Northern Ballet in Arts Troubleshooter documentary
Last week I reported that Northern Ballet were to feature in a BBC documentary called Arts Troubleshooter, to be broadcast this weekend. What’s in store ?
The programme follows Michael Lynch, former Chief Executive of the Southbank Centre in London & the Opera House in Sydney, Australia, as he works with Northern Ballet’s dancers and staff to discover what’s going wrong and how they can prevent the impending loss of dancers following a 15% cut in Arts Council funding. I’m not entirely sure how much Lynch knows about ballet, since one of his opening salvos is “to understand ballet at the best of times is pretty challenging.”
We’ve been here before, of course (English National Ballet’s behind the scenes docu Agony & Ecstasy, anyone?) and the gaping disconnect between the board and the artistic staff/dancers is plain to see here as well. Lynch doesn’t have an especially hard task ahead; all he has to do is bang heads together as a middleman to help the dancers voice the concerns that they’d otherwise be to0 afraid to, and bring in his top fundraiser to help Northern Ballet steer a clearer, more positive and inclusive path through the difficulties facing them.
The board & administration departments behind classical ballet companies are very often old-fashioned, slow to adapt to new technology and resistant to change, and here we see Mark Skipper, Northern Ballet’s Chief Executive, struggling with the suggestion from Lynch that the dancers are the treasure trove of the company and as eloquent spokespeople they could be fabulous ambassadors for the company, or that David Nixon OBE as Artistic Director has valuable experience beyond the rehearsal studio and stage and could be engaged positively in fundraising. Lynch himself notes that the power structures in dance companies are “out of date.”
It takes an uncomfortable meeting with Skipper, Lynch and two dancers – Hannah Bateman and Victoria Goldsmith – for Skipper to realise that things haven’t been working for the dancers and that they are eloquent and passionate about their company and, crucially, willing to walk the walk for it. You’ve got to give credit to Bateman and Goldsmith because this can’t have been comfortable for them and there will have been repercussions - and on camera too. Bateman had voiced her concerns that she didn’t feel involved or utilised enough; that the dancers are very often asked at the last-minute to do something without knowing the background and feels that as the company has a low average age, that may be the reason the board doesn’t look upon them more inclusively. Bateman has previously asked questions of Skipper but says that he avoids the dancers if they do this. Uncomfortable moments for sure, but Lynch also recognises “a quite significant divorce between the dancers and the company.” For apprentice Josh Barwick, his job (and that of others) could be on the line if they can’t secure funding and he is the only Leeds born dancer in the company so his story has great resonance – if the company can be persuaded to follow up on it (eventually they do).
Lynch meets with Artistic Director David Nixon, to gather his views on the board. It’s not much better. Nixon says they (he and the dancers) “are treated as decorations rather than tools”, which he laments as the dancers are very articulate and as you’d expect he is a massive advocate of them – several times he describes them as wonderful and glamorous.
Lynch’s subsequent discussions with Skipper aren’t initially very encouraging because Skipper believes firmly that it’s the job of the board to fundraise and that the dancers do enough already. One wonders how they’ve reached such a disjointed standpoint.
Lynch’s initial comment, that “Britain’s broke” sets the scene for a troubled economy where the arts are under threat like never before, despite the assertion that the country leads the world in the arts. His modus operandi is to get in, make changes and get out. Lynch wants it to be known that ballet is not for the elite alone; that it’s more populist than that; at least it is at Northern Ballet.
Kenny Tindall, a Premier dancer with the company who recently made his choreographic debut (his Project #1 gets a brief airing), says that dancing “is like finding peace just before you go on stage.” Bateman and Barwick say that they have never wanted to work anywhere other than at Northern Ballet.
The programme follows the creation of David Nixon’s hit Cleopatra at the start of 2011, through the process of applying for grants in March of that year, the results in April, the London premiere of Cleopatra at Sadlers Wells in May, to September when the budget needs to be submitted, and on through to November and the Nutcracker season and the ultimate fate of the dancers whose jobs are under question.
