As DanceEast reaches its 40th anniversary, artistic director Brendan Keaney pays tribute to its visionary pioneers, and calls for arts and sciences to work together for a healthier, happier society

From its humble beginnings as Suffolk Dance, based in a couple of rooms at Northgate Arts Centre, to its current identity as a regionally-based national dance organisation, this wonderful cultural resource has played a multi-faceted role, developing widespread community links, while offering local audiences the opportunity to experience world class contemporary dance.

Since October 2009, DanceEast has resided at The Jerwood DanceHouse, a bespoke building on Ipswich Waterfront, on a site formerly occupied by Cranfield’s Mill. Having its own studios, has enabled DanceEast to develop an associate artist programme, working closely with individual choreographers and outside companies to develop new work, presenting it first to Suffolk audiences before it either goes on tour or gets a London premiere at Covent garden or Sadlers Wells.

Great British Life: Brendan Keaney, artistic director of DanceEast. Photo: Sonya DuncanBrendan Keaney, artistic director of DanceEast. Photo: Sonya Duncan

But DanceEast has also nurtured local talent, first with Splinters, the young company with Suffolk Dance, and now with the DanceEast CAT scheme, the Centre for Advanced Training which can develop teenage talent to the point where they can go into professional training. Plus, it has collaborated with the University of Suffolk, its Waterfront neighbour, to provide a degree course in choreography.

In this anniversary season, current artistic director Brendan Keaney – celebrating his own 10-year milestone, having arrived at DanceEast in March 2013 – is very aware that his high profile successes at the Jerwood DanceHouse have been built on the achievements of his predecessors; pioneers like Scilla Dyke at Suffolk Dance and Assis Carrera, who project-managed the fund-raising that got the DanceHouse open.

'It was Scilla who effectively started DanceEast all those years ago, but it was Assis who renamed it, rebranded it, for the modern age. Scilla came up with all the basic ingredients that make DanceEast what it is, and much of what she introduced are still included in our programmes today. She was the first one to make sure that the community was involved and that she was attracting the very best artists to Suffolk.

Indeed, DanceEast's close connection to people like Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, goes back to Scilla, says Brendan. 'Interestingly, Wayne did the choreography for the National Youth Dance Theatre who performed here recently, and at Latitude, so that connection continues.'

Great British Life: Forty years ago - 1983 summer school. Photo: Barry StaceyForty years ago - 1983 summer school. Photo: Barry Stacey

His admiration for what those early pioneers of Suffolk Dance achieved has grown over the years. 'What they achieved was phenomenal. They had very little money but they had great ideas, good contacts and great determination.'

Brendan was working at the Arts Council after Scilla started Suffolk Dance, where part of his job was to look after the East of England. It was, he says, as a result of Scilla’s work that the Arts Council decided to invest in dance infrastructure. They realised that dance could no longer carry on its peripatetic existence, but needed the kind of ‘bricks and mortar’ home that their colleagues in drama had.

'They needed a home, somewhere to focus people’s attention. They already had the formula right, embedding dance into the community and bringing great artists to the county to inspire both audiences and the next generation of dancers. And they were doing stuff then that the Arts Council would be telling you to do now. I think they were way ahead of their time.

'So, 40 years ago, they were setting the principles for everything that followed, and what I want to do with this 40th anniversary is to consider what do we need to do to ensure that dance is in good health 40 years down the road – 80 years after Suffolk Dance gave us those strong foundations.'

Great British Life: The Jerwood DanceHouse. Photo: Sarah Lucy BrownThe Jerwood DanceHouse. Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown

Organisations like DanceEast, he says, must look at the practicalities of funding. One of the goals of this anniversary year is not only to promote dance and DanceEast but also the economic and practical benefits to society of investing in the arts.

'We know that dance can help with a lot of society’s problems, both in terms of physical and mental health as well as creating great art. But, in the past, and when this wonderful building was first imagined, there was greater access to the public purse. What we, as custodians of these great public institutions, these wonderful artistic resources, must do is find ways of keeping the doors open, providing an inspiring and engaging programme, letting people know we are here and we have something wonderful to offer.

