Obituaries: Ian Spink, Choreographer and dancer who thrived on collaboration

In a profession often dominated by big personalities with loud voices, Ian Spink took a different approach. Working in the performing arts for over 50 years, he touched the lives of many, in ways that will continue to flourish for years to come.

Speak to anyone about Spink and the same words come up time and again: gentle, quiet, unassuming. Which is not for a second to say he wasn’t impactful – Spink sat resolutely at the heart of any creative process he was involved in, acting like a magnet to others with his curiosity, charm, and encouragement. But whereas some court the limelight, Spink courted collaboration, referring to ‘our work’ rather than ‘my’ in rehearsal rooms and theatres.

Born in Melbourne in 1947, Spink danced with the Australian Ballet and Australian Dance Theatre before moving to London in 1977. Five years later he co-formed Second Stride with two other powerhouses of the contemporary dance scene, Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies. Originally set up for just one season, the company went on to enjoy much success, including performing in the USA in New York and at the renowned Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

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Alston and Davies later bowed out to form their own self-titled companies, leaving Spink to take Second Stride into new a new, multi-disciplinary direction. It was here that Spink’s love for collaboration really took flight, working with renowned composers such as Orlando Gough and Judith Weir and highly acclaimed designers like Antony McDonald.

Ian Spink performs in Andy Howitt’s 12 Dancers/Deliberance in 2012Ian Spink performs in Andy Howitt’s 12 Dancers/Deliberance in 2012
Ian Spink performs in Andy Howitt’s 12 Dancers/Deliberance in 2012

His desire to encourage others to experiment and take chances also grew wings at this point with the invention of ‘Fast and Dirty’, a workshop model that was to run throughout his career. Lasting anything from a few days to two weeks, Fast and Dirty was a kind of playground for artists of various disciplines to come together and create. The journey was always more important than the destination, and the connections forged during these sessions played a pivotal role in future collaborations and in Spink’s legacy.

When Second Stride disbanded in 1997, Spink continued to build an impressive freelance career as both a choreographer and movement director. Over the years, he worked with the Citizens Theatre, Scottish Opera, Rambert Dance Company, English National Opera, Opera North and the Royal Shakespeare Company, to name but some.

A move to Wales to raise his young family was followed by a move to Scotland and in 2005, Spink became artistic director of Citymoves dance agency in Aberdeen. During his five year tenure, he started the DanceLive festival which, now in its 18th year, remains Scotland’s leading festival of contemporary dance.

In 2009, I had the privilege of speaking to Spink about his brand new version of Mikhail Fokine’s Petrushka, commissioned by Scottish Ballet for that year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Excited to have his work shown on such a prestigious platform, and keen to update the original 1911 storyline, Spink incorporated breakdance moves into the ballet and explored human exploitation in 1990s Russia.

At the time, Scottish Ballet’s former artistic director, Ashley Page told me his reasons for commissioning Spink, saying “The younger generations don’t always realise that choreographers such as Ian have been crucial in the development of the artform. So it’s important that we don’t forget the people who have been instrumental in furthering modern dance in the UK in the 1980s and 90s.”

Although predominantly a choreographer and director in his later years, Spink also continued to cast a spell as a dancer. In 2012, he joined eleven other male performers from across the generations in Andy Howitt’s 12 Dancers/Deliberance. Inspired by the 1957 film Twelve Angry Men, this powerful production took much of its emotional heart from what I termed ‘Ian Spink’s quiet grace’ in my Scotsman review. A quality that is also clearly visible in Threads, a beautiful short film made in 2014 by Scottish dance company, Curious Seed in which Spink performed alongside dance/choreographer Christine Devaney and pianist/composer David Paul Jones.

Latterly, Spink lived near Tramway in Glasgow, where he was a member of The Work Room, a development centre for independent dance. Despite having choreographed at the highest level, he would regularly show up to watch others share their work, showing genuine respect for dancers and choreographers, regardless of what stage they were at in their career. Most recently, Spink worked with Glasgow-based theatre group, Company of Wolves, directing two solos – Achilles (termed ‘A thrilling experience’ by Joyce McMillan in her Scotsman review) and most recently The Bacchae which toured Scotland this autumn.

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Most people aren’t around to feel and hear the outpouring of love in their eulogy or memorial, but Spink was fortunate enough to be the exception. In early August this year, a celebration of his life and work was held at Civic House in Glasgow, with colleagues and collaborators from across the years, including esteemed playwright Caryl Churchill, Siobhan Davies and others, sharing memories and anecdotes. And although Spink wasn’t well enough to attend in person, the event was live-streamed to him at home.

Spink died of cancer on 11 October, a few days after his 76th birthday, leaving a body of work and a myriad of creative sparks that will continue to shine on.

He also leaves behind his partner, the writer Selina Boyack, and their daughter Stella, his two daughters Rosa and Ruby from a previous relationship, and countless collaborators who will remember the wit and wisdom of this quiet genius.



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