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Arts Council England's Creative Case for Diversity

Published on Monday 15 December, 2014

Last week Arts Council England outlined its Creative Case for Diversity.

In his launch speech the Chair of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazalgette (Baz), placed responsibility on every funded organisation to make their programme of work more reflective of the communities they serve.

At Northern Ballet we have to acknowledge that we could always do more. I’m glad this is a call to all arts organisations because it requires a shift in the cultural landscape that one company cannot make alone and I acknowledge the role Northern Ballet has as a publicly funded organisation.

As a starting point, ours is a diverse company of dancers who come from all over the country and the world and the recruitment of dancers and their selection for particular roles is purely based on their ability to best meet the needs of the Company. As our Artistic Director David Nixon says, “Dancers are cast solely on their ability and the qualities they can bring to a particular role. We are fortunate to have a company of incredibly talented dancers, all of whom bring something unique to the vast range of work we perform.” In effect the best person for the job gets it. We’re performing Peter Pan at Leeds Grand Theatre and our three Peter’s, Jeremy Curnier, Matthew Koon and Mlindi Kulashe, reflect this diverse casting policy very well. Each has been selected purely on their abilities to perform the role and therefore give the audience the best possible experience.

Peter Pans Jeremy Curnier, Mlindi Kulashe and Matthew Koon. Photo Simon Lawson.

Baz has given us, a National Portfolio Organisation, clear direction, “The progress our funded organisations make with the diversity of their programmes, their audiences, their artists and their workforce will inform the decisions we take on their membership of the next national portfolio from 2018.”

I’m glad to be able to say that Northern Ballet already has plans in place to move forward the diversity agenda. An increase in funding from Arts Council England for 2015-18 was given partly to allow us to take more artistic risks and engage more artists with the Company. One of the major changes that will take place is that we are in a position to commission more choreographers, composers and designers to work with us.  

Northern Ballet is recognised for the amount of new productions we create and for the breadth of our national tour. We take ballet to communities around the country, some of which are in areas underserved by high quality dance. In 2015 we’ll extend this tour to take in 9 new theatres.

There are other ways we are addressing diversity – and removing barriers in general - our ticket pricing policy aims to remain accessible with low entry level prices, we remain committed to delivering touch tours and audio-descriptions, and our Learning team is recognised for the ground-breaking work it does to engage diverse audiences – whether it’s courses for people with disabilities or a project with a local hospice which enables families who wouldn’t normally be able to experience dance and theatre together the opportunity to do so as a family. I am incredibly proud of this area of our work.

Our children’s ballets, now in their third year, were devised to take ballet to communities with little access to high quality dance, live music and theatre. Ticket prices are £4-£5 and the performances are supported by engagement activities such as dance workshops.

New initiatives include our three year annual choreographic laboratory. This will provide a creative space for emerging choreographers to come and work with us to experiment in classical narrative dance. In year one an emerging choreographer will be selected from Northern Ballet, the Royal Ballet and Scottish Ballet and there is also an open application for anyone with an interest in creating classical narrative dance.

A commitment to an annual mixed programme means that any work from the Choreographic Lab identified as having potential could then be developed into a piece in our mixed programme. Adding this dimension to our work is a great way of managing risk and developing dance artists of the future.

David explains, “As one of the UK's largest ballet companies we have a responsibility to create opportunities such as these, offering support and guidance for the choreographers of the future and an environment in which they are able to play with ideas with no expectations of a finished product. I hope that this opportunity will not only enable the selected artists to flourish but that the project will create a platform that could lead to the development of new and exciting work that audiences can then potentially experience in theatres.”

We know change won’t happen overnight but as a Company we feel in a better position to try to address some of the issues relating to diversity than we have ever been. There are opportunities now with our Choreographic Labs, our mixed programmes, our children’s ballets and our mid-scale touring to provide an entry point and a progression route for emerging artists – dancers, choreographers, designers – and we welcome people from all walks of life to come and work with us and for diverse audiences to experience our work.

Our next new full-length ballet, 1984, is very much a modern ballet and touches very current issues of civil liberty and human rights. It is part of our role to break down preconceptions about what ballet is and who ballet is for and I think this is something we have been doing for the past 45 years and will continue to do so.

In theory by addressing the issue of diversity, thinking beyond boundaries and reflecting the needs and interests of a changing population, we are in many ways future proofing the Company and indeed the art form itself – and that is definitely worth investing in.

Mark Skipper DL, Northern Ballet's Chief Executive. Photo Simon Lawson.
Chief Executive

The views expressed in blogs are those of the author and not necessarily of Northern Ballet.