First steps

The National Youth Dance Company is in rehearsal for its seventh professional new production – with it seventh new troupe. Simon Tait talks to the company’s general manager Hannah Kirkpatrick

There was an exquisite moment for Hannah Kirkpatrick, general manager of the National Youth Dance Company based at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in Islington, during the recent run there of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake when there was a gentle knock on her office door.

“Hello, Hannah” said Jack Parry, and grinned. “Good to be back.”

Jack had graduated through school at Ipswich and early training at Dance East to join the NYDC in 2013 at 16. After two years with the company he won a place at Trinity Laban, graduating last year with first class honours, and was immediately spotted by Sir Matthew Bourne and his New Adventures company. Jack, now 21, was in the cast of the Swan Lake.

Jack’s has been a spectacular career start, but he is not unusual. Of the 210 dancers that have joined the company since it was started seven years ago, 84% have go on to make their careers in dancing. “For those that don't” says Kirkpatrick, “the experienced will never leave them”.

Main image, new NYDC intake rehearses. Credit Gigi Giannella

Above, last year's production, Used to be Blonde, by Sharon Eyal.  Credit Stephen Wright

The NYDC was the result of Darren Henley’s review of arts education for the government in which he recommended a national youth dance company, to be funded jointly by the Arts Council (of which Henley is now chief executive) and the Department for Education. The proposition was put out to tender in 2012 and won by Sadler’s Wells with a national programme for 16-18-year-olds (with a top age of 24 for deaf or disabled dancers) that would spread around the country to each of ACE’s five regional hubs (there are separate youth dance companies in Scotland and Wales). There would be a new cohort each year of 30 or so young dancers, most of whom would have had no formal training, who would work with a guest artistic director on a single new production. Hannah Kirkpatrick was appointed company manager from the Sadler’s Wells team and the first intake came in 2013.

“There were already really good training schemes for dancers” Kirkpatrick says “but the difference is that this is a performance company. They get trained as part of being in the NYDC, but particular to the guest artistic director and their project." 

No kind of dance is taboo. Ballet, contemporary dance, hip hop, South Asian dance, street dancing are all acceptable if there is an appetite – this year’s group includes one whose only practice so far has been in ballroom dancing.

Recruited from regional “workshops” rather than auditions, the youngsters are all still in education so their dance work is done during school holidays, which means regular trips to residences al over the country. They do class in the morning and work on the new piece in the afternoon.

Touring is an essential part of the programme, and until this year the tour has started at Sadler’s Wells. This time it will begin in the regions, at Ipswich where the NYDC has strong relationship with Dance East, and the finale will be in London.

Seva's MADHEAD, to be premiered at DanceEast on April 20. Credit Manuel Vason

“The advantage of being in Sadler’s Wells is that we have a fantastic access to the best dancers and choreographers, and that is very inspiring for the young dancers” Kirkpatrick says. Each year’s artistic director is chosen by a panel there led by Sadler’s Wells CEO Alistair Spalding, and this year’s choice is Botis Seva 

London born and Dagenham raised, Seva has come out of the hip-hop tradition who started his own company, Far from the Norm, in 2009 when he was only 18, with a mission to blend hip-hop with experimental theatre and dance. His last new piece, BLKDOG, commissioned as part of at Sadler’s Wells’s Reckonings festival, had its premiere in October with the nee NYDC intake in the stalls, enthralled. He succeeds Jerusalem-born Sharon Eyal who comes from a different heritage of contemporary dance.

This year there  the normal intake 28 of whom (19 female, nine male) is augmented by ten on their second year, and they have come from 18 cities, towns and villages, and selected at 18 performance workshops between May and June. The first performance of the new piece, MADHEAD, takes place in Ipswich on April 20.

“For young people performing on the Sadler’s Wells main stage is a massive thing, and touring is also important because they experience and understand how a touring company works – the touring week is really important because they get to adapt piece for different venues and see how it works” Kirkpatrick says.

Hannah Kirkpatrick - '"A moment that will stay with them for the rest of their lives''

It is a substantial caravanserai that goes on tour. With the 38 performers, there is Kirkpatrick, a co-ordinator, a support team of four, a creative support artist, a rehearsal director, two technicians – “The artistic director doesn’t usually come, but Botis has said he wants to, he’s very committed to the project - so he'll be with us”.  It is an expensive undertaking, and the course fee is £520 high with means-tested funding available. It allows the NYDC to take their work to “cold spots”, such as Cornwall where they had only had one Cornish participant until this year (another one has joined), and to Somerset from where there has never been an NYDC dancer. In 2017 they joined Hull for its Year of Culture, a former cold spot, inspiring more youngsters from the North East to apply.

“But the moment when they're here, on this huge Sadler’s Wells stage, to stand in the wings and watch their faces change when curtain comes down and then goes up, it’s easy to forget how young they are” Kirkpatrick says. The finale at Sadler's Wells will be on July 19. “They work their socks off performing for an hour or more, and then here 1,500 people applauding…  you can feel proud of what you’ve done, because this is a moment that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

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