Plans to create new dance hub in east London announced

Published
11/05/2016 by

We can hopefully be the capital of dance in the world one day,” says Sadler’s Wells boss Alistair Spalding. Spalding is quite clear about his mission, and that aim has a new frontier: E20. Plans to create a new dance hub in east London have been announced today — by 2021 there will be 16 new dance studios, two production studios, a 600-seat dance theatre, a hip hop academy, a ballet school and a choreographic school, all within a few miles of Stratford.

It’s the result of three major dance organisations moving to the area — Sadler’s Wells, English National Ballet and Studio Wayne McGregor — all working with local dance agency East London Dance. It’s set to change the ecology of dance in London and perhaps London’s place in the dance world.

The first to move east was multi-award-winning choreographer Wayne McGregor, whose eclectic CV spans working for the Royal Ballet, the Harry Potter films and Radiohead. McGregor actually began his career running community dance groups in Redbridge in the Nineties and has always kept a connection to east London, an area that he says has “a combination of amazing talent and a lot of need for creative provision”.

The company’s administrative offices are in Here East, the former Olympic media centre, now a digital hub, and three studios are being built that should be ready by the end of the year. The plan is then to offer free rehearsal space to 25 artists each year, for five weeks each, and in return the artists will offer workshops or performances in the local community.

It’s a way of addressing the serious shortage of studio space for choreographers but McGregor also hopes to get conversations going between dance and the other organisations in the Here East building, from BT Sport to UCL’s robotics department. “Our whole agenda is about plugging dance into other communities,” says McGregor, and taking dance “out of its bubble”. He calls it “hopefully, a visionary new way of working”.

Next door, at the Olympic Park, Sadler’s Wells is adding to its portfolio of spaces (a 1500-seat theatre in Angel, the 200-capacity Lilian Baylis Studio and the Peacock Theatre in the West End) with a new 600-seater theatre as part of the Olympicopolis project.

Alongside a new outpost of the V&A and the London College of Fashion, the theatre is set to be completed in 2021 and will host the kind of dance performances that don’t currently have a home in London. “There are a lot of spaces in mainland Europe of this size and a lot of work made for that circuit, so there’ll be a lot more to offer,” says Spalding. As well as bringing in international artists, there will be a big focus on nurturing homegrown talent, firstly in a new hip hop academy, an extension of the annual Breakin’ Convention festival, which will let hip hop artists study to conservatoire level, and then in a choreographic school, modelled on the influential Brussels school PARTS.

Follow the River Lea a few miles south to Canning Town and there’s another major building project in the offing. English National Ballet is upping sticks from its long-time home in South Kensington and moving to the new London City Island development. It couldn’t better illustrate London’s cultural shift from west to east.

By autumn 2018 the building will be the new home of both ENB and the English National Ballet School, providing much needed studios and full-size production space, plus facilities for the dancers including a rehab centre. “It will be completely transformative,” says artistic director Tamara Rojo. “Not just for us,” she adds. “I believe it’s transformative for the ballet world in general, because right now no one has a production space like that.”

Rojo wants to let the public see the creative process in open rehearsals, and set up a big screen outside for relaying performances. “The whole ethos is that the building is conceived for the dance to be part of the community and for the community to be aware of what is happening inside.”

She’s aware that despite new money flooding in they are moving to one of London’s poorest boroughs, and the company will continue its  community work with Parkinson’s  sufferers and with local schools in Tower Hamlets and Newham.

“There’s a desire to make sure investment is shared,” says Polly Risbridger, director of East London Dance, which has worked in the area since 1987. Risbridger notes that the population in Stratford is set to double by 2021, with an influx of students and new residents, but her priority is to make sure people who have grown up in the area have access to these facilities.

Thanks to the Olympics, she says, “People have been exposed to incredible opportunities, so actually there is an expectation now. There’s an appetite and a hunger.”

Are multi-million-pound landmark buildings the best way to serve that creative hunger? Visit the Olympic Park now and it still looks much like a CGI design: clean, neat and relatively empty. Surely real artistic hubs happen organically, taking over unused spaces, thriving on a bit of grit? The Queen Elizabeth Park and London City Island are not about to instantly become bohemian artists’ colonies.

“You have to think further ahead,” says Spalding, “Ten, 20, 50 years, even. Obviously there’s an element of having to create some of this, but there is also a huge energy and a lot of dance activity in east London. It’s not like you’re going into a barren place with no culture. It’s not a spaceship that’s landed. You’re just giving local people a bit more opportunity.”

There has long been a strong dance scene in east London, especially in hip hop — most of the key players in the London scene come from the area. Many have been nurtured by East London Dance but there’s also a lot of solo initiative, for example, Kenrick Sandy’s Boy Blue Entertainment, which spawned an Olivier award-winning show, Pied Piper, and almost single-handedly created a generation of east London street dancers.

There’s an argument that genuine invention comes from working outside major structures. Might the establishment moving in quell that creativity? “The resources that are arriving are going to be incredible but I don’t think that has to undermine existing practice,” says Risbridger.

Choreographer Freddie Opoku- Addaie grew up in East Ham and Forest Gate and came up through local dance groups. He has seen his home area change beyond recognition in many ways but he’s not resentful of that gentrification.

Instead he’s eager for the opportunities it brings. Opoku-Addaie thinks it’s time  for underground talent to break out and reap some of the rewards. “We want that next level of support,” he says. “One of my friends says, ‘When a cupcake costs £3, there goes the neighbourhood’. But I want to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll have that cupcake’.”