Derby Dance 1
Derby Dance Centre
Thursday, December 18, 2008
From disused schoolroom to sophisticated performance centre in 10 years
If I am ever forced to get on the dance floor, my flailing arms and jerky co-ordination would remind you of those hapless extras in the marquee scene early on in Four Weddings and a Funeral. I used to be out of step with dance as an art form too: when growing up, my view was that ballet was for sisters, Come Dancing was for mums and dads, and when Michael Clark and company leapt into our lives with the first thrusts of contemporary dance, it all looked like pointless physical jerks. However, as I've mellowed and matured, I've come to embrace the exhilaration of Riverdance, the joys of musical theatre, the beauty of ballet and the dash and vibrancy of Strictly Come Dancing. I even found myself once defending the beautiful game of football by hailing it as a combination of chess and ballet, which probably tells me I've actually liked dance all along.
I still thought I had a problem with contemporary dance until I had another epiphany: in assembling this article on the tenth anniversary of Derby Dance Centre - now Déda - I was invited to see modern dance at its cutting edge through a performance at Déda by the Jasmin Vardimon Company. More pointless physical jerks? No, I have been the jerk for not opening my eyes before. This was both athletic and balletic, aggressive and aesthetic. Some of the movement was not only daring but positively dangerous and I was astounded by the virtuosity, creativity and sheer skill of the troupe. Better still, this was more than movement: I discovered that contemporary dance now embraces text, technology and theatre, combining spoken word with superb soundtrack music, and inventive lighting with innovative video projection. At times I found the show abstruse and self-indulgent but any complexity and confusion was erased by dance that was thrilling, thunderous, quietly beautiful, quirky, sexy even.
The multi-media nature of this dance company is very much reflected in the new set-up at Déda. With the change of name came change of direction spearheaded by the appointment as director two years ago of Stephen Munn, who comes from a background rooted in performance-based theatre, spending nine years as head of the Theatre Programme at Laban, a London-based contemporary dance organisation.
The fact that Derby Dance could attract such a prominent figure is testament to the centre's enviable reputation which began in 1998 when, through the good offices of East Midlands Arts and Derby City Council, £1.5 million pounds of lottery funding went into converting a disused Methodist schoolroom on Chapel Street into a sophisticated, state-of-the-art centre with two professionally equipped sprung-floor studios, theatre, workshops, conference rooms and café. Starting with 12 dance classes a week, that figure had increased to 32 five years later and, another five years on, there are just under 50, making it a veritable global dance village offering everything from ballroom to Bharatanatyam, salsa to swing jive, breakdancing to ballet. In its ten years overall, over 170,000 people have directly participated in dance at the centre itself, with another 65,000 out in the community through multifarious outreach schemes. Nearly 36,000 have attended events in the 134-seater theatre in this first decade with a significant rise since Stephen took over.
However, Stephen has done more than merely increase the dance performance programme. Indeed, the change of name from Derby Dance Centre to Déda was emblematic of Stephen's aim to move the organisation forward in several ways. 'Stephen has brought vital energy, enthusiasm, inspiration and ideas to Derby Dance,' comments Déda board member Ian Ferguson. Adding to that praise is Déda's Chair Shona Powell: 'It's Stephen's passion for many art forms - but with dance at the core - that has enabled Déda to move into a new phase of development in a really confident and ambitious manner.' Part of that new phase has been to add to the existing eclectic mix of dance provision: Déda now has a programme that incorporates jazz performance, theatre and storytelling evenings, cabaret and burlesque nights and a salsa club. Art exhibitions are also an integral part of the building, and a palpable presence in the new-look Cube café/bar.
It was the café area that was attended to as soon as Stephen arrived. 'What struck me first about the centre was that it was a beautiful building and that people should come here and enjoy it,' he declares. 'So I put myself in the position of a customer coming in to this building and asking how I would feel? For one thing, I would want to see art on the walls, so I developed an exhibition programme. Now, every time you walk into this building, you feel you are entering an artistic environment. But then I saw that the café was closed, which was a real waste, so I looked into the business end of Derby Dance. You need artistic direction of an arts organisation but you have to acknowledge the commercial aspect and although it's always a struggle mixing art with commerce, it's all about striking the right balance and I noticed that the café hadn't been meeting the needs of the people who were using the building. We're working with thisiswherewecook, they are making fantastic food and people are making the effort to come here. Although we're opposite the Chapel Street Car Park - which is such a convenient asset - we are still tucked out of the way here and don't get enough passing trade so we needed to make this more of a destination centre.' Having also made it more of a destination centre through its multi-artform programme, Stephen was anxious to, in his words, 'embed Derby Dance within the city centre'.
'I want Déda to be seen as a cultural organisation that is as much a part of the city as QUAD, the Playhouse, Sinfonia ViVa and Assembly Rooms and is as involved with everything that is going on. Hence the name change. Yes, we are a dance organisation but we are a diverse set-up and although 'dance' is a word that is very welcoming to a lot of people, it can also put some people off. So, although dance is at the heart of what we do, the Déda brand allows us to work on festivals and to work alongside the likes of QUAD and other organisations. Also, there's now a lot of blurring at the edges in the arts and I believe dance has become increasingly linked in with visual arts and theatre. You only had to see that performance you enjoyed from Jasmin Vardimon's company and it means that different audiences can cross over more easily. So, a change of name felt right.'
