DanceEast’s Brendan Keaney wants to develop an arts culture on The Waterfront

Brendan Keaney, the new artistic director of DanceEast.

Brendan Keaney, the new artistic director of DanceEast. - Credit: Archant

Brendan Keaney is a recent arrival in Ipswich and he is excited by the possibilities the town offers. Brendan came to DanceEast from Greenwich Dance in south London. When I voice mild surprise at someone moving from the capital to the shires, he is rather non-plussed by my surprise.

Akram Khan's new critically acclaimed iTMOi which will be performed at Snape Dances in November.

Akram Khan's new critically acclaimed iTMOi which will be performed at Snape Dances in November. - Credit: Archant

“Look around,” he says, indicating the Jerwood DanceHouse around us: “This is one of the best, most up-to-date facilities in the country. It’s got state-of-the-art dance studios, a fantastic studio theatre, it’s in a fantastic position on The Waterfront and has plenty of office space.

Tango Night, part of the autumn season at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswich Waterfront.

Tango Night, part of the autumn season at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswich Waterfront. - Credit: Archant

“I think the problem is that not enough people know about this wonderful building and what it has to offer.

DanceEast's Winter Showcase part of the autumn season at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswich Water

DanceEast's Winter Showcase part of the autumn season at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswich Waterfront. - Credit: Archant

“One of the things I want to do is get more people coming in here. I want this building used more – not just for dance – but I want to get people through the doors. I want the studio theatre offering a variety of different events through the week.”

The Little Match Girl which will be the Christmas production at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswic

The Little Match Girl which will be the Christmas production at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswich Waterfront. - Credit: Archant

He said that this season they have moved some of the music events from the DanceEats café into the studio and started booking bigger acts.

Russell Maliphant's Still Current part of the autumn season at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswich

Russell Maliphant's Still Current part of the autumn season at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswich Waterfront. - Credit: Archant

This evening they are hosting cult blues-rockers Dr Feelgood. This is exactly the sort of thing that Brendan wants the DanceHouse to be – a community resource. He wants all sorts of cultural events to have their home here.

He says that he sees his job as being fundamentally different to his predecessor Assis Caerrio, who held the post for the previous ten years. “Her job was to develop DanceEast as a brand and raise the money to make this ambitious dance facility a reality.

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“Now that it is open, we have to embed into the community. I don’t think people realise what a treasure they have in their midst. This is one of the finest dance/arts facilities in the country. They are just not being built any more.

“People may have heard of the DanceHouse but not everyone knows where it is. I want to boost the numbers coming through the doors.

“I want people to be familiar with it. I want everything we put on here to be of the highest quality, so they know that when they step through our doors they are going to see something that is remarkable.”

He also sees DanceEast and the Jerwood DanceHouse as part of an integrated arts provision in Ipswich. He has moved quickly to build bridges with other arts providers like the New Wolsey Theatre, The Pacitti Company and Ip-Art.

He wants DanceEast to become part of a broader arts programme which brings people into the town. “I want us to be part of Pulse, to be part of the SPILL festival. I want us to be part of Ip-Art because we are part of the cultural life of the town.

“I have already had several meetings with Sarah (Holmes) at the New Wolsey and we are talking about programming. She is thinking about transferring some of her programme here and we are thinking about sending some of our more narrative dance pieces to the New Wolsey.

“We are looking at where the pieces or the shows will be seen to their best advantage. It’s all about us talking to one another.”

He said the Gecko theatre company, one of the New Wolsey’s associate companies, would be developing their next show at The DanceHouse prior to taking it out on tour.

Another of Brendan’s ambitions is to put on a wide variety of work that will appeal to a broad cross- section of tastes.

“I think the message is to give it a go. I think it will be highly unlikely if everyone liked everything but I firmly believe that everyone will like something.

“What I want to do is introduce different types of work and see what people like and try to guide people to work or artists that may appeal. So if you’ve seen this you will probably like that.”

His eclectic programme for the autumn season is a demonstration of that philosophy. It’s a programme which blends established names like Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan with performers that Ipswich audiences may be unfamiliar with.

“The intention was to go for quality rather than quantity. All the performers have been very carefully selected.

“I was thrilled that Wendy Houston agreed to come here (last night) with her piece 50 Acts because it’s very different type of work from most dance performances. I think it’s accessible but I’m not sure that everyone will agree.

“It won’t be to everyone’s tastes but it will be of an extraordinarily high quality.”

He said that dance continues to evolve and some artists are looking to tell a story or discuss issues through dance while others are more concerned with form.

