Heads of Scottish Ballet and Scottish Dance Theatre on the same page

Christopher Hampson and Fleur Darkin. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Christopher Hampson and Fleur Darkin. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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The new heads of Scottish Ballet and Scottish Dance Theatre, who have relocated from London without a backward glance, look forward to reacting to each other’s plans – and perhaps even collaborating, writes Kelly Apter.

‘It’s so interesting to see how other people work,” says Fleur Darkin, as we sit back down in the Scottish Ballet boardroom. Photos have just been taken in an empty studio nearby, followed by a quick peek at dancers rehearsing in the room next door. Darkin, the new artistic director of Scottish Dance Theatre (SDT), has travelled to Glasgow to meet me and her counterpart at Scottish Ballet, Christopher Hampson, also new in post. It’s the first time she has left Dundee since the birth of her son seven weeks ago, and Darkin is clearly loving the day trip.

Although to be fair, Hampson is enjoying himself too. Charged with taking Scotland’s national dance companies into the future, there’s equal fascination on both parts for what the other has in store. Hampson arrived at Scottish Ballet in August, and publicly announced his plans for the company soon after. Darkin is due to take over at SDT full-time in November, so is keeping her ambitions more under wraps.

What comes across strongly from both of them, however, is a desire to preserve all that is good about their respective companies, but to shake things up more than a little. They also share a palpable delight to be in Scotland – both Darkin and Hampson have relocated from London without so much as a backward glance.

“My husband came home and high-fived me when I found out I had the job,” says Darkin, “because he felt he was out of the rat race. It’s a big undertaking, and I’ve been so grateful to my whole family for coming, but we’re all ready – for the land, for the fishing, for Scotland.”

For Hampson, who previously spent half the year travelling the world as a freelance choreographer, leaving London was no great hardship. “I’ve got a real connection with Scotland because my mum’s from Gourock,” he says, “and I spent a lot of time here as a child during school holidays. So I know the west coast quite well, and it’s been lovely to reconnect with those memories.”

Private lives aside, moving to Dundee and Glasgow has also taken Darkin and Hampson down a new and interesting career path. Used to creating work on a different set of bodies in a different country every few months, Hampson was ready for some continuity in his life.

“It was an opportunity for me to bring my skills and talents to bear in one place,” he says. “To focus my attention on one group of dancers, artistic team, technical team, orchestra – whatever it takes to put on a show, it would be the same team I would be working with, and I was actually really craving that at this point in my career.”

Darkin uses the same ‘c’ word to describe leaving behind her own dance company and heading for the hills. “I’d been in London for ten years, which was an incredible education for me,” she says. “And I wanted to start putting what I’d learned into practice. I was craving somewhere quiet, somewhere where the dancers didn’t have to commute across London. So walking into a studio where there are mountains surrounding us feels like winning a prize. Dundee is a very easy and beautiful place to make a commitment to choreographic enquiry.”

Both of them have mapped out potential running routes, involving lochs and the Tay Bridge, but their delight in Scotland also extends to the way things work professionally north of the border. Hampson is already planning Scottish Ballet’s Christmas 2013 production, Hansel & Gretel, the creation of which will involve the public through dance, visual art and creative writing workshops. Setting the wheels in motion has been easier than he predicted.

“I’ve noticed that if I have an idea like the Hansel & Gretel project, which is pretty broad and will pull on lots of national institutions, that we’re all sitting around a table within days,” says Hampson, “rather than lobbying and begging and knocking on doors that you know are closed anyway. So that’s wonderful. Scotland isn’t a small community, but it’s an accessible one.”

With SDT currently touring India, and other international projects on the cards, Darkin is keen to raise the profile of the company both at home and abroad. Although she describes herself as “a choreographer first and foremost”, she takes real pleasure in all the other aspects that underpin an artistic directorship – the commissioning, fundraising and planning.

“It’s important to carve out your artistic time in the studio, but I actually really enjoy the entrepreneurial side of things,” she says. “We have a two-way job to do at SDT, which is to build on our international presence, but I’m also really interested in our local audiences and how we can increase those. So we’ll have all kinds of initiatives to bring people in.

“I’m ambitious, and I know that latterly the company was working with emerging choreographers, which is important, but I also want to bring in people who are at the top of their game. Why should you have to go to London to see the best work?”

Dance in Scotland is growing, but there could always be more bums on seats. As recipients of government funding, both Scottish Ballet and SDT will be expected to reach out to as many people as possible.

Hampson’s decision to invite Britain’s most popular choreographer, Matthew Bourne, to rework his Highland Fling for the company is exactly the right move to bring in the non-converted.

“As a national company we have a responsibility to increase audiences, but also to feed the cultural diet of the nation,” says Hampson. “And that doesn’t just mean investing in the talent on our doorstep, it’s also about inviting the best here. I’ve tried to do that with Highland Fling. It’s an opportunity to reach people who may not think of going to see Scottish Ballet, but would go and see one of Matthew’s shows, and vice versa.”

As our time together draws to a close, I’m struck by how in-tune Hampson and Darkin are. Despite their companies’ differences in style and size, there is more that unites them than divides them. Can they see a time when Scottish Ballet and SDT might work together, behind the scenes, on stage, or both?

“Yes, absolutely,” says Hampson, “we want there to be traffic between us, a connection.”

Darkin concurs: “Our worlds are still viewed differently, but we need each other. Scottish Ballet merges contemporary and ballet, and contemporary dance is often a reaction to ballet, so our relationship is really important.”

British dance is shifting at the moment, with four major personnel changes in 2012. As well as Scotland’s two new recruits, Tamara Rojo and Kevin O’Hare have just taken over English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet respectively.

“It’s weird that these fresh starts are happening throughout the UK,” says Hampson. “It feels like a new generation coming in all at the same time, which is exciting.”

Then, mindful of the fact that Rojo and O’Hare are based in London, Hampson looks across at Darkin with a smile and says, “and wonderful for us that we’re up here.” The nod of agreement says it all.

• For details of Scottish Ballet and Scottish Dance Theatre’s autumn programmes, see www.scottishballet.co.uk and www.scottishdancetheatre.com