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on Tue, 21 Feb 2017
Think dance isn't for you? Think again. If you've shaken off your curiosity and shied away from physical performance in the past, Birmingham Hippodrome's Dance: Sampled programme offers you the chance to discover everything you ever wanted to know about live dance shows but were too afraid to find out first hand.
Originally developed by Sadler's Wells as a kind of appetiser for the season ahead, the project has now been rolled out to partner-venues Birmingham Hippodrome and the Lowry in Salford as a way of developing new audiences for dance across the country. Hippodrome Chief Executive and self-professed dance evangelist Fiona Allan told us more about what to expect when the show tangos, stomps, pirouettes, shimmies, shuffles and waltzes into Birmingham this month.
“The idea is for people to have a really great-value first-time encounter with dance,” she explains. “It's only £15 for adults and even less for children, so it's probably the best-value show you can see at the Hippodrome all year. If you don't think you like dance, or if you've not come across much dance before, you get the chance to see a whole range of different styles all at once.”
It's no accident that the trio of theatres who have partnered up are probably the leading exponents of live dance in the UK. Unusually for a largely commercial theatre like the Hippodrome, the project has received some Arts Council money to help get things off the ground, commissioning, experimenting with new ideas and paying for artists to tour. What's on offer at the Hippodrome, however, won't be identical to versions of the show elsewhere. Teaming up with other venues and sharing international acts helps to limit the cost of bringing them into the country, but other aspects of the programme will be specially tailored to Birmingham audiences.
“It has some common elements with what's going on at Sadler's Wells and at the Lowry, like the tango artists and also Iron Skulls, who are a sort of crazy Catalan hip-hop crew from Barcelona. I've seen a bit of their show already, and they are completely anarchic - they have such an amazing energy that I think they're going to be a fantastic finale to the programme. But then the British acts are more specific to the venue. So obviously here we've got Birmingham Royal Ballet, and then the other big name that we have exclusively in Birmingham is the Aakash Odedra Company. Aakash is a really brilliant kathak choreographer who was born in Birmingham and is best known as a solo artist, but we've actually commissioned him to do some work for other dancers because we want to see how we can help him develop as a choreographer. So he's going to be creating a new piece with some dancers from Istanbul, and I'm really interested to see how that turns out.”
In addition to this, an extra pre-performance showcase will see a huge array of local groups and dancers fill the foyers with short excerpts and interactive sessions. Better still, this part of the event is completely free and open to anyone, with or without a ticket for the main event.
“It's going to be like a sort of dance festival that takes over the building, with lots going on all at once, and we're hoping that it will work on two levels: it's great added value for the people who've already bought a ticket, but it's also a chance for anyone who isn't seeing the show to come in, explore and try things out. Up in the restaurant on Level Three we'll be having hip-hop battles, on Level One there'll be a stick dance demonstration, and the foyer on Level Two is going to be set up with Xbox dance games.
“It's also a chance for us to work with local companies and young people that we’re partners with or that we want to work with, and to showcase them to a broader audience. So for example, we've worked with Break Mission, a local street-dance outfit, on the B-Side Festival, and they'll be doing a hip-hop show on the stalls level. We've also got Aced Up, which is a national portfolio company, doing an excerpt, and Adam Rutherford will be bringing his youth dance company.”
If you've found the idea of watching a dance show daunting in the past, don't worry - you're not alone. Even ardent enthusiasts like Allan had to start somewhere. But as Dance: Sampled aims to demonstrate, taking the initial plunge can change your perception of the medium forever.
“I grew up loving theatre because I liked having a story, and I felt safer with that. That's probably why the most popular dance shows are the big ballets like Swan Lake and Cinderella, which have a fairytale story that everyone can follow quite easily. I think people get a bit put off by dance where there’s no narrative because they're worried that they won't understand it. But quite often, it doesn't need to mean anything or to be any more than a celebration of the human body and music and the wonderful things that these athletes can do. There are other art forms like circus where you don't need it to have a beginning, a middle and an end, so I think it's just a case of getting people to relax into it a bit and to have the courage and the confidence to just enjoy it for what it is.”
Changing attitudes towards dance is just part of Allan's wider goals to improve diversity and develop new audiences, an ambition that she’s made a focus since taking up her position at the theatre in October 2015. And while demonstrable successes so far are something the Hippodrome should be proud of, as far as she's concerned, there's still some way to go.
“I think we're only really at the start of the journey, and we've got so much more to do in that regard. One of the big challenges is that our theatre programme is booked years in advance, so when I arrived here the bulk of the shows had already been programmed up to 2019, which means it's very hard to find the room in our main programme to be putting on things that might have a broader or different audience appeal. But we are trying to find every slot that we can to experiment a bit.
“Last year, we had Dan TDM, who is a YouTuber who specialises in Minecraft. He came in one day and did some demonstrations, and it sold out almost instantly. I'm not his demographic so this was a person I'd never heard of, but the place was just filled with teenagers when he arrived. We also did our first hip-hop festival with Break Mission last year. I think we had about 5,000 people coming in for that, and that audience looked completely different to a typical panto audience. Or even just recently, we had some children's craft activities in the Patrick Centre for Chinese New Year, and the people who came through on that day really looked like the people of Birmingham, and particularly of this neighbourhood.”
This isn't the first time the Hippodrome has hosted a Dance: Sampled show. Last year, the event made its Birmingham debut as part of IDFB 2016. The show was well-received, if a little overshadowed by the huge number of events taking place throughout the festival. As such, this year, there are high hopes it will prove bigger, better and more popular than before.
“The response from the audience that came was incredible! We had people saying that they'd never realised dance was so cool - and for me, that's all you need really. But because we had five or six other dance performances taking place here for the festival, I think perhaps it was difficult for us to give it our singular attention and to attract as big an audience as we'd have liked. This year, we've been able to put a lot more of our energy and resources into it.”
It's not just audiences who've been enthusiastic either - the response from dancers looking to participate has been fantastic. Allan hopes that in the future there'll be more opportunities for local companies to join the main-stage programme. But above all else, Dance: Sampled is a chance to highlight the huge diversity of styles and shows available at the theatre throughout the year. And with such a wide array of acts appearing (not to mention things to join in with yourself), you're virtually guaranteed to find something here to suit your tastes.
Dance: Sampled takes place at Birmingham Hippodrome on Friday 3 and Saturday 4 March.