I remember the Cleopatra premiere well. I wasn’t alone in commenting that the number of PR people from the company seemed way out of proportion to the event and this was a significant concern because at this point we all knew that the dancer’s jobs needed to be secured otherwise the company wouldn’t be able to put on the same rep (they wouldn’t have enough dancers to re-stage Cleopatra, for starters) and yet there was all this company expenditure on display for all to see (and plenty did comment). Less evident but still a cost, was the payment to an agency to guarantee the appearance of around 20 celebrities. The show was, of course, phenomenal, and a well deserved hit for Nixon and his dancers. Post- show, the dancers attended a disastrous (their words) fundraising dinner, where Bateman says that the dancers felt used and devalued. The shot of the dejected dancers relegated to eat at the back of the room, having been paraded in front of the assembled guests in full costume, says it all.
At the start of 2011, Northern Ballet had just moved into their new home, Quarry Hill in Leeds, and were preparing a Gala opening just at the time when funding was under severe threat. Nothing seems to highlight Skipper’s disconnect with reality more than his comments while he awaits the outcome of the funding decision, as he thinks the outcome for Northern Ballet will be a positive one. It’s not. They receive the same cut in funding as the other English ballet companies – 15%. They’ll need to survive on half a million pounds less each year.
Lynch recognises that any company outside London has a harder task raising funds, but the underdog appeals to him and he meets Skipper and his team for some frank discussions. Skipper feels that fundraising is ultimately begging but the team has come up with two models to find half a million pounds : model one involves reducing the number of dancers from 39 to 30 while model two would see the company become the only English ballet company to perform to recorded music everywhere except in Leeds. Skipper and the team prefer model one. Lynch tells them that they must raise more themselves, and with the loss of two dancers last year they’d have to cut performances if they lost more through model one; it’s not the answer otherwise where do you stop cutting ? Lynch wants a fundamental re-think and encourages the team not to think the same way as they have before.
Northern Ballet tours to 15 different cities in the UK and gives around 150 performances currently. The average dancers salary is £25,000. They barely have enough dancers to cover injury as it is and by cutting dancers it means that everyone is on every night – a recipe for more injuries if ever there was one.
When Skipper decides to launch “Buy back a dancer” the scheme is rejected by Lynch and his fundraiser (Karen Napier) on the basis that people like to back winners and that the campaign hasn’t been worded properly. It’s too negative. “Buy back” = “we’ve already lost.” No-one wants to fund a black hole or a failure. Nixon isn’t at this meeting, and Napier asks the incendiary question “why?” Skipper replies that Nixon is tied up in the studios and designing costumes. Lynch retaliates with the absolute fact that fundraising is a company priority and that Nixon should be more productively employed in this regard.
To camera, Lynch says that he finds Skipper “pretty stubborn” and that it’s hard to make him deviate from his chosen path. The scheme is renamed “Sponsor a dancer” which means that it can run and run and doesn’t have a shelf-life. Inexplicably, the board didn’t invite the Chairman of the Arts Council to the launch. Lynch is incredulous and cites this as a massive oversight. The Arts Council has been big supporters of the compnay and have invested heavily in it and should be involved even if they have inflicted cuts. Skipper has visited several charitable trusts and one has stumped up £50,000 every year, but by September the end of year budget deadline is looming and they need to know where they stand on amounts raised.
Things start to take a positive turn when the dancers receive a full briefing ahead of a fundraising event, and begin to record messages for donors. Lynch describes the dancers this way : “dancers make Olympic athletes look like wimps.”
And on this positive note the money keeps rolling in – £30,00 after just one month post-launch. The campaign has a clear strategy and the team has worked through the levels of giving so that everyone feels involved – including the dancers.
The dancers begin The Nutcracker Christmas season with 6 casts, making it difficult to cover for injury. It’s the beginning of the end of the dancers year. Unsurprisingly (you only have to browse through my interviews with dancers - Cupcakes & Conversation) despite the threat to their jobs none of the dancers are willing to consider other career paths until they are ready. I can’t help thinking this is short-sighted but I can understand why they feel this way.
By Christmas the company is pulling together very well and Skipper says that the reality is that they can keep their 35 existing dancers rather than the cuts to 30 that he thought would be inevitable.
By the end of the programme we learn that the company has secured the future of all of its dancers and I’m sure you’ll agree that that is really fantastic teamwork and something to truly celebrate.
Arts Troubleshooter will be televised on BBC Two on Saturday 26th May at 8.15pm
Here’s the trailer from the BBC.