The Living Déda

Derby’s powerhouse of dance is celebrating its 20th anniversary - and it's as lively as ever. Patrick Kelly reports

In the 20 years since a group of dance lovers persuaded councillors to back their crazy idea of turning a dilapidated chapel into the dance centre of the East Midlands, Déda has become a vital part of the arts ecology in the city and the region

Indeed, there's not much that goes on culturally that Déda doesn’t have a hand in. The enterprising bunch are running a degree course in conjunction with the local university, organising a community hub for a cultural education programme, masterminding the city’s annual street arts festival, partnering with the council and the NHS to provide movement classes in sheltered housing and hospitals, and supporting young artists to make their own work throughout the East Midlands.

All this while organising an eclectic programme of national and international circus, street arts and dance for audiences and dozens of dance classes for all ages.

From its inception in 1998 the dance agency has rooted itself in the local community, says Stephen Munn, chief executive and artistic director, who has been here for nine years. But he and dance development and learning manager Claire Limb decided that they needed to expand the range of work available to encompass other art forms. The result has been an explosion of circus and outdoor work to complement the indoor performances on Déda’s three stages.

“When you do something outside the building” says Munn. “You can get four or five times the numbers watching.”

Indeed, the Derby Festé of outdoor arts can attract audiences of 35,000 for its extraordinary weekend of street theatre, aerial acrobatics, and circus. Now in its 13th year, it's organised by Déda and is a NPO in its own right, such is its contribution to the cultural life of the city. This year’s headliners, Circa Tsuica, from France, an anarchic and hugely enjoyable mix of music and acrobatics (beats and feats) in a big top at Derby recreation ground, were a sell-out success.

Indoors, Déda’s variety of performance spaces can hold audiences of practically any size - up to 124 for little shows, big shows, ceilidhs and tea dances – depending on what’s needed and who needs it. The company’s cafe, The Cube, can also double as a dance space. When it's not hosting exhibitions, launches, book groups, coffee mornings or just a good old fashioned sit-down with a cup of tea and cake, they can clear away the tables and chairs and have a good old hooley.

As Déda’s popularity has grown, it has expanded its footprint. In 2014 Déda re-developed part of a nearby leisure centre. By cannibalising a couple of run-down squash courts (remember them?) to expand its facilities to include meeting rooms and conferencing facilities, along with a brand new state-of-the-art studio and production space. There is also a common room for BA Dance undergraduates. There are now nearly 60 students studying here, as well as a large number of young people taking Btec in dance in a partnership with Derby College. Then there’s the Déda graduates who have formed their own dance company, the dance centre’s five youth companies, and the fifty dance classes for every possible age group. No wonder this old Methodist chapel is positively buzzing with the exuberance of youth.

But older dancers aren’t left out. As part of the HLF funded Derby Dance Project, a photographic exhibition on the upper floors celebrates Derby’s Northern Soul days, there’s a Déda-produced map of the city locating the dance venues of yesteryear and local people have been invited to share their memories of dancing in the city.

Déda also spends a lot of effort on partnerships, not just with other cultural venues in the city like Derby QUAD, Sinfonia Viva and Derby Theatre where it works with a strategic culture group, but also in the city’s culture and leisure board with other major stakeholders like police, the university and the NHS, says Limb.

It's a key player in Derby’s cultural education partnership, which brings together the council, schools and cultural institutions. Déda is now part of a £1m programme backed by Department for Education which aims to improve school achievement. The project aims to provide a range of extra-curricular activities that develop non-cognitive abilities, collectively named "essential life skills’", delivered directly in the hearts of communities. Although open to all young people, it is targeted at children from vulnerable groups including those receiving free school meals, children in alternative provision, looked after children, those with special needs and young carers.

Déda has a long standing reputation for working with disadvantaged groups. Last year it was chosen as a partner in Start, created by Children & the Arts, a three-year engagement programme of arts activity that tackles inequality by working only with the children who are at risk of missing out on a creative and cultural education. As part of that scheme children have visited Déda to see a visual arts exhibition and a performance by a professional dance company. Some of the children will visit the project delivery partner Artcore to see their own work mounted in their gallery and to see the work of professional artists. They will then work with the learning teams from Déda and Artcore in workshops to develop their critical eye and have fun creating their own artistic work, with plenty of opportunity to celebrate their achievements throughout the year.

Other outreach work sees dance artists working with mental health patients and older people in sheltered accommodation

Even with all this activity – this ‘creative powerhouse’ as Déda is described by Peter Knott, ACE regional director, has no plans to slow down. Plans are under way for a postgraduate MA in Dance and Circus Skills, possibly the first in the UK, and Munn and his team are embarking on an ambitious project to convert a swimming pool next door into what he describes as “a creation centre for aerial circus skills.”

This will be a space worth watching.







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