and get to create work both with professional dancers and with DanceEast’s CAT students.
“I am incredibly proud of our CAT scheme (Centre for Advanced Training) and we are starting to see the first students graduate and take their place as professionals in some of the UK’s leading companies. All these ambitious plans we had when we opened the building are all starting to come to fruition.
“The Arts Council ask us for a three year plan but I have more of a 15 year vision. It’s harder to say where you want to be in three years but easier to look ahead and then fit everything into a reasonable timeline. I want this to be a place where the community and professional artists are working cheek by jowl and that is starting to happen.”
He’s also thrilled that DanceEast and the University of Suffolk have managed to pool their resources and expertise to come up with the country’s first two year dance degree course. “Again this is something that is different and in five years time, it will be something that people will be excited about and looking to replicate elsewhere.”
Having achieved so much, Brendan is not a man to rest on his laurels. There is still much that he wants to do. “Looking to the future, I think our priority must be to make a connection with those who don’t know about us or don’t think that we have anything to offer them. We have got a loyal audience now and I love them but, looking ahead, I want to reach out and speak to those who are not coming through our front door, people who don’t know what we are about, people who don’t think that contemporary dance is for them.
“I always use the box of chocolates analogy with people who say they don’t like dance. Dance is such a broad, diverse art form that there must be something you like. So if you saw a piece of dance that wasn’t to your taste then all you did was choose the wrong chocolate. Choose something else with a different filling.
“I want people to relax and not feel intimidated when they come here to see a new piece of dance and for experienced dance enthusiasts encourage them to try something new because tastes change and evolve. I know that the dance I enjoyed when I started out many years ago is completely different to the dance I enjoy now. I’m an intellectual lightweight so you don’t have to bring a lot of theories and knowledge and other baggage to it, come along and enjoy it. I like the fact that dance has become mainstream, that it is on the television and that people are taking it seriously now.”
Asking Brendan about the highlights of the first ten years triggers a long pause before a thoughtful response. “The Little Match Girl was an extraordinary moment because it was the epitome of our desire to reach out to people who don’t automatically come here. It was great work, it was family-friendly work, it was a new commission by an international artist (Arthur Pita), it premiered here before going on to play at Sadler’s Wells in London and it shows exactly how we want to integrate our artistic programme with our community programme and turning it into one creative endeavour. It makes perfect sense of what we do.”
Warming to his subject he then adds a surprising post script: “Funnily enough the other great thing we did was to change the foyer around to make the entrance much more inviting. I liked the staircase, it was a wonderful place for photo-opportunities, but by getting rid of it, it completely opened up the foyer and made it much more inviting. It made it a place for people to come and sit and meet friends. I think we have proved that you don’t have to be based in London or Manchester to be amazing, to deliver world-class dance because it’s happening right here.”
The DanceHouse Gala ‘10’ will be held on Saturday September 14, sponsored by Birketts, more details will follow later in the year.