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‘We can never underestimate the effect of any choreographer on the next generation’ – an interview with Northern Ballet’s David Nixon

The Artistic Director on growing his Leeds-based company and working with new choreographic talent.

By Lottie Butler (Former Assistant Content Producer (News and Social Media))

8 April 2015 at 5.29pm | Comment on this article

This year, Northern Ballet celebrates its 45th anniversary. The company, founded by Canadian-born  Laverne Meyer in 1969, began with just 11 dancers performing small-scale works. Now a company of 48 dancers on the road for up to 32 weeks of the year, it is the busiest touring ballet company in the UK.

Directed for 12 years by former Royal Ballet Principal Christopher Gable (who focused as much on theatre as he did on ballet), the company has built up a first-class repertory in theatrical narratives, and is known for its story-telling prowess – reflected in the commissioning of works including The Great Gatsby, Peter Pan and Wuthering Heights. Since 2001, Canadian-born David Nixon has been at the helm as Artistic Director, adding a diverse range of inventive work to the repertory and overseeing a move to new studios in Leeds, the largest purpose-built space for dance outside of London.

This Season, the company brings two works to the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre:  Daniel de Andrade’s  Elves and the Shoemaker – the most recent piece in the company’s series ‘Short Ballets for Small People’ – and a diverse mixed programme featuring work by Jonathan WatkinsChristopher HampsonKenneth Tindall and Demis Volpi, including music ranging from Bach to Elvis Presley.

Ahead of their arrival in Covent Garden, we caught up with David Nixon:

You have now been Artistic Director of Northern Ballet for 14 years. How has the company changed in this time and what are your ambitions for it in the future?

Over the past 14 years, we’ve worked on increasing the technical and expressive aspects of the dance alongside the theatricality instilled by Christopher Gable. Since moving to our new facility, the company has grown in all areas, and we’ve widened our repertory and choreographic aspirations. Now, our ambitions are to find new choreographic voices that evolve the company’s identity, and to reach beyond the boundaries of the UK taking dance to as many people as possible.

On 16 May, Elves and the Shoemaker opens in the Linbury Studio Theatre. Why do you create work aimed at children and why is that important?

Our work for children is a unique way for us to engage very young audiences, as well as providing a creative platform for young choreographic talent. We approach the ballet with the audience in mind, keeping the productions short and imaginative, with a sense of something magical, to ensure that children have a fantastic experience. This allows both parents and children to share in the arts at a very early stage – and they leave with some cherished memories!

Why do you think it is important to nurture young choreographers?

Dance lives in the present and responds to the times, and it is new work that shapes our artists and asks them to evolve. We can never underestimate the effect of any choreographer on the next generation – what might not be perceived as great at the time, sets the course for work that is.

Similarly, while we respect our heritage, our audiences ask us to bring something new and fresh to the stage.

What do you like about the work of Kenneth Tindall? What do you expect from his new piece,The Architect, in the Linbury Studio Theatre? 

Kenneth is a real creative talent. I love the language of his work and the way he embodies the contemporary world while retaining an emotional context. He takes the work he has danced over his career and builds upon this with his unique voice. He moves our dancers in a very different and exciting way that thrills the onlookers.

Jonathan Watkins danced with The Royal Ballet so it’s interesting to see him come back in a different capacity withA Northern Trilogy. Is this the first work he’s making on the company and have you got future plans?

Last year I had the privilege to see Jonathan Watkins’ Kes at the Crucible in Sheffield, and I was struck by his imagination and clarity of storytelling. I saw real potential, and thought he’d be very compatible with the company. He created his first work on Northern ballet for our 45th anniversary gala – the fresh and delightful A Northern Trilogy, which is part of this mixed programme. It’s a wonderfully light work that captures beautifully the spirit and humour of the North. He is also creating a full-length work for the company – 1984, based on George Orwell’s iconic novel – which opens this autumn.

What does it mean to you to be coming to the Royal Opera House?

Coming to the Linbury Studio Theatre is a real privilege for us. It gives us a chance to present a different face of the company – performing work by other creative talent and demonstrating the diverse strengths of our dancers. It also enables us to expand our presence in London. By exploring new partnerships, Kevin O’Hare is opening up what has, in the past, been perceived to be a closed world, and we are thrilled to be a part of this process.

Little Monsters / The Architect / Perpetuum Mobile / A Northern Trilogy / Angels in the Architectureruns from 12-14 May 2015. Tickets are still available.

The Elves and the Shoemaker will be performed on 16 May 2015. Tickets are sold out, but returns may become available.

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