by Neil Nisbet
Debbi has been a choreographer, performer and teacher for over 10 years. She has performed and created work all over the UK and Europe. she is also a teacher and rehearsal director for several organisations and companies. A graduate of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Debbi talks to Article19 about her career to date.
Do you ever regret choosing contemporary dance as a career?
It saved my life!
Growing up on a rough, working class council estate in Leicester in the early 80's was a minefield of problems from drugs to violence. Dance gave me something to focus on, to really push for .It gave me a great deal of self confidence and self belief. It was the first thing that I did with my life that I really enjoyed. It's why I think dance is so important in the National Curriculum. It gives kids a great opportunity to express themselves both emotionally and physically.
I feel like it has given me a better lifestyle, it has introduced me to things I probably would not have been introduced to. Things like music, classical music, modern contemporary composers, theatre and going to the theatre a lot. If I was a hairdresser would I have gone to see art house cinema? I don’t know!
It was never a practical choice it was purely for the love of it, and the buzz of it and the passion for it and also the people I was working with. It felt as if that was the family I wanted to belong to.
Out of all the things that you have done in your career what stands out for you the most so far?
The Tyne Tower project with Liv [Lorent] because it was the first time I had worked with Liv. Also working in that amazing space and with such talented dancers a designer like Paul Shriek.
Working with Simon Birch and Gill Lavelle. We worked together when I had first finished training and then coming back to work with them, particularly on Simon’s project "InScape" with CorresponDance. It was beautiful because we got back together to do it. We premiered it at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD), it was the first time I had been back there as a performer and the piece was just wonderful to do so that was a real highlight.
Getting my first project funding for Stalkers. Getting the funding to make it and it was just the five of us. [Juliet Thompson, Allyson Clarke, Caroline Reece and Jane Price] But it was purely because I got funding and we toured it so it was just a highlight that I am really proud of.
Making Genuflection with the 2nd year students of NSCD. It was the first piece I had made that I was really happy with. I said exactly what I wanted to say and I didn't care what anybody else thought about it. The piece was very personal triumph for me and they were such a great group of dancers to work with.
A recent highlight was working with Northern Stage. Particularly because it was really fresh. I am so excited about that. I worked with five male actors from Northern Stage and four female dancers.
It was just a fantastic week to be able to share skills. Also, realising that what ever art form you are performing in, you have to be willing to take challenges and break down barriers. I was terrified of doing it because I thought “Oh God I’m going to have to talk”. We [as dancers] use our bodies to express what we want [to say]. Then being asked to verbalise it and improvise it was so refreshing and rewarding.
As a teacher do you feel positive about the prospects for your students when they leave college?
I used to worry a lot at Newcastle College, but then it would be fine because we had a good link with Northumbria [University] and with NSCD.
I do worry about it, when I was training you got all your fees paid but now they have to pay for themselves and get loans. So their prospects already are affected because they have to pay all that funding back. There are also far too many students training for too few jobs.
It was no different when I was training, that’s why we ended up setting up our own company. So I hope that students would have that sort of commitment to perhaps do that and not to give up. I think dancers should be taught to be more resourceful, they need something to back them up.
The students at Newcastle College were steering towards commercial work and I would say to them that it is more competitive but there are more opportunities. But at NSCD, which is a contemporary school, I suppose it’s harder because they are just looking to get into the contemporary dance world.
Sometimes when I am teaching I do question it, I sometimes get pangs of guilt and think what’s out there for them. I say [to the students] they need a great deal of commitment and a backup plan or other skills just in case things don't work out.
Do you think schools provide that though?
They didn’t at Newcastle College, it was impossible. There were opportunities. They did singing, acting and things like that but it wasn’t intensive enough. There is talk at NSCD of expanding the integrated arts training like film/video and theatre work to compliment the extensive teaching in technique that is already provided.
Have you achieved what you set out to do or is there still a lot more to do?
Well I’ve had a break from my own company work for almost 2 years which about 18 months was my own choice and the rest was teaching.
At the moment I am planning something for next year but I’m really just at the tip of the iceberg creatively from my point of view.
There are lots of musicians I want to work with such as Jocelyn Pook and a live choir because my new work is hopefully going to be performed in a church or cathedral. Perhaps touring to four or five places around the UK and maybe in Europe.
I would also like to work with some male dancers because all my projects to date have been with all female casts so a mixture would be great. Since doing the project with Northern Stage I am also really interested in working with some actors which I have been trying out in my own work anyway but I just really sniffed at it and I failed but failing is part of learning.
I also want to do something in water, a site specific piece perhaps.
Who would you you most like to work with either dead or alive?
When I was at college it was Christopher Bruce and the whole Ghost Dances thing, when I was 16. But now it would be Pina Bausch, Allan Platel, who I would love to work with. Perhaps also Lloyd Newson because I’ve really admired most of the work he has done. Others would be Tricia Brown and Kim Brandstrup. In fact I wrote him a letter when I was at college but he never wrote back [laughs].
What are the biggest obstacles you have faced in your career to date?
Finding the right leotard to fit. [laughs]
As a choreographer it has been all the funding issues or lack of. I must say that whenever I have put an application into Northern Arts I have been given something. It’s really the having to do it. Every choreographer would love someone else to do their applications.
Lack of space which is probably a major obstacle even though Dance City has supported me with that. Not having an administrator. I had Alina [Hutchinson] all that time while I was doing Belted, Buckled & Booted and I just think if I had had that before then things would have been a lot smoother.
One obstacle is you have too many hats to wear. You’re answering the telephone, your writing applications, your paying the dancers so you are a finance person.
It is so much easier when you have people helping you so you can assume to role of just being a choreographer or dancer. If it fails then you can say to yourself it was just a shit idea rather than a lack of support.It would be good to able to be creating in the studio and that is all you do rather than everything else that goes with the job.
Do you think dance is too political?
Oh god definitely.
I think there should be a pool of people making important decisions about people’s careers and their livelihood. Also, if you are talking politics, I still believe there is a north, south divide thing. We know it’s not like that up here because we know there isgood work and good dancers but if it is not stamped with London that you can just forget it.
I know London is bigger than here but you do get those clique situation where the same companies are given the same opportunities time after time like a conveyor belt going round and round. But ultimately the people making the decisions are the men/women in linen suits. I mean it is their job but they have to realise they are in those positions to represent a lot of artists which is why they have those jobs in the first place.