Northern Ballet from Home: The show must go on


An interview with the Northern Ballet's Chief Executive, Mark Skipper DL.

Obviously COVID-19 has had a profound impact on our society and the global economy. How has it affected Northern Ballet?

The biggest impact on our industry is of course the closure of theatres and the lack of certainty about when and how they will be able to reopen.

As the UK’s widest touring ballet company our 2020 tour was scheduled to include 203 performances at 39 different theatres. So, a huge proportion of our income was projected to come from ticket sales.

As it stands, we have managed just one performance – the world première of our new ballet Geisha at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 14th of March. Theatres were closed on government advice the following Monday and our entire spring tour – which would have run until June – has now been cancelled.

As well as the world première tour of Geisha, spring would also have seen the first national tour of our ballet for children Little Red Riding Hood. In our autumn season, we were due to create our next ballet for children – but sadly we have already taken the decision to postpone this for another year.

Merlin - our next new ballet for the main tour and our first work with director and choreographer Drew McOnie, who has enjoyed incredible success on Broadway and the West End with King Kong and Jesus Christ Superstar, is due to première in Bradford this October but of course, now faces an uncertain future in the short term.

All of this leaves us facing a loss of box office income of at least £1M – and we know it is likely to be more once our ability to deliver our tour this autumn become clear and the impact of future social distancing measures are understood.

Kleinwort Hambros supports Northern Ballet not only for your performances but also the tremendous work you do in the community. How has this work been affected?

Away from the stage, our Learning department undertake a huge amount of work in schools and communities to widen access and participation in the arts. All these activities, including Ability – our regular dance course for adults with mild to moderate learning disabilities – and In Motion - our specialist wheelchair dance programme – have sadly been brought to a halt. Expressions – our annual festival of inclusive dance held at our home in Leeds – can no longer go ahead in July as planned.

Like all education institutions, our Academy – which trains over 600 students of all ages and abilities – is on a hiatus and faces the difficult challenge of how to resume dance training in a safe, socially distant way going forward.

How has Northern Ballet responded to the crisis?

To our audiences, we know that we are a way to bring families and friends together. Experiencing our ballets is also a form of escapism – whether that’s being carried away in tales of romance, tragedy and redemption; whisked into the magical worlds of Merlin or The Nutcracker; or skipping into the woods with Little Red Riding Hood and her animal friends.

At this time, that form of escapism and the ability to bring people together is perhaps needed more than ever. So we are committed to doing everything we can to keep our audiences entertained.

That’s why we launched our Pay As You Feel Digital Season less than two weeks after our tour was first impacted.

First we released EGO – a new ten minute dance film that we recorded in November – which has been watched over 80,000 times so far. The following week we made 1984 – our award-winning ballet recorded for the BBC in 2015 – available to watch in full online for 30 days.

A TV adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood has been shown on CBeebies three times in the last month and is available to watch on iPlayer. Dracula – which was streamed live to cinemas across Europe on Halloween last year – is also due to make its TV debut in the coming weeks on BBC Four and BBC iPlayer. We’ve also been able to share highlights from some of our productions and plan to keep this going for as long as we can.

By launching our digital season, we hope that we have been able to play our part in helping people to get through these difficult times. And in turn we have asked the same people if they can help us to get through too, by donating when they watch. So far, the campaign has raised around £15,000. It’s a small amount compared to the losses we stand to make, but it’s a start. And we are hugely grateful for it.

Without the tour, and with our studios closed, most of our staff have been left unable to do their jobs. The Government Job Retention Scheme has been a huge help – allowing us to continue to protect all our employees – including the 80% who are currently not working. A lot of our staff are freelancers – and we are committed to protecting them too. Arts Council England has launched an Emergency Fund and we will apply to that too.

Dancers have continued to train at home taking daily classes through Zoom and other channels. Many of them have also played their part in supporting our digital season, along with our musicians and Academy teachers, by recording and sharing interviews and fun challenges from home.

Our Learning team have teamed up with American Ballet Theatre and the Burberry Foundation – one of our long-standing partners – to start delivering a working from home project to schools in Yorkshire and New York.

What does the future hold for Northern Ballet?

Like everyone at the moment – we don’t really know!

It is clear that going forward we will need help to survive – we’re exploring support opportunities from all possible avenues and we’re hugely grateful to the trusts & foundations, corporate partners and individual supporters who are standing by us at this time.

What I can say is that we are a lean, creative company with passionate staff and passionate supporters – and I’m sure that our work will continue.