“We are delighted that Russell Maliphant will be performing here at the end of October. It will be a unique opportunity to see his work, up-close, in a small intimate environment. We’re really lucky to see him a 200-seater theatre rather than a 2,000-seater. Normally he doesn’t do small theatres like this, so we are hugely honoured that he agreed to do our commission and perform for a couple of nights at the DanceHouse.

“I think after he finished his last big piece at Sadler’s Wells, he was anxious to get back to his roots – to do something a bit more intimate.

“Russell’s work has always been about form. He has always been excited by human bodies and exploring the world of movement and motion. It’s interesting that both Wendy and Russell came to prominence in the late ‘80s and ‘90s and are now both challenging the notion that all dancers should be in their 20s and be young and athletic.”

He believes that by mixing generations you get a richer cast of characters. “Theatre is very good at getting a broad span of ages. Dance tends to have people of a similar age so you don’t always get that cross-generational dynamic.”

The show, Still Current, was commissioned by DanceEast, and is designed to showcase different styles of dance and movement.

The evening features newly created duets, trios and solos danced by a remarkable company of dancers including Dickson Mbi, who recently stunned audiences with his strength and exceptional popping style in The Rodin Project, the dance film Erebus and the Lucozade Revive commercial.

He is joined by Carys Staton, whose energetic elegance and delicate strength are showcased in new pieces through the evening and the remarkable Thomasin Gülgeç whose fluid agility and grace are not only demonstrated in the new works but also in the award-winning solo Afterlight (Part One) which is included as part of the performance.

Brendan said that there is a diverse physical language across the pieces, integrating qualities and vocabulary from ballet, martial arts and contemporary dance. Musically, the evening includes an eclectic mix of sound with compositions from Eric Satie, long-time collaborator Andy Cowton and a newly- commissioned score by Armand Amar, well known for film scores for The Concert and London River with Brenda Blethyn.

“Like Wendy’s piece it won’t be to everyone’s taste but it will be the best of its genre. Also I believe quite strongly that we shouldn’t under-estimate people’s abilities to move between genres – to like quite different work.

“Also there are people who like trying something different. They might not like going to see a particular type of work every night of the week but occasionally it’s nice to see something that’s not normally on their radar.

“Russell also works with a great team. The costumes come from a designer who has dressed Kylie on her world tours, the animation comes from a film-maker who has worked with Lady Gaga and the lighting is always breathtaking.”

He said that his ambition was to get lots of different people into the DanceHouse and getting them to try out as many different forms of dance as they can.

“That’s part of my reasoning for opening up the DanceHouse to other art forms. It’s to get people used to coming here. It’s taking away the fear factor. It’s all about engaging with an audience – inspiring an audience – entertaining an audience – prompting a discussion. It’s about making a difference to people’s lives.”

While building new relationships is important, Brendan is also keen to maintain contact with international stars who have long had a home at DanceEast.

November sees the return of Snape Dances, the huge international showcase held at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Economic realities mean that big events at Snape will have to earn their place but for the right artist Snape Dances will continue to happen.

“Snape will be the home for performers who can’t fit into the DanceHouse. One of those performers is Akram Khan who has a long history with DanceEast and, of course, figured quite prominently in the London Olympic opening ceremony.

“Akram’s latest production, iTMOi (in the mind of igor), has been on a sell-out world tour and has been described as ‘spellbinding’ in a review by The Times.

The work commemorates the centenary of Igor Stravinsky’s legendary The Rites of Spring and will be at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall for an exclusive two-night run from November 29 – 30.

Brendan said: “Akram is an extraordinary performer and it’s a valuable relationship. I have watched Akram since he was a lad. I’ve been a big, big fan for many years now. I was a director on his board when he first set up the company.

“I can’t imagine it is a relationship we would want to jettison but this is a big company – twice the size of his previous company – it’s a big show – it’s not cheap and if he keeps growing in this way, it’s hard to know how we could accommodate him.

With an original score by Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost, iTMOi is an extraordinary collaboration between Khan and his team of dancers and designers.

Inspired by Stravinsky’s original Rite of Spring, the work combines visually arresting imagery and powerful dance to explore the human condition, as well as the way in which Stravinsky transformed the classical music world.

The year is rounded off with a new Christmas show The Little Match Girl which not only offers something different to the Yuletide theatre mix and it will be aimed very firmly at family audiences.

Looking to the future Brendan said that he wants to fly the DanceEast flag across the region and develop working relationships with other theatres and other arts organisations which enable them all to pool resources and promote the arts to a wider audience.

Further details for the autumn season can be found at

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