But why Déda? And with that acute accent on the e? 'The de is for Derby and the da is for dance', explains Stephen. 'The acute accent is simply a visual touch - it makes it work in terms of a logo and helps with the pronunciation.'
That logo is certainly spreading far and wide. Déda has always had a strong reputation for its extensive Dance Development and Learning Programme which takes place in a variety of community and education settings throughout Derby City and the whole East Midlands, providing 'bespoke' workshops, projects and residencies which can also be creative or health-based.
To add to the outreach work, Stephen introduced an Artists Scheme which, as he explains, cannily exploits the advantages of this part of the world while also addressing one of its flaws: 'We have a prestigious dance centre here - the only one in the East Midlands - but the region has never had a professional dance training institution which means we have a community of dance students who don't stay in the region. This Artists Scheme helps in that it encourages leading dance artists to come and live and work here. Better still, what encourages them even more is that the quality of life in Derbyshire is great. We've got the Peak District, a regenerated city, and a cheaper cost of living, especially with house prices, and that appeals to a lot of dance artists because so many are based in the south. So I thought, "Why not create an environment so that artists would want to come here?" And they have. In time people will link the work of high quality national and international artists to Déda, Derby and the region.'
The first participants in the Artists Scheme include international choreographer Claire Cunningham, physical theatre group Maison Foo and electronic composer Robin Rimbaud under the name of Scanner, who has worked with both the Royal Ballet and Radiohead and is seen by Déda Chair Shona Powell as 'a terrific coup'.
The presence of the officially titled 'Dance Artist' at Déda, Chris Caffrey, is indicative of the progress that Déda has made in bringing dance to a wider audience. When I last wrote about the dance centre, Chris was an Allestree lad who had just become the first centre user to step out on to the higher educational plane of dance college - at LIPA, the Paul McCartney-founded Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. At the time, Chris told me that his career owed everything to Derby Dance. He came to the Centre at the age of 14 'to have fun with dance' and was soon involved in the award-winning all-boy troupe Storm. 'Dance gives me a real buzz,' said Chris, 'and when I joined the centre, the staff never patronised me and were forever helping and encouraging me.'
Encouraged by the centre to take his dance studies further, Chris is now thrilled to be actually working for Déda alongside the Dance Development team helping to 'provide a ladder of creative opportunities' for artists, audiences and participants. 'More than ever, Déda is an easily accessible and valuable resource for all dance and arts enthusiasts,' Chris states. That includes the men and boys, he would surely add. Indeed, Stephen points to urban and street dance popularising dance to males to the extent that every Wednesday afternoon, Déda has a class of 25 boys all under ten, followed in the evening by 40 men. ''Ten years ago that wouldn't have been possible,' believes Stephen.
And what is it about dance that still gives Chris Caffrey a buzz? 'For me, it's the most expressive and versatile of art forms,' affirms Chris, 'and in being non-verbal, it's the most universal way of communicating, embodying and expressing ideas and emotions or to tell a story. It's a powerful tool that allows us to connect mind, body and soul.'
'Movement is fundamental,' adds Stephen Munn. 'We all move - it's a very basic instinct.' Déda Chair Shona Powell concurs: 'We're born with an integral ability to move to a beat or a rhythm - you only need to watch babies to see how deep rooted that response to rhythm is - and everyone can enjoy dance at some level, either as a direct participant or as an audience member, especially now with choreographers working across visual and digital art forms, making dance an all-encompassing and more powerful experience.'
Then there is dancing for health and well being. A former dance centre administrator Pauline Vernon told me that she became involved in dance classes mainly through her son joining. She found the whole experience positively life-enhancing. 'Dance is confidence-building, stress relieving, sociable and stimulating,' enthused Pauline.
'There is a big health and dance agenda at the moment,' agrees Stephen, 'and I'm all for dance as exercise but I really want to champion the art form aspect. Déda's job is to get people participating but also to promote the art form and show that dance can move you emotionally as well as physically.'
Having just celebrated a tenth anniversary, Stephen Munn is looking forward to the next ten years with some relish, given not only the growing status of dance but also the city in which Déda is housed. As board member Naomi Crosby points out: 'Like Derby, Déda is all about regeneration and raising people's aspirations,' to which fellow board member Ian Ferguson adds: 'There is still massive potential here, even after ten years. The great thing is that under Stephen, Déda isn't in a vacuum; it operates within the city as a whole which itself has really only just started to develop and that means that Déda can capitalise on that new energy.'
'In the next ten years, I would obviously want Déda to expand,' declares Stephen. 'We want to use the expertise in this building to programme dance across the city. I'd also like to see an international arts festival here with a strong element of dance. The last Derby Festé, which attracted 25,000 people to the city centre, was a great impetus for that. And I just feel we could do all this because I sense a real "can do" attitude in Derby which is coming from the City Council and Marketing Derby. There's nobody saying "No". Everyone is saying "Yes, let's try this". It's all very positive. I've had a great two years and I think it can only get better.'