The renowned company that started with 11 members performing at a university theatre now has five full-length works touring the country. Anna Winter talks to some of the key players, past and present
Northern Ballet’s 50-year history has certainly been colourful. There have been leaky studios, parties with Princess Margaret and plenty of dodgy digs. Not that there’s any sense of disrepair as I watch the company rehearse for a one-off anniversary gala – performed in early January – at its purpose-built, six-storey headquarters in Leeds.
Today’s company of 43 dancers is renowned for its dramatic prowess. It’s had a string of successful narrative works in recent years, including Cathy Marston’s Victoria and Kenneth Tindall’s Casanova, while two new ballets will be unveiled in 2020, as part of the 50th-anniversary celebration – Tindall’s Geisha will premiere in March while Merlin, by Drew McOnie, debuts in October.
But it all goes back to a pioneering troupe of 11 that first performed on November 28, 1969 at Manchester’s University Theatre. Northern Dance Theatre – the UK’s first officially funded regional dance company – was founded by Canadian-born Laverne Meyer.
After training at Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet School, Meyer cut his teeth with Bristol-based Western Theatre Ballet – which later moved to Glasgow to become today’s Scottish Ballet – before undertaking an Arts Council feasibility study that laid the ground for a dance company based in Manchester.
Swiss dancer Ursula Hageli, who trained at the Royal Ballet School and is now a ballet mistress at Covent Garden, was with Stuttgart Ballet when she was asked to step into some significant shoes. It was 1973 and Northern were stuck for a Cinderella. “I wanted to come back to England. I was missing friends from school days, so I jumped at it. Little did I know what it was going to be like when I got there,” she says.
Northern’s first home was the Zion Institute in Hulme (now Zion Arts Centre), an imposing Edwardian building encircled by a grey crescent of brutalist flats. “It was a really run-down area,” says Hageli, but the regime of small stages and unheated digs “didn’t matter because I was so happy to be doing what I was doing. And we did have an amazing repertoire.”
Lavish classics were not yet the company’s remit. In addition to Meyer’s short and full-length contributions – his Cinderella was followed by Aladdin in 1974 – the dancers concentrated on small-scale works by Michel Fokine, Walter Gore, Kurt Jooss, Charles Czarny and Peter Darrell, alongside some classical pas de deux for mixed programmes, endearing itself to regional audiences.
“Interesting rep was absolutely essential. The aim was for the company to grow slowly and eventually end up big enough to do some classics like Coppélia,” says Hageli. “Laverne nurtured choreographers. I don’t think people realise how much he cared about that.” Jonathan Thorpe gained recognition as a significant talent, creating a work for Hageli to Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben. “I was in my element and having a wonderful time. It was a young company starting out, with somewhere to go, something to be a part of.”
A difficult period ensued in 1974 when Meyer left the company after a boardroom disagreement over artistic policy. “It was a cruel time for him. He really fought for his company and paid dearly for it,” says Hageli. “He pulled through and, as time went by and Northern was still there, he was very proud of having founded it.”
Precarious periods have clouded Northern’s history. Even after winning a BAFTA for Gillian Lynne’s A Simple Man – a 1987 piece based on LS Lowry’s life made for TV – the company was threatened with extinction via a merger. Christopher Gable, the charismatic dancer-turned-actor who originally starred as Lowry and then took over the company reins, doggedly fought with the Arts Council to ensure its survival.
Gable’s leadership, which lasted until his death in 1998, is fondly remembered. “Chris took it to another level,” says Jeremy Kerridge, who danced with the company from 1981 to 2003 and is now a teacher at Tring Park School. “What you see now in Northern Ballet is down to him. He was a story man and we were an eclectic bunch of dancers.”
Using his theatre experience, Gable began directing ballets; successful productions such as A Christmas Carol and Romeo and Juliet combined Massimo Moricone’s choreography with designs by Lez Brotherston. “Chris wanted it real. He’d say: ‘What’s so sexy about someone doing 32 fouettés? Big deal.’ He made you think about why you were moving in a certain way.”
Whatever the story on stage, former company members have plenty of their own tales to tell about the hair-raising and humorous conditions of touring. “We were all in it together,” says Alexandra McQuillen-Wright, who joined the company in 1974. She recalls the flammable peril of a bathroom heater at the back of the stage in Keswick and ending up in an Ipswich jail cell for the night with her colleagues when their accommodation fell through and there was nowhere else to stay: “It was outrageous, but very funny.”
Viki Westall, now a teacher with Northern’s Academy, has “so many stories about dreadful digs. In one little B&B, if you didn’t finish the toast the woman put it in the cupboard and served it up the next morning.” Despite the relentless toughness – “wandering around some multi-storey carpark at 11pm with your make-up scraped off your face” – there was also “fantastic glamour”, thanks to chairman Jeremy Fry, of Fry’s Chocolates, who introduced ritzy friends including Lord Snowden and Princess Margaret to the company. “At these parties, the boys would have to go and dance with Margaret. She had these incredibly small ankles and she’d sway vaguely with a cigarette on the end of a holder. The boys would come away with holes in their shirts,” laughs Westall.
There were other starry names in the early years. Under Robert de Warren’s directorship, from 1976 to 1987, the company – renamed Northern Ballet Theatre – bagged Rudolf Nureyev as laureate. Jeremy Kerridge remembers the Russian superstar turning up to Manchester’s Palace Theatre “at about 7.30pm. We had to clear the stage while he did his warm-up. At 8pm he was ready to perform. He knew everyone would wait for him. I was in awe.” Kerridge recognises De Warren as “a good director – he did what he could with the amount of money he had”.
As the company has grown and technical standards have risen, financial pressures persist. “Getting the balance between popular and innovative titles is a challenge,” says chief executive Mark Skipper. “It always comes back to money and not having enough of it. Our dancers are paid less than in other companies. Their careers are short and it’s a shame we can’t make it better for them while they’re here.”
‘There is a north-south divide, but we’ve overcome what I felt was a prejudice towards the company’ David Nixon
Artistic director David Nixon, who took over in 2001, notes that “there is a north-south divide, but in some ways we’ve overcome what I felt was a prejudice towards the company”, citing its performances on Covent Garden’s main stage during the 2017 celebration of Kenneth MacMillan as a particular highlight. “I felt the dance world was able to look at us and say: ‘Yes, these are beautiful dancers.’ ”
Looking ahead, he’s keen for the company to embrace “the creative case for diversity”, while continuing to promote young choreographers. When it comes to paying homage to the past, homegrown talent Kenneth Tindall sums up: “It’s like Rocky IV. You train up in the mountains and nobody wants to know, but that’s where the real work’s being done. The reason the company is turning 50 and is strong and in this building is because of those that struggled out in hard conditions. This job demands you put yourself aside and give everything. It’s not just about today, but about everyone who’s ever come through that door.”
Chief executive: Mark Skipper
Artistic director: David Nixon
Number of performances (2018/19): 218
Audience figures (2018/19): 136,000
Number of employees (2018/19): 116 full-time equivalent employees
Turnover (2018/19): £3.43 million (gross box-office turnover)
Funding levels (2018/19): £4 million from Arts Council England and Leeds City Council
Cinderella, Geisha, Little Red Riding Hood, The Great Gatsby and Merlin tour the UK throughout 2020. Visit northernballet.com for details