Brendan Keaney is the Artistic Director and CEO of DanceEast, the national centre of dance which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Here, he explains why there are asking everyone to share their uplifting stories of dance, why they’ve put together a Kitchen Dancing Playlist on Spotify
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Brendan Keaney, and I am Artistic Director and CEO of DanceEast, which is a way of saying I am the most senior member of staff who maintains an overview of both the artistic programme and the business of running the organisation.
DanceEast is a nationally recognised dance organisation, based at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswich waterfront. Alongside presenting dance performances and offering classes at the DanceHouse, we deliver a range of dance activities across the East of England for people of all ages and backgrounds, while bringing dance to regional festivals each summer. Because of the broad work we do, my job is very diverse – I do everything from commissioning new dance works, to working with the Board of Trustees on organisational strategy and representing DanceEast at networking events and conferences. My absolute joy is nurturing artists and new talent, and supporting the creation of new dance works that are both artistically brilliant and accessible to a wide audience.
How long have you been Artistic Director and CEO of DanceEast, and what were you doing before?
I arrived in Ipswich in March 2013 to take up this role, so I’ve been in post for 10 years. Immediately before starting at DanceEast I was Director at Greenwich Dance, which is also a building-based dance facility delivering dance services to both professional artists and the local community. I started my career as a dancer in 1979, and then moved into leadership roles, including at Arts Council England.
For those not in the know, what is DanceEast and how has it evolved over the past 40 years?
One big difference is that today, we have a new name: we started life as Suffolk Dance and became DanceEast in 2000. We also have more extensive programme and bigger a staff team. However, in many respects the artistic programme has remained faithful to the founding principles set out by the organisation’s founder, Dr Scilla Dyke MBE. 40 years ago, Scilla set about enthusing people in schools and community halls across the county with a love of dance. She was committed to providing the best opportunities for people across the region to engage with the highest quality dance activities, as either a participant or audience member. That still sits at the heart of what we do.
Scilla recognised that dance could be a powerful tool in education and as a way of promoting health and wellbeing. We maintain these values, through a range of programmes such as Digital Primaries, which uses new technology to reach young people in primary schools regardless of where they’re based, and Care to Dance, which benefits people living with Dementia.
Critically, and thanks to my immediate predecessor Assis Carreiro MBE, we have a wonderful, purpose-built building which is arguably one of the best dance facilities in the UK. The Jerwood DanceHouse truly is a gem. Having our own base has been transformational in the breadth and quality of dance activity we can bring to Ipswich and beyond.
Finally, a big development in the past few years, that really distinguishes us from where we were 40 years ago, is our work with new technologies. The DanceHouse is home to Digital Playground, which includes a greenscreen and state-of-the-art motion capture equipment – we are leading the way nationally when it comes to dance and tech.
Do I need to be a dancer to go to DanceEast? What do you offer to people who are non-dancers?
You certainly don’t need to be a dancer to come to DanceEast! A big message we are trying to get across is that dance is for everyone – whether it’s watching a performance or having a go yourself. We offer lots of classes for beginners, and we purposefully don’t focus on exams or performances, so it is possible for everyone to join in and have a go.
And if you don’t fancy trying a class, you could always watch someone else dancing. We have some great performances from some extraordinarily talented artists, at the DanceHouse. We often get previews of work that is destined for the main stage at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, so you can get an opportunity to see the version draft of an incredible new work, at a fraction of the price of heading to see it in London.
What were you doing 40 years ago? You almost became a mime artist?
Forty years ago, I was already a professional dancer. I did not really want to be a mime artist, I wanted to be a pop star. When I was young, David Bowie was my absolute hero. His performances were more than just music, he presented an entire sensory experience. When I learned that he had studied mime with Lindsay Kemp, I was determined to learn the same visual skills as Bowie. I found a class to attend in the dance and mime section of Time Out Magazine, but I picked the wrong one… I ended up going to a dance class because I thought dance and mime were the same thing. When I attended that first dance class, which a few Tube stops away from where I lived in London, I discovered a completely different world – I could see there was a whole new horizon to explore. The rest is history.
How are you marking the 40th anniversary of DanceEast? What are asking people being asked to do for #movedbemoved40?
We have been marking 40th anniversary of DanceEast by celebrating wonderful stories of the impact dance has on all our lives – whether it’s at DanceEast, or somewhere else. We have been doing this through weekly blogposts, across social media, on the radio, and in articles. We are keen to shine a light on everything dance can mean to all of us, from dancing with friends at a wedding, to the impact it can have on health and wellbeing, and what it can mean to have a career in and lifelong love of dance. We are inviting people to get involved by sharing their own stories – and there is still time!
If you have a story to share, here are the ways you can take part:
- Visit the Jerwood DanceHouse to film your story about dance, or to share it in writing, in our #MoveBeMoved40 selfie station. DanceEast’s friendly staff will be on hand to help you.
- Alternatively, you can post your stories (a video, voice note, written story or a photo you’re your social media, and use the hashtag #MoveBeMoved40. You can also search the hashtag to see what other people have posted.
In your opinion, why is dance SO uplifting?
Dance is so uplifting because it provides exercise for both the mind and body. It brings relief and joy, and helps us connect with ourselves and with others, which is now more important than ever. Dance is part of all our lives, and such a natural and human thing to do.
When it comes to taking part in dance classes, I think it is uplifting because it challenges us. So many people are shy when it comes to dancing and have to push themselves to do it – and there is nothing more satisfying than overcoming a fear moving beyond your comfort zone. That sense of achievement is palpable. You can see it on people’s faces you can hear it when they talk.
And when it comes to watching dance, there is nothing more exhilarating than seeing the athleticism of great dancers. In dance, there are no words – there are lots of ideas and emotions that words can never do justice to.
What sort of thing is on the Kitchen Dance Playlist on Spotify?
The Move Be Moved 40 kitchen dancing playlist has something for everyone. From cheesy classics like Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight, to drum and bass, dance pop classics, Dolly Parton, Queen and Tina Turner, there is something to get everyone moving! Before I got into Bowie, I loved ska and bluebeat, classic Motown and Atlantic R&B. So, on my personal playlist, I would be happy with a whole raft of classic music from artists like the Upsetters, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, etc. A strong bass line is essential!
What are your hopes and dreams for DanceEast, going forward?
I would like to grow the audience for dance across the region. I would like people who don’t know DanceEast, or who don’t work in Dance, to become lifelong dance fans. We need to spread the work that dance is for everyone, whether you are doing or watching it – it can only make our lives better.
I also think our brilliant digital dance facility holds great potential for creating an exciting future for DanceEast. There is no doubt we are on the cusp of something really big in the development of the use of new technologies. As we are already leading the way in many areas, I want DanceEast not just to be at the forefront of digital dance practice, but to also to be acknowledged globally as industry leaders. This would really put us, and Suffolk, on the map.
We have achieved so much in 40 years, and we are so much a part of the fabric of the East of England. I hope we will keep growing and striving, so that we are even bigger and better known in 2023, while staying true to the core values Scilla set out with all those years ago.
Visit DanceEast. There are a few tickets available for The Little Match Girl, produced by Ballo Arthur Pita, originally commissioned by DanceEast, and supported using funding through Arts Council England, from December 15-17. Visit #MoveBeMoved40 and Kitchen Dancing – playlist by DanceEast on Spotify.
Featured image of Brendan Keaney (Picture credit: DanceEast)