Mary Ingham Interview with Susan Coffer, Rural Touring Dance Initiative

‘Give dance a go… and be mesmerised’

Highlights hears from former vice-chair, Susan Coffer about her new role helping build bigger audiences for contemporary dance

In the second week in November, Speedwell Dance brings classic fairy tale Thumbelina to enchanting life for families at Highlights venues in Northumberland and Cumbria.

Leeds-based Speedwell is among a select cohort of companies awarded support from the Rural Touring Dance Initiative (RTDI) to present top quality contemporary dance in rural areas.

Highlights is one of five RTDI partners – along with The Place dance centre in London, National Rural Touring Forum, dance and music company Sonia Sabri in Birmingham, and Somerset rural touring scheme, Take Art – and in January this year, Susan Coffer became Coordinator (North) for the project’s 2023 to 2026 tranche.

Highlights is hosting Susan’s role and she works out of its new base at Brough in Cumbria and from her home in Warcop a few miles away, covering a vast region extending from Aberdeenshire to Cheshire.

“These opportunities in rural settings don’t come often and I’m loving it,” says Susan. “I’m in a world I really enjoy, dealing with artists directly and giving to the rural community I’m a part of.”

Susan, who was brought up in Newcastle upon Tyne, says her “road to Damascus moment” came at the city’s Theatre Royal when she was still at school and saw a production of Dances of Love and Death, choreographed by Robert Cohan and performed by London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

“I had never seen contemporary dance before and I was blown away by the artistry of the performers, their physicality and the effect on the audience.”

For ‘three years of pure joy” Susan studied dance and drama at Roehampton Institute of Higher Education, which was affiliated to the University of Surrey.

“Martha Graham technique was at the core and we also did choreography and had people such as dancer and choreographer Michael Clark doing sessions with us,” says Susan. “I knew I would never be good enough to be a dancer but I got the passion for dance.”

After graduating, Susan worked in theatrical administration, mainly in marketing, including at the Royal Festival Hall in London, The Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich (now the New Wolsey Theatre), The Haymarket in Basingstoke, and the Aldeburgh Festival at Snape Maltings before landing her dream job: director of marketing at Rambert Dance Company (now Rambert).

Choreographer Christopher Bruce was artistic director of the London-based touring company and it was, says, Susan “like working for God”. “It was a very exciting time during which Christopher gave opportunities to young British choreographers such as Wayne McGregor.

“Sadlers Wells had just re-opened and I was responsible for marketing two seasons there a year and the company’s national tours. I went to China, to the Bolshoi in Moscow, and to the Venice Biennale.”

Susan worked for Rambert between 1999 and 2006 before returning to Tyneside and becoming administrative director at Northern Stage in Newcastle.

“I worked with the artistic director Erica Whyman, who gave me free rein to start a programme of dance. We were also part of a national consortium touring contemporary dance to middle-scale theatres.”

While she was at Northern Stage, Susan joined the board at Phoenix Theatre in Leeds, where she remained as a trustee for 11 years. In 2015 she and her husband Ronnie moved to Warcop and in 2019 she joined the Highlights board, becoming vice-chair soon after and continuing as a trustee until she was appointed to her RTDI role.

In July last year the current RTDI partners were awarded £400,000 from Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and £450,000 from Arts Council England (ACE) to continue the project from 2023 to 2026.

RTDI is primarily an audience development project and the funding supports up to 10 new associate venues to programme dance in rural areas and market towns. It also supports eight dance artists or companies a year to tour their work, delivering more than 200 performances and 90 workshops over the three years.

Susan says the rural touring schemes she works with are at different stages in promoting dance and her large patch includes many ACE-designated Priority Places and Levelling Up For Culture Places. She works with coordinators for RTDI’s two other regions, South West and Central, and reports to an RTDI producer operating from The Place.

Highlights’ Spring 2024 season will feature Charlotte Mclean’s And, a semi-autobiographical work which opens with Scottish Highland dancing before moving into pure contemporary dance.

Audiences sometimes find contemporary dance challenging, fearing they have failed to understand it, says Susan. “I’d suggest stop trying to understand and start to feel! Give it a go and you might be really surprised. If nothing else, you’ll be mesmerised by what the human body can do.”

This summer RTDI trialled a digital dance performance with Highlights promoter Frei Douglas and Dufton Village Hall, at which renowned choreographer and film maker Rosemary Lee presented an informal evening of her dance films.

“Rosemary spoke about her practice and her approach to movement and invited questions from the audience, many of whom were ‘dance novices’,” says Susan. “It was a really engaging evening where no question about dance was a daft question. I’m very pleased that Highlights hosted that première. Highlights director Kate Lynch is so open to suggestions; how do we make it happen, the art of the

Speedwell Dance presents Thumbelina at Shilbottle Community Hall in Northumberland on Saturday November 11, with a workshop the previous day at Shilbottle Primary, and at Arnside Educational Institute in Cumbria on Sunday November 12.

“Speedwell specialises in immersive work for early years youngsters and their families,” says Susan. “The children are encouraged to enter the performance space, helping in Thumbelina to tell the story and working with props such as butterfly wings and silver fish glove puppets.”

Susan saw Thumbelina in Workington, where 38 reception-age youngsters were spellbound by the show: “The company is so adept at reacting to what the children bring to the performance. It’s a lovely way for children to express themselves and the texture and noises of the props give them a sensory experience too.”

In March 2024, RTDI is bringing Speedwell’s artistic director Rachel Dean and her dancers and musicians to Brough for a week’s residency at the village’s Memorial Hall, where the company will work on its new show, May and the Mountain Witch.

“Rachel will run a workshop for the toddler group which meets at the hall and towards the end of the residency, children from Brough Community Primary School will be invited to give constructive criticism on what Speedwell has been working on,” says Susan.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for Highlights to get to know the company really well and to interact with the local community,” says Susan.

Article by Mary Ingham, writer/journalist and Highlights’ Vice Chair, Board of Trustees

Image: Thumbelina from Speedwell Dance/Rachel Dean

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