'What we need as a nation is creative solutions to everyday problems. This supposed dichotomy between the arts and science is absolutely absurd. When I was at college I was studying alongside people who were going to be doctors or engineers. We didn’t remain in our own closed off world; we mixed, talked, shared ideas, and that’s how it should be in the outside world, in society.'

As an example, Wayne McGregor, he says, is fascinated with the mechanics of the human body and has studied with doctors and scientists for years, learning how the human body works, what it can do with the right training and putting that into his practise.

Great British Life: 1997 connecting with communities such as older people in Mid-Suffolk. Photo: Credit Mike Kwasniak1997 connecting with communities such as older people in Mid-Suffolk. Photo: Credit Mike Kwasniak

'Dance, and the arts in general, have a lot to offer the world and we will all be a lot poorer if the arts are left to wither and die, or just become the preserve of the rich. We will lose the ability to look at complex problems in an non-conventional way – thinking outside the box.

'It’s dangerous to compartmentalise. Sadly, I think many of our decision-makers lack vision. They have a very blinkered view of the world and therefore they are not getting the best out of people and not getting the answers they are looking for.' In addition to Wayne McGregor’s work with the medical profession, Brendan cites choreographer Alexander Whitley, who lectures on design for performance and interaction as part of the masters programme at The Bartlett School of Architecture, at University College London.

'You can’t ignore people with these sort of diverse talents, and they are coming out of dance and out of the arts in general.' Indeed, DanceEast has worked closely with BT at Martlesham to harness digital technology and reach out to schools, offering remote access that enables people to engage with dance remotely. It has also developed, with Arts Council funding, a groundbreaking digital dance studio, which came into its own during lockdown when it offered remote educational facilities and home-based dance sessions.

Great British Life: 2006, a DanceEast production of Wonderfully Grimm toured village halls in Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk. Photo: Simon Parker2006, a DanceEast production of Wonderfully Grimm toured village halls in Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk. Photo: Simon Parker Great British Life: 2018, the U.Dance Nationals were held at DanceEast. Photo: One Dance UK by Brian Slater 2018, the U.Dance Nationals were held at DanceEast. Photo: One Dance UK by Brian Slater

'It’s another case of where we are adopting new ideas, working with the latest technology to bring something new to audiences and to the local community. Again, it’s thinking out of the box, and working with science and the real world, to deliver the enriching power of the arts to people in a new way. As a result we are reaching more people.'

While a 40th anniversary is cause for celebration, don't expect a party or black tie event. 'I don’t think it would be right in the current economic climate,' says Brendan. 'I want something much more concrete, much more practical. I want to make people aware of how much we have to offer. I want to get people over the threshold. I want people to discover dance – people who, perhaps, have never thought of coming to the DanceHouse before.

'We will be programming the very best new work, which is a demonstration of clear intent of what DanceEast is about, as well as looking back and celebrating one of our most beloved commissions, Arthur Pita’s magical The Little Match Girl, which we're reviving during the run-up to Christmas. It’s 10 years since we first staged this, so we thought it would be good to bring it back for Christmas on this special occasion.'

Great British Life: 2015 - Akram Khan's Chotto Desh at the Jerwood DanceHouse. Photo: Richard Haughton2015 - Akram Khan's Chotto Desh at the Jerwood DanceHouse. Photo: Richard Haughton

Great British Life: 2023, dancers from the DanceEast Centre for Advanced Training. Photo: Alicia Clarke2023, dancers from the DanceEast Centre for Advanced Training. Photo: Alicia Clarke

Autumn at The DanceHouse

October 28: Akademi presents Plastic Drastic Fantastic, a contemporary dance theatre work for children and families.

November 3: the National Dance Company Wales perform two pieces, Waltz and Say Something, described as 'Two physically thrilling dance works to set your pulse racing'.

November 11: families will enjoy Skydiver, by Xenia Aidonopoulou, described as a 'magical journey for your little ones'.

November 12: a day-long series of events as part of Love Dance Day hosted by Glass House Dance, including workshops and a Dance-Along Mary Poppins performance.

November 17: Tom Dale Company presents a double bill: Surge and Sub-Version creating a bridge between the digital and organic worlds.

December 15-17: The Little Match Girl, multiple performances on different days, check the website.

For full details and to book