📸 Luke Waddington
Dance artist Esther Huss moved from Germany, ready to take on the bright lights of London at the receptive age of 17. After graduation, she put her training to use, dancing professionally for the next 16 years. "I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best choreographers in the UK like Kate Flatt, Michael Keegan-Dolan and Jacky Lansley." But as if that was not enough to keep her on her toes, quite literally, she founded an inclusive dance company that revealed the sheer vigour and multitude of benefits that community art brings.
Moving to the chillier climes and historic northern mining town of North Blyth in 2019, Esther and her husband could not help but notice a splendid old building as they explored their new area that sat lonely, empty from signs of life. Yet, it recently had been purchased...
"Looking for a place to rehearse, I contacted the owner, and he was kind enough to let me work there while he didn’t have a tenant in 2019. Both my husband and I quickly fell in love with the building and realised that we had to find a way to keep the space and to make it serve the community once more." All paths led them to this spot.
She never had an inventive space to call her own before. However, she observed how mentors and choreographers operated, especially Jacky Lansley, founder of X6 Dance space with a similar ethos in the 70s. A fruitful Arts Council DYCP (develop your creative practise) bid gifted Esther freedom to spend time in Ireland with celebrated choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan, witnessing the making of his latest work MAM.
"I was so inspired by his ambition to create world-class work at the heart of a small community in Ireland, with the artists and the whole creative process deeply embedded into its environment. Michael's work goes on tour worldwide, but the beauty of it truly lies in how and where it is made and the impact it has on both global and local communities. I am also very inspired by what Charlie Morrissey does in Hebden Bridge with Wainsgate Dances." On a personal note, as a dancer, she was tired of paying high rates for hourly studio hires and feeling forced to be creative to equate value for money.
Moving to Cambois - having never been there before - the seasoned traveller is in awe at how coastal nature and steely industry stand proud interlacing in each others make-up, pals for years. She felt at home instinctively and that familiar North Eastern pull of coastal living.
"It's right on the beach and is an ex-mining community, so it's a tightly knit community with a great sense of pride in their heritage. It is also quite isolated in terms of public transport, and therefore families have very little access to art and culture."
It turned out that the hopeful space did not demand all of the attention to polish - the couples family home renovations snatched that title, which caused exhaustion topped with giddiness. The hall, in relatively good condition, cried out for a lick of paint here and there, but no major developements.
"It's certainly not a shiny model building, but we love the fading glory of its charm. We are currently one year into our three-year lease and have a long vision for our work and the building. We also run dance workshops and writing workshops, and we will have other performances in the future, some produced by us, some by other independent artists or theatre companies."
Wearing the two hats of running a building and being a dance artist is not without hurdles. Huss has already witnessed how people's balance can be off: if you are not careful, your creative endeavours can suffer as the roles of key keeper and caretaker claim effort and energy.
"Because of this fact, both my husband and I have clear boundaries for what we can and can’t do with the building. Sometimes it feels like we are filling in endless fundraising applications, but we make sure that more time is spent on our creative practice and that the building remains the source of inspiration it was when we first put our feet through the door."
Throughout her career, she developed a keen interest in dance artists who devise unique and honest work and a fascination with physical items, which fed into the elements of her current culture project Stairwall.
"The time I spent in Japan with Butoh master Yoshito Ohno taught me how much I enjoy detailed work and how much I enjoy working with objects. I had had an idea at the back of my mind percolating for years about a wall. At first, I just had the image of the wall and then developed a sense of the many things a wall can represent."
"One of the great collaborations I have been lucky enough to find since moving to the North East was a friendship with visual artist Claudia Sacher." They started improvising together in 2019 and soon understood that their broad and vivid visual art style complements each other's way of thinking.
Recently, the third component in the project was the addition of musician and composer Jeremy Bradfield. Recommended to check out his compositions by a friend, his quirky and multi-instrumental sound immediately resonated with her.
"Stairwall has been devised in the Miners Institute by the three of us and features a wall structure with weight-bearing stairs on it. I have suggested themes inspired by the area of Cambois and have crafted the improvisations into a cohesive performance piece. It was important to me to demonstrate how three usually quite separate art forms can converge like a fugue with equal presence."
The project is Esther's debut as a dance maker and artist on this scale. She aims to reveal who she is as an artist to the locality and dance community while contributing experiences out of the ordinary to people who would not usually have the opportunity to join such creative activities. Workshops ran alongside the rehearsal process, and worthy bonds formed with people who had never thought to sample what she offered before.
"One particular experience was when we had 21 children from Cambois Primary School; I was incredibly nervous that they wouldn’t get it, that they would laugh. After showing them the first five minutes of the piece, I asked, ‘What did you see?’ And one child replied, ‘I saw the music in the dance and the dance in the drawing, and how they were all saying the same thing.’
"To me, it was so beautiful to see through the eyes of a child; this experiment of multi-art forms in synchronicity succeed. So my wish is that Stairwall creates an experience where people feel that they can relate to contemporary art and that it inspires them."
Article by Beverley Knight