Swanning Off: The story behind English National Ballet’s big move

After more than 40 years, English National Ballet is moving from its Kensington home to east London.

Markova House can be a little tricky to find. You wouldn’t think so, given that it’s virtually within sight of the Royal Albert Hall and Hyde Park. But it’s tucked away down a side street off Kensington Gore, and the entrance can be hard to spot among the parked cars.

The building is a strange home for the beautiful art created within. Named after one of the founders of English National Ballet (ENB), Alicia Markova, the former boarding school has been home to the company for more than 40 years. But that will soon change.

Later this year, ENB will move to a site in east London, when a custom-built new home at London City Island in Tower Hamlets is completed.

“We have started to be restricted by our physical premises,” says executive director Patrick Harrison. “We’re attracting all this world-class talent in a charming building that’s packed with history but not well equipped for modern dance-making.”

This problem manifests itself in various ways. For example, physio is currently located in a corridor, and there are two rehearsal studios, neither of which is the same size as the areas the company performs in. The support teams are also split over several floors, making communication difficult.

Making friends and Influencing communities

The move east requires more than physical preparation. The transition needs to be carefully managed by the communications team.

For Fleur Derbyshire-Fox, director of engagement, this has meant getting out from behind her desk and taking the initiative in forging new relationships: “When you’re engaging with people, it’s about legwork. It’s about meeting people; when you have a conversation with people and you’re the one saying ‘Let’s meet up’, people respect that.”

ENB is a touring company and already spends a lot of time working with different community groups around the country. With the move to new premises, Derbyshire-Fox will be spreading a message of collaboration. While Kensington has a well-established reputation for the arts, the other side of the city presents different challenges and opportunities, and ENB will need to integrate itself.

“We’ve got really disadvantaged communities, real poverty and real problems with obesity, mental health and healthy living. What can we learn from that and what can our offer be?” asks Derbyshire-Fox. “When you are a huge company and you’re going to a new area, the worst thing you can possibly do is just parachute in.”

This view is echoed by ENB’s head of business development and events, Claire Eason-Bassett, who tells me that the company’s catering partners are based in east London, as are its preferred technology suppliers.

“It’s about being part of the community,” she says. “It’s not about being restrictive; it’s about saying: ‘We’re a national organisation and this is what we bring to the area.’”

Therefore, over the past year and a half, Derbyshire-Fox has been consulting with other arts organisations in east London, many of which already run programmes that share ENB’s community aims. In simple terms, this has meant giving guided tours of the building in its current state and finding out what is already going on in the area.

“It’s about getting a feel for the great work that’s already happening and asking how we can maximise our resources to have a greater impact on the community,” says Derbyshire-Fox.

Dress Rehearsals…

The engagement team has been laying the groundwork for a number of years.

“We’ve had two particular projects that have been ongoing,” Derbyshire-Fox says. “One is with LinkAge Plus, delivering a programme called Dancing East.”

The scheme offers dance classes with live music for anyone over the age of 50 living in Tower Hamlets. It’s part of ENB’s mission to ‘demystify’ ballet and give anyone who might be interested a taste. “When we go to London City Island, we will have a very full programme and it will enable us to start things that we’ve always wanted to do,” says Derbyshire-Fox.

Other projects include more classes for vulnerable groups, including a programme called Dance for Dementia. This will help ENB demonstrate the values it shares with its new borough: “The dementia work gives us a real opportunity, because Tower Hamlets’ aim is to be a dementia-friendly borough. Therefore, we can work with the community on one of their key priorities – creating a ‘memory café’ – to create a regular intervention for people living with dementia, their families and their carers.

“This move is a great opportunity to make a difference. That’s why we’re here, and that’s why we do this work.”

… and repeat performances

Similar initiatives have been running for a long time in Kensington – Dance for Parkinson’s, say, a group that gives those with the disease a chance to experience how dancing can improve posture, mobility, gait and fluidity of movement.

In light of its upcoming move, ENB needs to communicate its continuing commitment to its existing programmes. Dance for Parkinson’s will continue (in the Royal Albert Hall, no less) and all of ENB’s school programmes will also remain available.

“I’ve spoken with Kensington and Chelsea and with Westminster Council, letting them know what our investment still is and what we are still going to be doing,” says Derbyshire-Fox. “Moving to a new area doesn’t mean that we’re going to say goodbye to west London. What it means is that we actually have an opportunity to invest in greater community engagement and that we can actually use culture in a more transformative way and as a longer-term investment.”

Pliés for funding

As anyone who has been involved in a big move knows, transplanting a large, well-established organisation from one place to another involves engagement with multiple stakeholders.

And, in the current economy, for an innovative company such as ENB there is an ongoing need to find new sources of revenue in order to deliver on its ambitious artistic and community engagement plans. “We’ve responded to a challenging funding climate by building our commercial activity,”  says Eason-Bassett.

Much of that planned commercial activity is possible only because of the new building. The first-class rehearsal spaces, including a studio as large as that of the London Coliseum, and a five-storey fly tower, will support merchandising and event performances, all charged at an appropriate rate.

However, relationships with donors and investors remain important. Harrison believes that communicating openly with both individual donors and funding groups – especially highlighting the extra engagement work the company will be able to pursue – has been vital to maintaining support for the move.

“Most of our core funders are motivated by our charitable mission, which is to take world-class ballet to as many people as possible,” he says. “Some funders are prepared to say: ‘I can see you’re strengthening that commitment, so I’ll let you get on with it.’ But others have played a much more active and creative role in the move.”

Arts Council England, which champions arts and culture across the country, is an example of a more active partner. “They were involved from a very early stage,” says Harrison. “The Arts Council is a great connector of the arts world, particularly from a multidisciplinary point of view.”

Absolute troupers

With the move imminent, staff engagement is key. “Moving a very well-established organisation from a long-held, well-loved home is massive and can’t be underestimated,” says Eason-Bassett. “For one thing, there will be 200 people with a different commute.”

The consultation period started years ago and has proved useful in a number of ways. It has helped the directors to understand how people would like to use the new building, as well as how it will affect them personally.

“Whether it is a physical process or an internal structure, things have been the way they are for a long time. Now we have the opportunity to reset some of the things which don’t quite work,” says Eason-Bassett.

This has led to planning improvements beyond the auditorium. “We started by having conversations with various staff groups – for example, a conversation with the digital team about what is holding them back and what could make life easier,” says Harrison.

In that respect, the move has brought ENB closer together than ever. The commitment to producing work that is even better, as well as the opportunity to bring ballet into more people’s lives, has enthused everyone.

“People have special reasons for wanting to work here,” says Eason-Bassett. “There is great commitment, above and beyond the salary.”

Derbyshire-Fox is clearly moved by the work she has seen in the past two years. “It is opening the lid on what ballet is,” she says. “It can touch your life. There’s a part of it that can make you feel really good.”

A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q2 2019.

Photos copyright Laurent Liotardo reproduced with permission from ENB.


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