Nearly 50 years ago, an offshoot group of 11 dancers from the Bristol-based Western Theatre Ballet took the risk of bringing ballet to the North permanently for the first time. Fast-forward to today, and Leeds’ own Northern Ballet are now regarded as one of the world’s greatest dance companies – committed to creating new ballets and touring them across the UK, and beyond, so that audiences who otherwise wouldn’t have access to dance of this calibre can see world-class ballet in their own towns and cities.
‘The thing is, there are only four major ballet companies in England,’ explains Northern Ballet’s CEO, Mark Skipper. ‘The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Northern Ballet. Two of those are based in London; The Royal Ballet doesn’t tour at all, and both English National Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet have a limited number of touring venues. So we feel like we have a responsibility to take our dance to as wide an audience as possible. That’s what it’s all about for us: reaching people and giving them the opportunity to see what we do.’
Not content with simply offering audiences revisions of the classics, the company strive to be innovative, inventive and charismatic in their creative approach, often creating distinctive new productions that embrace popular culture and telling stories you’d never normally associate with ballet (Dracula comes to mind here, although you could easily take The Great Gatsby, 1984 and Victoria as just a few examples). Their continual drive to raise the profile of dance in the UK has seen Northern Ballet’s excellence recognised throughout their 50 years with a number of prestigious nominations and awards – perhaps most notably, winning the only award voted for by the public at the National Dance Awards, the Audience Award, three years in a row. And the company are as much in demand internationally as they are here at home, regularly performing across China, Bangkok, Milan, Barcelona and Miami. And while touring gives Northern Ballet’s company of dancers, who are based and trained in Yorkshire, the opportunity to perform in world-class venues across the globe, it’s clear that their creative mission is fuelled by their commitment to improving accessibility to dance.
A big jewel in Northern Ballet’s glittering crown these days is their targeted engagement with children. Every one of their specially-created, 40-minute children’s ballets that they take on tour has been filmed by the BBC for CBeebies – garnering over one million views every year on iPlayer – and the company also take immense pride in their official training programme, the Academy of Northern Ballet. Based at the company’s state-of-the-art, six-storey home on Leeds’ Quarry Hill, the Academy demonstrates the wealth of talent the North has to offer, and has helped to put Leeds on the map as a centre for excellence in training and inspiring the next generation of professional dancers.
‘I’d say the most significant strand of our work at the Academy is our CAT programme – our Centre for Advanced Training,’ says Mark. ‘It’s a programme to find, nurture and teach the potential dancers of the future. Historically, you’d have to go to London to go to dance school, but now, because of this programme, there are hubs set up across the country – although Northern Ballet is the only one in the UK that is centred on classical ballet, the others focus on contemporary dance. Given the fact that the other major ballet schools are all down South, hosting the CAT programme here means we’re offering training in the North, so children, sometimes as young as eight, don’t have to leave home to take part in a professional programme.
‘We also use the programme as an opportunity to go out into the community and look for talent. Quite often children don’t realise they have potential, so by going out into schools we can give those children an opportunity to come and train with us. We can fund up to 50 places every year from government funding, and we also raise money from donors and bursaries for some additional places. We just want to give people here in the North different opportunities, a different perspective, and possibly even a different career path.’
But Northern Ballet don’t only work to get more children into ballet; their Academy is also home to a number of workshops, open classes, training programmes and summer schools that seek to prove that dance really is for everybody. While their Professional Graduate Programme caters for dancers who have graduated from ballet school but may not yet be ready to enter into a professional company, their open classes accommodate everyone from tiny tots to seasoned hobbyists; their In Motion Programme helps wheelchair users find the confidence to move in new ways, and their Ability Course is specifically designed to encourage adults with learning disabilities to let their creativity flourish. And all that is not contained in Leeds either; Northern Ballet take as many of their outreach workshops with them on tour as they can.
‘If it hadn’t been for Leeds, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re now in,’ Mark admits. ‘The fact that we now have this amazing building on Quarry Hill is down to the city and the council, and having this as our home has really transformed how the company is perceived. If you’re in a grotty old secondary school building with a leaky roof and gymnasiums for studios, people don’t take you very seriously! But when you’ve actually got the most wonderful building with six storeys, a theatre and seven studios (which includes Europe’s largest dance studio) it allows you to raise your game.
‘The key thing that I don’t think people always appreciate about Leeds is that we are the only city outside London that has its own ballet company, its own opera company, its own contemporary dance school, and its own producing theatre. So Leeds is actually pretty unique and, in my opinion, it’s absolutely the place to be for the arts.’
It may be the place to be now, but Northern Ballet haven’t always called Leeds home. When they were first formed as Northern Dance Theatre back in 1969, the company was based in Manchester and stayed there for nearly 20 years, moving briefly to Halifax in the early ‘90s before settling in Leeds in 1996 in pursuit of the government funding they rely so much upon. Indeed, when you consider the cuts to funding the arts sector has suffered in the last 50 years, the fact that Northern Ballet have not only survived but have evolved into a multi-award winning, world-renowned business with a company of 43 dancers and more than 120 employed staff is a true testament to their ingenuity and sheer grit.
‘It has been tough, but it’s always been worth fighting for,’ Mark smiles. ‘As long as you believe in the product that you’re putting out there. Only last week we had our production of Dracula, which was being performed at The Playhouse here in Leeds, but we also sent it out live to about 300 cinemas, which is the first time we’ve ever done that. There are only so many people who can come to see our live performances, and we can only tour to so many venues, so by putting it out to cinemas as well, it means more and more people can see our shows. Again, it comes down to finding new ways to reach more people. Financially it doesn’t make the most sense – it’s very expensive with all the infrastructure you need to have in place to send a production out via satellite from Leeds to cinemas all across the UK and into Europe – but when you look at the fact that you’re reaching people that you couldn’t reach otherwise, it’s money well spent. Our style of dance is so different, we don’t perform the traditional ballets in the traditional way, so it’s important to get those out there so that we help to create the dance classics of the future.’
So how exactly will the company be celebrating their 50th anniversary season?
‘We’ve got loads going on!’ Mark laughs. ‘The actual anniversary date is 28th November, we’re seeing that as the start of the anniversary year, so the first production of the anniversary season will be Cinderella, which is on tour across the country and will be performed in Leeds from 17th December–2nd January. On 4th January we’re having a 50th Anniversary Celebration Gala, which is really exciting because as well as there being Northern Ballet dancers performing, we’re also going to have a lot of guest dancers from other companies in this country, and one or two from overseas. Normally when one has galas there are big traditional Swan Lake or Nutcracker excerpts, which people come and do as their party piece, but what will make this gala unique is that we’ve actually got people coming to dance routines from the Northern Ballet’s repertoire, going back over the past 50 years.
‘In the New Year we will have two new, full-length ballets, Geisha and Merlin, and we’re also looking to set up a costume trail around Leeds, because so often there are a lot of events that relate to the performance side of ballet, but there’s a whole other side of the business – the costume team making beautiful costumes, for example – so we’re going to showcase costumes in several places around the city and people can follow the trail using a digital map. We have a new children’s ballet premiering next October, and we’re also hosting two fund-raising dinners in support of our Donate To Create campaign.’
It’s safe to say that after 50 years of creating, touring and inspiring audiences in Yorkshire and across the world with bold, inventive dance, Northern Ballet are still committed to raising the barre.
To find out more about Northern Ballet’s 50th anniversary celebrations, visit northernballet.com