Large-scale English Ballet companies look at a shared approach to the Creative Case for Diversity

A guest blog by Mark Skipper, Chief Executive of Northern Ballet:

The four main ballet companies in England had been concerned for some time about the reality of delivering Arts Council England (ACE) requirements for the Creative Case for Diversity (CCD). Ballet has a specific aesthetic and there are some limitations as to how far one can adapt the art form whilst keeping it true to its heritage and to that aesthetic. It takes a minimum of 10 years to produce a fully trained classical dancer and a lack of diversity in our schools in the past has meant that the pipeline is somewhat limited.

Northern Ballet (NB) decided that it might be helpful to bring together the leaders of the four companies (Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB); English National Ballet (ENB); Northern Ballet; The Royal Ballet (RB)) to see whether we could identify areas that were a challenge to all of us and see if we could come up with some solutions.

We invited Abid Hussain, Director of Diversity, at ACE to join us and were delighted when he agreed to be part of our discussion.

We started by discussing what we felt we did well towards delivering the aims of the CCD and share areas of good practice and success. It was important to acknowledge that this is a Goal 1 objective and focused on what the audience sees on the stage and who creates it. It is not about the audience, although it is also important for the audience to see themselves reflected on the stage. Some of the highlights shared by the companies were:

Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) have several long-term diversity projects including Freefall, which has been running for 15 years. This is a BRB dance company made up of severely learning-disabled dancers taking part in weekly classes, choreographic creations and public performances. Dance Track is 21 years old and each year 2,500 primary school children are auditioned to identify potential future professional dancers from diverse backgrounds. This is a two-year free dance training programme, including coaching to audition for The Royal Ballet School and Elmhurst Junior Associate programmes plus performance opportunities in The Nutcracker.

English National Ballet (ENB) is focusing on the breadth of its repertoire and collaborators – enriching the language of dance. Their focus on female choreographers has been fuelled by giving opportunities for the creation of smaller-scale work, including Engagement and Digital projects. Their long-awaited move to East London will provide numerous new opportunities.

Northern Ballet (NB) utilises “blind” casting in all productions and are working to diversify the make-up of the company. Choosing bold and challenging titles, or themes within new productions that are diverse, can generate different responses from audiences and at the same time attract new and diverse audiences. Classes such as Ability (Learning disabled participants) and In Motion (wheelchair users) give good opportunities though these programmes are currently focused on participation; it is equally important to look at how these groups can be supported to create work. Programmes, including the Academy of Northern Ballet’s Spotted, work towards identifying and training the dancers of the future with an emphasis on finding potential within diverse communities.

Royal Ballet (RB) is re-working choreographic projects to create a solid infrastructure and ability to look at under representation issues. They are programming established female choreographers on both their main stage and the Linbury. RB is also working more closely with The Royal Ballet School on diversity issues and nurturing more talent from within the Company as choreographers.

Ultimately, we came up with a list of individual and collective challenges that we face in delivering the creative case for diversity, particularly relating to ballet, and thinking about how we could work together to make positive progress. Specific challenges included:

  • Looking at the diversity of creative teams and trying to persuade creatives to change who they regularly like to work with
  • Looking at the challenge of finding female choreographers interested in creating for ballet 
  • Disability in ballet and integrating dancers with a disability into mainstream performances
  • Attracting and supporting diverse dancers through training programmes
  • Looking at orchestral membership and finding more female composers and female conductors

Abid Hussain shared some helpful thoughts with the group:

  • The CCD is primarily Goal 1 but has synergies with other goals
  • The work we show needs to reflect the stories and talents of communities – not just the artists but also telling their stories
  • It is important to remember all the protected characteristics not just gender and ethnicity. Age is often relating to children and young people and we need to remember the older population. More disability is encountered with the older population and disability is the greatest protected characteristic that needs work
  • Socio-economic background is an integral part of the conversation
  • Individual artform challenges need to be considered. One size doesn’t fit all
  • Some of the work we need to commit to now goes beyond the current four-year funding cycle. This is a 10-year strategy made up of three funding rounds
  • The leadership of the sector needs to develop. Diverse leadership sends message to the sector and prompts more artists to come forward to those organisations. There is no disabled person running a non-disabled arts organisation currently

It was agreed by all concerned that it had been a useful process with a definite appetite to continue discussions and collectively solve some of the challenges.

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