Anthony Baker is a man with a mission to turn us all into dance fans. He talked to DAVID WHETSTONE as The Journal launches a special dance competition
TWO folders about fundraising lay on Anthony Baker’s desk when I interviewed him recently – dry reminders of the pressures that come with running a major arts institution and keeping it solvent in tough times.
Appointed two years ago as artistic director and chief executive of Dance City, Anthony described it as his “dream job”, an assertion that made much more sense on Saturday night when he was chairing a discussion with choreographer Apple Yang (see review this page). His enthusiasm for dance, an activity so natural and expressive, was plain to see.
Originally from Sedgefield, County Durham, he went to Bretton Hall arts college in West Yorkshire as a 19-year-old to study theatre design.
During the interview in his office, he’d recalled his life-changing encounter with contemporary dance. “It moved me in ways the arts had never done before and I knew this was what I had to be involved in.”
After further study at the Laban Dance Centre in London, he ran Gloucestershire Dance, working closely with Newcastle Theatre Royal boss Philip Bernays who was then in charge of Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre and chairman of Dance South West.
He moved on to Essex Dance which, like Dance City, was one of the Arts Council’s national dance agencies. Putting his stamp on the place, he renamed it Dance Digital, reflecting his desire to explore the relationship between dance and technology.
When the Dance City post fell vacant he gladly returned to the region.
“I was away from the North East for 17 years but I always wanted to come back and this is the one job that could make it possible,” he said.
“I love the North East and I absolutely love this job. I’m not a dancer but I am a facilitator. My passion is in opening doors for other people to be creative and explore their potential.”
To get an idea of the number of people who shake a leg – or otherwise shimmy or stretch or work up an elegant sweat – at Dance City, picture the Great North Run or a full St James’ Park. Yes, some 50,000 people annually take classes at the purpose-built dance centre which opened in 2006. “Dance is a very broad church,” said Anthony, indicating Dance City classes in hip hop, jazz, tap, capoeira, ballet, ballroom and two types of belly dancing. There are dance classes for babies, boys, girls and older folk. A gazelle-like physique is not necessary but may well result.
There is activity, too, at various Dance City hub sites across the region, in South Shields, Stockton, Hexham and Stanley. As a national dance agency, Dance City has a remit to look beyond its walls.
“We’re tasked with having a regional identity and I’m absolutely passionate about that,” said Anthony.
“We have to develop dance in the North East and although we won’t compromise on quality, we do have some targets.
“We need to generate more work in the region and develop the art form but we also want to make audiences feel proud of work that’s made here and not necessarily think work from London must be better.”
He was thrilled that a new Dance City commission from Newcastle- based Lo-Giudice Dance had attracted a near-capacity audience (as did Saturday’s Letter to My Father). “It showed there’s an appetite for North East work and I was delighted to see that a lot of the people were new to Dance City. They weren’t all friends and family.”
Despite the classes in tap, jazz and the rest, Dance City’s brief from the Arts Council is more about championing contemporary dance which Anthony accepted was not always easy to sell.
“People see contemporary dance in general as a risk. What we’re trying to do is be very clever about the way we put it on.
“It’s not as difficult as people tend to think it is and we are keen to present it as the sort of thing that could make for a good night out in Newcastle.”
The challenge for contemporary dance was that it was a new art form, “really no more than 100 years old and without the classical history of ballet.
“In contemporary dance there are lots of forms and techniques you can learn but what’s great is that it does have that freedom. It’s developing every time a new piece is made and there’s choreography everywhere these days. Just look at TV advertising. Choreography is being used to sell everything from mobile phones to yoghurts.
“I think we need to fear it less and I do sense a real fear in audiences. With every show we have here, I’ll talk to the choreographer and dancers about what people have just seen and I’ll tell the audience, there’s no such thing as a silly question.
“There seems to be a real worry among people that they need to understand something in a particular way and that there needs to be a narrative. Sometimes there just isn’t one in contemporary dance but it’s enough to interpret it in your own way.
“Like contemporary art, it’s an invitation to think and feel. It’s saying: what does this mean to you? It’s OK, there’s nothing to get.”
He has embarked on a personal mission to demystify, exemplified by the renaming of Dance City’s “very, very good dance venue” which used to be called The Lab.
“That’s scary. People thought they were going to be experimented on. It’s easy to forget how we look from the outside. It’s now called a theatre, a place that can be part of the city’s entertainment mix.
“We’re trying to break down those barriers but at the same time we’ll be honest. If something is more adventurous, we’ll say so. The worst thing would be to trick people to come here and have a horrible time.”
With a mission to get us all dancing, it is appropriate that Dance City is taking the lead in the Big Dance 2012 competition launched in The Journal today.
We’re tasked with having a regional identity and I’m absolutely passionate about that